Environment Science & Technology

Desperate Measures: High Risk Geoengineering Plans

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Geoengineering. A tidy term to describe a messy issue (that is also not etymologically correct). Nevertheless, geoengineering describes the intentional manipulation of the climate in order to alter it; namely for the purpose of reversing global warming, but there are some disputed motives. These disputes raise question as to whether these projects are being done for the good of humanity and at a minimum, whether they will  actually have the desired effect.

For example, Agriculture Technologist, Rosalind Peterson, whilst addressing the UN has said that the chemicals used in stratospheric aerosols ‘could reduce crop production due to the impairment of the process of photosynthesis’. Further to this, the chemicals used in these aerosols are strongly linked to a variety of serious health issues including, but not limited to, Alzheimer’s disease, reproductive failure and respiratory ailments. This does lead one to question whether such forms of weather management are in humanity’s best interest. More generally, NASA has stated that contrails cause warming of the earth – which the Smithsonian has dubbed ‘accidental geoengineering‘.

On the other side of the coin though, when we consider the whole picture  – perhaps we are not as important as we would like to think. If it comes to saving the planet for future generations, would we consider sacrificing our well being for a generation or two? Clearly, this becomes an ethical dilemma which I will not delve in to here.

Even with the daily infiltration of our lives with information about global warming, we still can be resistant to the little pro-environmental actions; that walk to the local shop, recycling those bottles or cycling to work – it as though we are blinkered by our own egocentrism and craving for convenience.

Informed bodies such as governments and councils could go further to help people be environmentally conscious. Once we have recycled our boxes, cycled to work and bought locally produced food – what do we do next? Sometimes apathy is due to not knowing where to start. The global warming crisis is huge and can feel like too much for one to tackle alone. But you’re not alone.

Geoengineering falls into 2 categories: Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

The theory behind CCS is as straightforward as it sounds; to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and store them so that they are unable to enter the atmosphere. There are a few viable locations for storing carbon: former gas and oil fields, deep saline formations or depleting oil fields. Once injected into the rock, the CO2 will move up through the microscopic pores within the rock where it will become indefinitely trapped within the formation.

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Carbon Capture Visual

 

Eventually, the carbon dioxide will be dissolved by saline water in the geological environment. This in turn makes the water more dense which will pull it down to the bottom of the storage location where, in time, it will chemically (and permanently) bind with the rock. A byproduct of this carbon storage is that it could make it possible to extract oils and gases that are currently unaccessible. So, CCS seems like a constructive solution; it can reduce global CO2 levels (currently 26% higher than the historic record), utilise formations that are already in place and potentially create a recyclable source of fuel for future use. However, it is difficult to analyse the full biospheric effect of a project such as this – although modelling can go so far to account for this, there may be something minor that could be turn out to be crucial.

Masdar-Carbon-capture-and-storage-2

 

SRM, on the other hand, has a far more questionable design. SRM moves from climate management to climate manipulation; anthropogenic interference in the delicate balance of nature. This would be akin to playing God and should invoke debate as zealous and intwined as debates regarding stem cells, cloning and genetic modification of the human genome. The SRM debate should also go further since the negative effects may not just be a moralistic impingement but have a severe impact on the health of all organisms on earth.

Simplistically, global warming has been attributed to the increase of greenhouse gases in the environment which accentuate the sun’s rays thus making Earth pretty toasty.

Where CCS focuses on getting rid of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, SRM centres on minimising the sun’s rays. There are a number of theorised techniques that fall under the SRM umbrella including, stratospheric aerosol injection and cloud whitening.

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Stratospheric aerosol injection involves the pumping out of particles in the upper atmosphere that reflect the sun’s light, which theoretically, will reduce the heat that reaches us.

Cloud whitening is based on dispersing saline into clouds which would effectively brighten them and make them more reflective to solar rays and ergo, reduce the heat that reaches us.

The side effects of these proposals are not known. Supporters of SRM argue that we may get to a stage with global warming where we will have to attempt risky solutions. We are getting closer to this point than the majority of the population realise. However, many critics feel that tampering with the Earth’s environment on such a large scale is not worth the risks. Stratospheric aerosol injection has had the most antagonistic response due to its associated health risks. Adding substances to the atmosphere which we are not meant to inhale, causes a lot of people to be rather concerned. It is impossible to anticipate every resulting effect.

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It is also worth noting that if SRM is put in to motion, but turns out to be unsuccessful, we don’t know how to reverse it.

Our planet’s biosphere is so wonderfully complex and interwoven that a change in one sector can affect something seemingly unrelated.

It is not too late to save our planet. It may be a daunting task that nobody can do alone, yet all it takes is for each one of us to independently take action to get that collective result. We need to take accountability for our own actions and be aware that every choice that we make today will affect our options further down the line. [Note: Further down the line is closer than you think.]

And if not, then we will need to start looking at some undesirable alternatives. I know which I would rather choose.

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