German Astronaut Alexander Gerst Aboard The International Space Station

The debate about the development and deployment of geoengineering technologies is slowly creeping into the mainstream media, as both analysts and commentators seem to increasingly doubt the international community’s ability to agree on a comprehensive and effective international agreement at UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris. With many countries facing political and/or economic obstacles to pursuing necessary aggressive domestic GHG mitigation strategies, mankind is currently not on pace to limit global warming to an increase of below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels by 2100, according to the 2014 IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report.

A recent Scientific American article calls for small tests of geoengineering technologies “in a contained, rigorous, transparent manner” in order to better comprehend their risks. Moreover, “environmentalist skittishness that thwarts these small tests of climate manipulation” is denounced. “Civilization may depend on such geoengineering methods as the planet keeps warming. We need tests to get them right – and stop people from doing them wrong,” the editors warn. Ideally, the expectation is to remove a billion metric tons of GHG gases per year from the atmosphere and so, at least, slow the warming of the planet.

This editorial piece comes on the heels of David Biello’s thoughtful examination of whether indeed geoengineering can solve global warming. He outlines in his article that irrespective of methods used “geoengineering will [eventually] prove insufficient for solving climate change” if mankind continues with the unabated burning of fossil fuels. He goes on to dismiss the viability of such a contingency plan – i.e. a last resort – to avert the catastrophic global impacts of climate change by explaining:

There is no technological fix for global warming other than the hard work of transforming a global energy system that relies on burning fossil fuels into one that relies on energy sources – the sun, Earth’s heat, fission or, maybe some decade, fusion – that do not use the atmosphere as a dump. The fact that geoengineering cannot suffice is good news because it means that a viable form of climate engineering cannot undercut the urgency of making that switch. No form of climate engineering can solve global warming at present. To think so is science fiction.”

Another article asks a similar question – “Should we tamper with our climate?” – and answers in the negative. The two academics, Erik van Sebille and Katelijn Van Hende, reason that even though geoengineering – what they call “climate hacking” or “deliberately tampering with our climate to stave off the damaging effects of global warming” – might buy time to prevent a warming above 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average, the methods are not well-understood and literally equivalent to Pandora’s Box “because this climate solution [geoengineering] is likely to create new problems of its own.” Additionally, they argue that the root cause of climate change – the continued accumulation of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere – is not adequately addressed by ‘treating’ a single so-called “symptom” of climate change, which is global warming. “Policies and regulations should be designed to have an intended and purposeful effect, which geoengineering at the moment cannot deliver,” they emphasize.

All the above illustrates nicely the status quo of much of the current geoengineering technology discussion. So, what is geoengineering about?

A highly informative Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on geoengineering from November 2013, which serves as a good primer on the policy issues, science, and governance of geoengineering technologies, looks at an array of methods as alternatives to traditional measures to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the authors Kelsi Bracmort and Richard K. Lattanzio, “[i]f deployed, these new technologies could modify the Earth’s climate on a large scale.” The commonly used definition of ‘geoengineering’ seems to be relatively broad in scope when referencing “large-scale and deliberate modifications of the Earth’s energy balance, to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic climate change.”

This allows for a full spectrum of possible geoengineering activities. Conventional wisdom distinguishes between two general geoengineering technologies – carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods and solar radiation management (SRM) methods. The former CDR methods – such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – “address the warming effects of greenhouse gases by removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.” Conversely, SRM methods – examples are stratospheric aerosol injection or space-based reflectors – “address climate change by increasing the reflectivity of the Earth’s atmosphere or surface, thus reducing or diverting incoming solar radiation.”

The major difference is that the latter SRM methods do not remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere. Note, the ETC Group, which opposes all testing and deployment of geoengineering techniques, as well as, for example, “genetically-engineered ‘climate-ready’ crops” – often the only means of ensuring food security in many impoverished regions of the world already impacted by climate change – creates a separate third category ‘weather modification’ as it pertains to climate geoengineering techniques.

Geoengineering Technology Options

roman Geoengineering Technology Options

Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS) 

Interestingly, as for geoengineering activities in the US, the CRS report talks about, “to date, (…) limited federal involvement in, or oversight of, geoengineering (…) [with nevertheless] some federal agencies, notably the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense, [having] taken actions related to geoengineering research or projects.” While the US administration’s view on geoengineering research is not stated publicly in the form of a government policy, the situation in the UK is quite different as the following statement by the UK government in a respective policy paper indicates:

“Based on the evidence currently available, it is premature to consider geo-engineering as a viable option for addressing climate change. The priority is, and must be, to tackle the root cause by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities and adapting to those impacts that are unavoidable. Mitigation of climate change, by reducing emissions and protecting natural carbon sinks, remains the surest way of increasing our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change in the future. Some, including scientists, have suggested that in the future geo-engineering may have a role to play in supplementing our efforts to mitigate climate change. However, for most techniques, current understanding of the costs, feasibility, environmental and societal impacts is limited.”

Prima facie, this statement seems to suggest a supplemental future role for geoengineering in climate mitigation efforts, which, in turn, suggests that testing is already well under way in order to understand the underlying risks better. It is relatively safe to assume that federal agencies in the US do not just follow suit but lead comparable efforts – often shielded from the public.

roman geoeng2

Source: ETC Group; click here to enlarge. 

The latest 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report also addressed the current status of geoengineering research and its potential impacts as follows:

“Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive assessment of feasibility, cost, side-effects and environmental impacts of either CDR or SRM. (…) Several CDR techniques could potentially reduce atmospheric GHG levels. However, there are biogeochemical, technical and societal limitations that, to varying degrees, make it difficult to provide quantitative estimates of the potential for CDR. (…) SRM is untested, and is not included in any of the mitigation scenarios, but, if realisable, could to some degree offset global temperature rise and some of its effects. It could possibly provide rapid cooling in comparison to CO2 mitigation. (…) Even if SRM would reduce human-made global temperature increase, it would imply spatial and temporal redistributions of risks. (…) In spite of the estimated low potential costs of some SRM deployment technologies, they will not necessarily pass a benefit–cost test that takes account of the range of risks and side effects. The governance implications of SRM are particularly challenging, especially as unilateral action might lead to significant effects and costs for others.” (Box 3.3)

In sum, ‘climate geoengineering’ appears to have the potential to serve as the world’s contingency plan if the above concerns (see also CRS report for risk factors) are smoothed out. Geoengineering should not be reduced to an ethical moral question and should also not distract from the primary task of reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Nor should a perception in the public prevail that this technology is not already well under way in many parts of the world as the map aptly shows. Thus, in order to properly inform future policy as well as decision-making at both the national and international levels, the conduct of applied research in this emerging field of scientific innovation has to be encouraged, which per se falls short of implying a ‘carte blanche’ to deploy geoengineering in the end.

Uncertainties and proof of concept in terms of the effectiveness at reducing global temperatures can only be resolved via further scientific and technical examination along with transparency. Remember, given that most of the research is still model-based does not remove uncertainty with respect to the question of how quickly the global average temperature would respond to any reduction in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Also note, global warming itself is in a sense ‘unintentional’ geoengineering and CCS – if based on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere – can also be considered a geoengineering solution. The latter seems to enjoy public and political backing while its scalability is hampered by a lack of a carbon pricing.

Additionally, due to the fact that geoengineering may cause significant transboundary effects with serious ramifications on agriculture in individual countries, which then could have security implications, a regulatory framework based on actual research testing in terms of feasibility, public safety and/or general time horizons is advisable (In this context, consult the instructive table in the CRS report, which identifies and explains the scientific underpinnings for many of the current views on geoengineering). Mankind has crossed the threshold of geoengineering for some time now, which also explains why the planet’s atmosphere is not pristine anymore and we may need a feasible contingency plan in the world’s climate tool box down the road in case of future climate emergencies.