Climate geoengineering – Experimenting with the global thermostat

Thunderstorm Creator: Eugene Triguba. Public Domain.

Can and should the global climate be regulated by technological means, the so called geoengineering? In our first episode of our podcast "Tipping point" our host took off to hear from experts what these approaches mean for the planet’s environment and society.

Just imagine gigantic masses of ice melting, flooding major cities around the world. Or a slowing down of the Gulf Stream ocean current, bringing more extreme weather events to Europe. You might think these events are looming way off in the future. But on a geological timescale, these tipping points are not that far away.

But there’s reason for hope. In 2015, governments of the world reached the Paris Agreement. It was a diplomatic miracle, six years after the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit, and it laid out important ground rules for slowing down global warming.

But will the Paris Agreement actually stop climate change? Not by itself. In order to face the climate crisis head-on, we’ll have to move quickly. How can we transform our economies and societies to move forward? This is what we are going to explore in this series.

In just a hundred years, human ingenuity has brought us airplanes, plastics, televisions and the internet. We are operating a space station orbiting the Earth, and remote control rovers on the surface of Mars. So, isn’t it pretty safe to assume that we will find engineering solutions to climate change as well?

In this episode, we’ll look at ideas to geoengineer the climate – with a critical eye. We will talk to two experts in the climate field about fertilizing the oceans, sucking carbon out of the air and creating an umbrella of aerosols around planet earth to keep the sun rays away. Our main question is: How feasible are these ideas, and what are their side effects?

First we will talk to Neth Daño. Neth is the Asia Director of the ETC Group. ETC is an organization devoted to issues surrounding new technologies with potential impact on the world’s poor and vulnerable. We reached Neth in Manila, and the first thing she explained to us, was how Filipinos feel about climate change.

"Climate change is actually being felt clearly in the Philippines as a whole where I live, in particular in Mindanao Island, the southern part of the Philippines. In the past few decades there is actually more and more typhoons that enter the country, and not just more in terms of number, but more intense typhoon – with more rains, which actually cause more flooding and affect communities in the coastal areas. And the Philippines is an archipelagic country comprised of more than 7000 islands, which means that ninety nine percent of Filipinos live within 10 kilometers’ area from a coast, and it is these communities that actually suffer most when typhoons come. My daughter who lives in Manila actually just live about 300 meters from Manila Bay, and we're actually struck at how intense flooding could be, every time there's a typhoon in this area. And we have experienced one of the worst drought seasons from the La Nina phenomenon last year, no, in the year before that, which has actually massively affected agricultural areas in particular, and also urban populations because of scarcity of water. So, it's really a now threat – it's a threat that's already happening", says Neth Daño.

Maybe you remember the headlines: In 2013, the strongest typhoon ever hit the Philippines. Tropical storm Haiyan, which the Filipinos called Yolanda. It was a massive typhoon that swept through the eastern part of the islands and killed more than 6,000 people. In the city of Tacloban, a highly urbanized area, Yolanda devastated entire neighborhoods. It was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, and coincided with the nineteenth United Nations climate summit in Warsaw.

When Yeb Sano, the Filipino negotiator, spoke at the international conference in Poland, he was on the verge of tears:

“The devastation is staggering. I struggle to find words even for the images that we see on the news coverage. And I struggle to find words to describe how I feel about the losses. Up to this hour I agonize, waiting for word for the fate of my very own relatives."

The damages caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda went into the billions. With climate change, Filipinos are facing a lot of consequences: Stronger and more frequent typhoons and droughts, as well as sea level rise.

The Philippines are also part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Now, that doesn’t have anything to do with climate change – it’s just geology.
Along the Ring of Fire, a lot of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions happen. And one of them inspired researchers to reach for the skies to tackle climate change.

"It was actually the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a volcano that slept for more than 600 years and suddenly woke up in 1991 and caused this massive, super massive volcanic eruption that affected most of...of planet Earth", says Neth Daño.

The giant volcano spewed huge amounts of sulfate aerosols high into the sky. They reached the stratosphere and traveled around the Earth. Now, the surprising thing is that this process was actually able to cool down the temperature of the entire planet by half a degree Celsius for a couple of months. And that was exactly the temperature rise that the age of fossil fuels had caused until the year of the eruption, in 1991.

The particles in the stratosphere acted like sunshades, by reflecting some of the incoming solar radiation back into space. And so, Pinatubo brought back the idea of SRM, short for Solar Radiation Management. If humans could mimic what the volcano had done, could they cool down the warming planet?

Today, a group of researchers calls for testing this idea. They want to experiment with a small injection of aerosols into the stratosphere. They imagine spraying them from airplanes or gigantic tubes held up by balloons. After all, it happened in nature, as well.

"But the dark side of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, we seldom hear. There are tons of studies that showed that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo have actually caused massive drought in sub-Saharan Africa and also a massive change in the monsoon pattern in South Asia – that have caused all these cyclones and also massive weather disturbances. And all of those that happened at the trail of Mt Pinatubo were actually linked to the impact of the eruption. And already computer simulations were made available around potential impacts of SRM have already shown the same narrative – that it could actually cause massive droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and massive changes in rainfall patterns and monsoon patterns in South Asia", says Neth Daño.

It’s unclear how our Earth System would react to an intentional injection of aerosols. Atmospheric chemistry is a complex field, and sulfate particles could damage the Ozone layer. Even if engineers could overcome that issue, how would the impacts be tested? A small-scale experiment in the Stratosphere might not be able to tell us very much. But one that’s big enough might already be of such as scale that it causes real  – and potentially adverse – effects.

In the case of ocean fertilization, which is another geoengineering method, some researchers have already gone ahead. In 2007, Neth Daño was involved in exposing an experiment in the waters around her islands.

"The plan was actually to dump urea nutrients, nitrogen fertilizers on specific parts of the Sulu Sea, which is actually in the border of Malaysia and Philippines, with the aim of promoting growth of phytoplankton. Because conceptually, a phytoplankton would actually suck out greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide in particular, from the atmosphere and bury that in the ocean bed. So, that was the concept behind the ocean fertilization. And true enough, we found out that there were actually letters sent by the researchers from Australia and their partner in one university in the Philippines, about the experiment, but not really revealing what their real intent was. They were actually saying that they will dump urea in an experiment to promote bloom of fisheries to be able to help local farmers to attain sustainable fishery – which is totally what is not it is."

Neth and her organization, the ETC group, were alarmed and spread the news. The government confirmed that the attempt to experiment in the local waters was a violation of Philippine law. No environmental impact assessment had been carried out, and none of the local governments, and coastal communities, had been consulted.

In 2008, the Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations met in Bonn, Germany. This was the chance for the Philippine negotiators to bring the issue to the table. In 2008, the Convention ended up imposing a moratorium on ocean fertilization.

"So, this is a clear example of experiences coming from the ground that was brought by the country that was affected in an intergovernmental forum and that provided the basis for deliberations and the decision for the members of the United Nations to come up with a decision to protect biodiversity in environment and local communities on the potential impacts of of this technology, in particular ocean fertilization", says Neth Daño.

Now, what exactly are the risks with this kind of urea ocean fertilization? The idea sounds pretty smart. But the flipside of this Carbon Dioxide Removal concept is that it could potentially cause a bloom of toxic plankton as well, and lead to hypoxia in turn – oxygen depleted zones in the ocean. This would mean trouble for aquatic biodiversity, marine ecosystems and the fisher folks who rely on them. And past field experiments have shown that much of the plankton expected to bury carbon in ocean beds ended up gobbled by krill. Plus, urea production requires fossil fuels.

To Neth Daño, geoengineering ideas like this one are flawed down to a more fundamental level…

"…because it is actually based on the premise that you can actually provide a technological solution to climate change – global warming. And if you look at the roots, the root causes of climate change, much of the massive emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is caused by all the technological fixes that we have, that mankind, that humankind, in the past two hundred fifty years have put in as a solution to development problems. And to us, it is simply flawed to think that a technological fix will solve a problem that has been caused largely by technologies. So for us that has to be to be rethought."

Any kind of geoengineering will take place in the complexity of the Earth System. A system we don’t yet fully understand. Scientists are still exploring the depths of the oceans and the chemistry of our atmosphere.

Creating a sunshade around the earth will most likely create winners and losers – some who benefit from a cooler climate, and others who have to endure the side effects, such as droughts or flooding. If we fertilize the ocean with urea, we might get a bloom of toxic plankton as well. Plus: once we’ve started any such scheme, we’d probably have to continue for centuries to come.

With these implications, there is one big question that we will need to ask. Who will make the decision whether we should go down that path, what kind of geoengineering to apply, and where? And will we ever understand the system well enough to apply these methods, without catastrophic side effects?

Ocean fertilization is not the only concept engineers have come up with to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We’ll now consider land-based methods with our next guest, Kate Dooley. Kate is a PhD candidate at the Climate and Energy College at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Her research connects the dots between land use, forests, and climate change. The first thing we talked about was the Paris Agreement that was reached in 2015.

"The Paris agreement includes very ambitious targets to limit warming to well below two degrees and aiming for one point five degrees Celsius. Now this is, this was fantastic news in Paris. It's something the developing countries have been fighting for for a long time, because warming above these levels, even 1.5 degrees, but certainly up to 2 degrees, would be catastrophic for a lot of countries, a lot of islands would be flooded already at that point – so this was a good outcome", says Kate Dooley.

After years and years of climate summits, the negotiators have finally managed to agree on a target. But this brings up the question: How do we get there? Temperatures on Earth have already warmed by a full degree since pre-industrial times. Just half a degree more, and low-lying island nations in the Pacific might be lost forever. It’s a huge challenge. Is it even possible?

The last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was published before Paris, says that the targets might still be achievable. Around the world, scientists feed their knowledge on the Earth System and our societies into complex computer models and combine it with data. The IPCC is the intergovernmental scientific body that publishes their consensus. But what are the assumptions these models are based on?

"Now, what they’ve actually done to make it easier to meet those climate targets is include a lot of geoengineering. And essentially what they've included is removing carbon from the atmosphere through growing plants to suck up the carbon and then capturing that carbon, it's called bio energy with carbon capture and storage," says Kate Dooley. 

BECCS, that’s the acronym researchers and policy buffs use for this method of Carbon Dioxide Removal. The idea is that when plants are growing, they remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by photosynthesis. Burning that plant to produce energy will release the carbon back into the air. But if you catch the carbon before it does that, you can liquefy it and then pump and store it underground.

However, there are also large downsides – and that’s why BECCS has become such a controversial topic.

"One of the big problems with BECCS is that this would need to be done on a massive scale in order to actually remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to reach the below 2 degree and 1.5 degree temperature targets. So, this scale would require large amounts of land for the bio energy crops, between 400 million and 15 hundred million hectares of land would be needed this century. Given the current cropping land for all of our food and timber and feedstock, all of our cropping land at the moment, is 15 hundred million hectares and demand for food is expected to grow over the century as population grows, that's a lot of land expected for bioenergy from BECCS", says Kate Dooley. 

So, in the worst case, we might need as much land as our entire agriculture takes up today. That’s huge. Such a scale of land demand has the potential to drive up food prices, and to dispossess small holder farmers and forest dwellers from their lands.

In many countries, we are already seeing land grabbing caused by smaller scale bioenergy production. If bioenergy causes cropland to expand and increases deforestation, this could wipe out any emission benefits from the bioenergy. It would also increase poverty and undermine food security – which are key elements of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations in 2015.

"It's been very well documented that right now the use of bioenergy in the European Union is increasing the harvesting rate of forests in the Southwest United States. So, this is because most of the bioenergy feedstock being used in the EU is being shipped in from the US, so there's emissions associated there, but it's actually radically increased the turnover in harvest rate of those Californian forests. And people in that area are very upset and protesting about the increased harvesting of forests in the US for bio energy in the EU. So, this will continue and is expected to expand greatly into other countries, because European Union doesn't have the forest resource to supply the amount of bio energy it's using now or expect to use in the future, if trends continue", says Kate Dooley. 

You probably know about the important role forests play in the climate system. Think of the Amazon forest as our planet’s lung, breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen.

If forests are lost, and replaced by bioenergy crops or monocultures, it threatens biodiversity as well. Currently, we are losing species at a rate many times higher than in the past – it’s an issue connected to and as serious as climate change itself.

With deforestation, several million people could also lose their homes and indigenous livelihoods. But the competition for land between the BECCS industry and food production could become one of the biggest issues.

However, there are still many researchers who think carbon capture and storage could be a viable solution – and much better than such creepy sounding ideas such as, for example, Solar Radiation Management.

"It is often called like the more radical, the more dangerous form of geoengineering, or in reverse, carbon dioxide removal is called the more benign form of geoengineering. I really think that carbon dioxide removal which relies on land carries a lot of risks and we shouldn't consider a benign form of geoengineering", says Kate Dooley. 

In her research, Kate Dooley has looked into ways that the forests themselves can become one of the most important solutions to climate change:

"There is research showing that the extent of degraded forest now in the tropics, if that was left alone and left to regrow, that would remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere this century, and it would negate the need for technologies like BECCS which focus on land that would otherwise be used for food and other purposes. So, as well as leaving aside land for food it also means that we restore biodiversity, we restore forest lands which are home of indigenous peoples et cetera. So, it's a solution that has a lot more co-benefits and a lot less risks."

The first thing we’d need to do, of course, would be to get off fossil fuels.

But in many scenarios, it looks like there’s also no way around carbon dioxide removal technologies such as BECCS. The crucial part you have to know here is that such scenarios include economic assumptions. And one of them is that we need to keep up economic growth. Which means, we cannot go down with our emissions very quickly, just a few percent a year. In fact, we would have to go decrease them by, maybe, two or three times as much, to avoid potential catastrophic warming.

But how true is the assumption that we can’t reduce emissions quicker? Are there alternative ways to reach the Paris targets?

"These targets could be achievable without geoengineering but it would require radical emission reductions starting immediately. In the richer developed countries, we would need to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible to zero. So probably within 15 years, which would mean significant lifestyle changes. So, it would require regulation and government policy and an oversight to do this, but it would mean that citizens would need to be willing to make radical lifestyle changes such as not flying, travelling a lot less. Smaller houses, less consumption, diet changes would be a big part of that, reduced meat intake et cetera. So, people need to be willing to make those lifestyle changes", says Kate Dooley.

Our deep dive into the concepts of geoengineering leads us back to an inconvenient truth. That maybe, what we need is not more uncertain and potentially risky technology, but a new approach to the challenge we face. And this includes profoundly rethinking our societies, economies and lifestyles. From this perspective, geoengineering techno fixes might be just another strategy for us to avoid facing this truth.

The real risk that I see with geoengineering is that if we continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere now, even over the next five to 10 years, because we assume that we can remove these emissions later in the century – if that doesn't work out, and there's a whole host of reasons why BECCS might not actually prove feasible, particularly at the scale that we're assuming – then by then it will be too late to change course and to take a more radical emissions reduction pathway. We will be stuck with those emissions in the atmosphere, and it's likely that that would promote different kinds of geoengineering that are potentially even more dangerous. So, at this stage, I think the real threat of geoengineering is that it obscures the urgency of the climate crisis and that we delay action because we assume that we'll have these technologies that will work in the future.

We don’t know very much about the consequences of geoengineering methods, yet. But we do know that potentially, they might have serious side effects. And even more importantly, we know that no kind of geoengineering will be able to tackle the root and cause of the climate issue. To test or even deploy geoengineering approaches is a question that will come up again and again as our planetary crisis becomes more urgent. This is why Neth Daño calls for more transparency, and participation.

"…information and involvement of stakeholders! Like, you cannot expect a sound and good governance if you don't provide objective information, not just to governments, but to potentially affected communities. And definitely no one can expect intelligent decisions if there are no information and involvement in the first place. Right now, geoengineering is being discussed in limited places, particularly in industrial countries, in academic communities, when you are actually talking about implementation, experimentation, deployment, and implications that would involve the rest of the world, particularly developing countries. And right now, there's very, very low awareness, level of awareness on the part of governments, much less on the part of communities and on geoengineering as a whole, when it is already being discussed as part as an important part of the solution to climate change. And to us that's actually the zero step that should define the way forward  for geoengineering", says Neth Daño.

We are at a Tipping Point, in our climate as well as our societies. It’s up to us to tip our world into the right direction, and tackle the climate crisis head-on.

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