Geo-engineering: Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures?


In the face of predicted failure at climate talks this December, voices advocating controversial geo-engineering measures such as simulating volcanic eruptions to cool the planet are getting louder. Many state that we need some sort of Plan B, and geo-engineering has always been considered ‘the last resort’.


Recently, top UK science body the Royal Society admitted that there was a need to consider geo-engineering as part of global efforts to tackle climate change. The question is: do desperate times really call for desperate measures?


Traditionally, tackling climate change has focused on CO2 reductions, with geo-engineering (the practice of deliberately manipulating the Earth’s climate to counteract global warming) discarded as something from science fiction. Large mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays and spraying sea salt into the atmosphere to create white clouds may seem like something from a Hollywood blockbuster but scientists are now beginning to push for more research into geo-engineering techniques and their effectiveness.

‘Plan B’ for the Earth

Professor John Shepherd, who chaired the Royal Society’s geo-engineering study, said, “If ‘Plan B’ is to be an option in the future, considerable research and development of the different methods, their environmental impacts and governance issues must be undertaken now.”

Mike Childs, Senior Campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FoE), however, told that geo-engineering must be treated with caution. “I do agree that more research is needed into geo-engineering as there is so much carbon in the atmosphere that we will be facing the dangers of climate change in the next 30-40 years, if not sooner,” he said.

“But this should not distract us from taking action on carbon mitigation.”

The Royal Society has suggested that UK departments along with research councils should together fund a 10 year geo-engineering program at the cost of £10m per year.

The report released by the Royal Society, entitled “Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty“, assessed two geo-engineering techniques: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

SRM is focused on reflecting the sun’s energy away from Earth using large mirrors or cloud whitening but these techniques have been criticized as they only lower temperatures and fail to tackle CO2 emission levels.

Furthermore, suggestions that salt water is sprayed into the air to form white clouds, which would reflect the sun’s rays, was denounced by scientists at the Met Office, who feared detrimental side-effects.

The UK’s foremost climate change research center, the Met Office Hadley Centre, found that while white clouds could potentially slow down global warming by up to 25 years, they could also cut rainfall in the Amazon rainforest. This would accelerate the degradation of the rainforest which is one of world’s major stores of carbon and subsequently release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“With regards to solar radiation strategies there are real, unknown risks which could negatively impact the planet,” explained Childs. “For example the Indian Monsoon could shift with real substantial impact on various countries.

“There are other, more locally based ways of reflecting solar energy such as painting the roofs white. This wouldn’t reduce temperatures but it is part of an adaption strategy and is already common practice in many hot countries such as the Greek Islands.”

Childs also remarked that many of the solar geo-engineering practices were novel ideas and so must be explored carefully. “We must be very cautious and some ideas are too dangerous to even contemplate,” he added.

Even the Royal Society admitted there were some ‘considerable uncertainties’ about the regional consequences of certain techniques and concluded that SRM techniques were “not an alternative to emission reductions or CDR techniques.”

“Unintended Side Effects”

“All research shows that there is a need to focus more on carbon mitigation, more renewable energy and also energy efficiency. Geo-engineering is not the alternative.”

So in terms of geo-engineering, this leaves us with a greater focus on CO2 removal geo-engineering strategies. But are they any better? CDR techniques consist of using plants, chemicals and plankton to increase the rate at which CO2 is removed from the air.The Royal Society states that these have relatively low uncertainties and risks but could take years to have an impact and reduce global temperatures. Strategies include ocean fertilization, where chemicals are introduced to encourage plankton growth which absorbs CO2, as well as growing forests (“afforestation” or “re-forestation”).

The Royal Society found that these CO2 removal techniques had not yet been shown to be effective or affordable. With regards to ocean fertilization, they acknowledged that the “technique had not been proven to be effective and had high potential for unintended and undesirable ecological side effects.”

Childs also echoed this concern stating that these techniques still required more research before they could be part of any future strategies to tackle climate change.

Childs argued though that these strategies were definitely worth exploring and researching. “Many of them include ideas such as better soil management and increasing the amount of land that is forested.”

“However we are aware that there are many complicating issues with regards to afforestation such as food production and also land rights.”

Another problem is that if these CDR methods were discontinued for some reason (such as money or lack of consensus), this would result in rapid warming which is even more dangerous than the gradual global warming we are currently experiencing.

In fact, whilst many people are holding up geo-engineering as the solution to the climate change problem, scientists are not only advocating research but are also cautioning and insisting that these techniques should not be considered as alternatives to stemming CO2 emissions.

As Childs states, “Scientists who are looking at geo-engineering as an alternative to carbon reduction are completely misplaced.”

“All research shows that there is a need to focus more on carbon mitigation, more renewable energy and also energy efficiency. Geo-engineering is not the alternative.”

No Magic Bullet

Another problem is that if these CDR methods were discontinued for some reason, this would result in rapid warming which is even more dangerous than the gradual global warming we are currently experiencing.

The Met Office points out that geo-engineering projects remain an area of uncertainty and “should not be relied upon at the moment to tackle global warming, especially as an alternative to cutting carbon emissions.”The Royal Society’s report echoed this sentiment stating that there were some remaining issues surrounding the effectiveness of geo-engineering techniques and that “geo-engineering methods should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change.”

Shepherd added that, “None of the geo-engineering technologies so far suggested is a magic bullet. Used irresponsibly or without regard for possible side effects, geo-engineering could have catastrophic consequences similar to those of climate change itself.”

Whilst attitudes towards geo-engineering are beginning to change, it’s clear that these radical strategies are still seen as the ‘last resort’. Deep concerns with regards to their effectiveness and cost – both fiscal and environmental – remain, but relying on them may be the price we have to pay for our collective failure to tackle climate change.

As Childs puts it, “It’s not that we have nothing to lose by researching geo-engineering strategies, it is just that with the direction that we are currently heading in, we have no choice.”

Arwa Aburawais a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in Palestine, the environment, local politics and arts & culture.


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