Is Geoengineering Necessary To Survive Climate Change?

MyMPN
by Farhaanah Ali

A natural limestone formation near the ocean which is shaped like an outstretched hand, palm up. Geoengineering researchers have suggested turning limestone into lime and adding it to the ocean as a way to combat ocean acidification, but others worry the costs may outweigh the potential benefits. (Flickr / Alex's 1stPix)

A natural limestone formation near the ocean which is shaped like an outstretched hand, palm up. Geoengineering researchers have suggested turning limestone into lime and adding it to the ocean as a way to combat ocean acidification, but others worry the costs may outweigh the potential benefits. (Flickr / Alex’s 1stPix)

Current carbon emissions are a problem. Few across the world would deny this statement. Furthermore, this is not an issue that rests solely on one specific country — the whole of the global community must take equal responsibility for our individual and collective carbon footprint. With the Arctic ice caps melting at a rapid rate it is becoming increasingly important for world leaders to be proactive in achieving results and reducing the heating up of our planet.

Although geoengineering has been bandied about for a number of years now, it was the recent article in the Guardian — where a professor for climate and environmental sciences was asked by the CIA probing questions on geoengineering’s potential for controlling weather — that the idea was brought back into the fore. The concept of geoengineering, at its most basic, attempts to reduce, and ultimately prevent, the increasing threat of climate change.

If, internationally, we are unable to make acceptable strides to reducing CO2 emissions geoengineering is, in essence, the idea of using technology to cover up the heating up effect and funnel away the CO2 we release. Scientists are researching “a tech-fix that excuses continued carbon gluttony in the industrialised world” according to, an arguably cynical piece on Gulf News. It may be pessimistic but it’s not entirely inaccurate: geoengineering will pull back the heating of the planet without addressing the root cause.

There are two main types of geoengineering. The first one is using technology to actually remove CO2 from the air; the second alternative uses technology to decrease the amount of sunlight that impacts our planet or, more specifically, reflects the solar energy that hits Earth back into space. On the face of it both seem intriguing ways to face the problem of climate change.

With type 1, removing CO2 from the air, the “techniques would suck the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and lock it away underground or in oceans.”

This process, known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), decreases the amount of emissions in the air by capturing the CO2 and storing it below the Earth’s surface. This is already being used to no detrimental effect under certain rock formations. Unfortunately, if locked away in oceans we create problems for fish and other sea-dwelling life. In truth, we already have an issue with the over-acidification of the ocean and it would be worse if the CO2 leaked out (although this is said to be less likely to occur the longer the CO2 has been stored). GThe potential ramifications could be disastrous. Should locking and storing CO2 in oceans be used, all dimensions, positive and negative, would need to be closely analysed before taking action.

To counter the over acidification of the ocean it has been purported that by converting limestone into lime, and then adding it to the ocean, we can reduce the amount of CO2 in the sea. This process aims to balance the increased acidity of the ocean; as lime is an alkaline it will enable the ocean to absorb more CO2. This works because, by adding lime, the PH balance of the sea will be neutralised. Once lime is added in higher quantities, the ocean will become more alkaline, therefore to regain the neutrality we can legitimately add more acidity that is CO2.

NASA: What We Need To Know About Geoengineering and Climate Intervention

Clearly the science is there however, this could be seen as very convoluted way to reduce CO2 emissions. Plus we cannot forgo the fact that this method will inevitably result in further CO2 emissions as the procedure of converting limestone into useful lime requires the utilisation of heavy machinery, particularly if we require it regularly and in the large amounts necessary to positively impact ocean acidity.

Big oil and energy companies, with clear vested interests, are starting to get involved through funding research in geoengineering as a way to reduce their carbon footprint. We should be wary of such enterprises due to the clear conflict of interests: their involvement would essentially allow such companies to freely emit into the atmosphere without fear of fines from supranational entities as the EU.

The drawback of reducing CO2 emissions through storing it away is that we are not going to the root cause of the issue; rather we are covering it up for a more palatable version of reality. It is easier for us to keep going the way we are and find what appears to be a miraculous cure-all than try and control our actual emission levels.

The second type, finding ways of reflecting more of the solar energy back to space, has a number of ways to achieve the outcome of cooling the planet. The aim is to create higher albedo — albedo refers to the proportion of light reflected by the Earth’s surface (it can also refer to the moon or other planets but its Earth for our purposes). A surface with low albedo absorbs more solar energy and is therefore hotter; darker surfaces have low albedo which is why the melting of the ice caps in the Arctic raises temperatures — the increased amount of water on Earth heats up the planet. For this reason it has been suggested painting roofs white prevent the planet from heating up, as can putting reflective mirrors in space to reflect sunlight out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Another way to cool the climate is replicating a natural volcanic occurrence by releasing sulphate particles into the stratosphere which reflect sunlight. When a volcano erupts, sulphates are discharged which cools the planet for a year or so; the time the particles stay in the air depends on the size of the eruption. Such a method would work fairly well and could be done speedily but, crucially, it must be noted that the sulphate would disappear from the atmosphere after a certain period of time and the planet will then revert back to its original pre-particle state.

The sudden shift back to the heat could be potentially dangerous. If such a project was initiated it would need to be maintained indefinitely, as stopping the process would rapidly heat the planet, with the ecosystem and other organisms being destroyed as they wouldn’t have sufficient time to adjust to the new hotter climate.

The Villarica volcano erupts near Pucon, Chile, early Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Simulating the cooling effect of a volcanic eruption might be one way to combat global warming through climate intervention, but the potential risks are also high.  (AP Photo/ Aton Chile)

The Villarica volcano erupts near Pucon, Chile, early Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Simulating the cooling effect of a volcanic eruption might be one way to combat global warming through climate intervention, but the potential risks are also high. (AP Photo/ Aton Chile)

Another negative point to consider would be the potential for acid rain, a mix of nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide, if we are deliberately releasing sulphate particles into the air to cool the planet short term. Importantly we will need to keep the technology working to prevent rapid higher temperatures from effecting Earth. Additionally the number of particles to release would also need to be considered with scientists needing to analyse numerous variables.

After reading and evaluating the literature it is clear that geoengineering is not an inherently bad idea. However, before we pump vast sums of money into these methods, we need to pause and take stock.

Imagine this scenario: Person A is bleeding, slowly and continually, but there is a steady flow of blood exiting the body. Fixing this will be a long and arduous process. The doctors and other medical experts decide to pull across a curtain to cover up Person A so we cannot directly see the blood flowing. This is not a problem because the adverse effect won’t be automatic, we won’t see the consequences for Person A immediately or even for many years, so it doesn’t require any real, urgent attention. In fact maybe someone else can deal with Person A in the future.

The idea of any medical professional doing this is horrifying to behold and, thankfully, unlikely. Person A’s predicament and climate change are not dissimilar. With both situations, we have a problem which will take time and effort to fix (with a lengthy operation for Person A and an ongoing commitment for reducing emissions), what is ultimately being done is we are attempting to fix the issue quickly with a relatively easy, albeit clumsy, cure. In reality this fixes nothing, it merely ignores the underlying problem which goes much deeper than the simple act of covering it up — the problem is still there.

Geoengineering would certainly be a good idea to employ as a temporary measure until we reduce CO2 levels, but the main fear here would be if we chose the “easy” solution will anyone wish to go down the hard road of committing to reducing CO2 emissions?

With geoengineering we must also ask ourselves: are we solving the problem or covering it up?

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