In the past, the focus has been on lowering CO2 emissions. Now we turn our attention to geoengineering and the possibilities it provides.
The debate on climate change is one that has been going for years, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be solved anytime soon.
Since the industrial revolution, CO2 emissions have undoubtedly affected the climate on Earth negatively. There is general agreement that we need to lower those same CO2 emissions to prevent a temperature increase on Earth that could have catastrophic consequences.
What cannot be agreed on is how we will do this. There are many possible ways to cut CO2 emissions, and yet we see most developed countries reach their yearly quota of emissions long before we reach the end of the year.
In other words, despite all the talk of lowering CO2 emissions, we have yet to see any significant action to prevent climate catastrophes. It seems CO2 has come to stay. So what can we do to make sure we don’t affect the climate to the point of no return?
At least, that is the impression when we look at how new initiatives are introduced time and time again, with little to no effect on overall emissions. It is almost like a giant game of whack-a-mole; when one initiative manages to lower emissions in one area, another area springs up to make the net total almost the same as before.
Furthermore, lowering CO2 emissions is not so much about one person’s daily choices as it is about the large corporations that bear the heaviest responsibility.
For example, 25% of the global CO2 emissions come from electricity and heating. The consumer cannot choose a greener alternative if the companies providing those services are not willing to invest in greener alternatives. These investments can be very expensive. So, if the company is focused on their bottom line first and foremost, it makes sense for them not to invest in greener options.
In other words, as a consumer, you can do your part by turning off unnecessary light or heating or choosing energy saving lightbulbs, but the effect this has on the overall CO2 emissions is like a drop of water in a very large ocean.
One solution is to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is a lot easier said than done, but it is being done in Iceland as you read this.
A Swiss company is behind this massive device (called Orca). Located 20 miles from Reykjavik, it began operating in September 2021.
It works by having fans suck air into steel catchment boxes where a sand like filtering substance catches the CO2. When heat is applied, the filter releases the CO2, which is then mixed with water by an Icelandic company and pumped several hundred meters down into basalt bedrock.
This is done because this mix of CO2 and water has been discovered to react with basalt and turn into rock in 2-3 years. The benefit of this method is that the CO2 cannot escape again, unlike with other methods of CO2 absorption (such as planting trees).
This method is not without risks, though. There is the potential for leaks, which would release all the CO2 not yet turned into stone at once and could lead to a dangerous concentration of CO2 in the area.
Two further complications have to do with location and cost. This method requires there to be basalt bedrock for the process to happen. So there is a limited number of places in the world such a device could be set up. The process is a very expensive solution compared to the amount of CO2 it actually removes: it is only able to remove the equivalent of the emissions of 790 cars annually. It is something, of course, but nowhere near enough to make a large impact on CO2 levels.
The main reason CO2 emissions are being discussed is because they directly affect the temperature on Earth. There is a broad agreement that an increase of the global temperature by just 2 degrees Celsius would have far reaching consequences. The ice caps would melt, the sea level would rise, and a lot of places would suddenly find themselves submerged.
Not only that, but the increase in temperature would also affect the weather, leading to an increase in extreme weather events across all temperatures – heat waves would be hotter, droughts would be drier, storms would be greater and more frequent. Even snow would fall in larger quantities and in places that might not be used to seeing snow. They, therefore, may not have the infrastructure or buildings that can handle the changes.
These are outcomes that the majority of us are interested in preventing before they become a reality, so it is no surprise that scientists and enthusiasts are brainstorming other methods of lowering the temperature on Earth; methods not reliant on the lowering of CO2 emissions.
Instead, they turn their gaze to the Sun. Without the Sun, we wouldn’t be here, but perhaps there could be ways to turn it down, if only a little or for a short time.
I think we have all tried to go from being in the direct sunlight to shadow and felt the sometimes-significant temperature difference. That is perhaps the inspiration behind the artificial sunshield idea.
The idea is, simply stated, to send up some sort of sunshield that could help cool down the Earth and prevent the climate catastrophes that loom in the near future if the temperatures keep rising.
It is believed that diverting just 2-4% of the Sun’s rays would take Earth back to the climate it had before the industrial revolution.
There are several ideas as to how this could be done. For example, an army of satellites could be deployed with some form of inflatable sunshield or 16 trillion space butterflies that would each deflect a little bit of sunlight.
The problem with these (and similar solutions) is, among other things, that any satellite, robot, or other device sent to space would need to either be large with fewer devices or small with a multitude of devices – and both would then enter a weight scale that would make it impossible for our current technology to send it to space.
Another possible option is to piggyback off already occurring sunshields that happen naturally.
There are a couple of occurrences in nature of naturally developed sunshields that scientists are looking into harnessing for added protection from the Sun’s radiation.
The first is the natural cooling of temperatures on Earth that happens after a large volcanic eruption. This is caused by the large emission of Sulphur, which deflects the Sun’s radiation. This cooling is not permanent; the effect subsides over the following couple of years.
The second is the formation of whiter clouds when there are more sea salt particles in the atmosphere. This leads to the clouds reflecting more of the Sun’s light back into space. It happens when ocean water is introduced to the atmosphere, one way or the other.
The idea is to increase this effect, for example by introducing more Sulphur into the atmosphere or deploying a fleet of electric ships with the purpose of spraying sea water into the atmosphere.
It is a more feasible option at present than an artificial sunshield because it isn’t hard to form the initial sunshield, but it would require constant maintenance. The issue here is that this constant maintenance cannot be guaranteed due to a number of factors: changing governments, lack of funding, natural or human-created occurrences that would somehow interfere with the maintenance, etc. Any sort of hindrance in this maintenance, whether intentional or not, could have utterly catastrophic consequences.
The artificial sun shield would keep the temperatures lower but do nothing to curb the CO2 emissions that would presumably remain at the same level. That means that if the sun shield failed, for whatever reason, Earth would heat up again very quickly. A sudden increase in temperature would be catastrophic for eco-systems, animals, and humans alike. The weather would be greatly impacted too, possibly creating many more extreme weather events than we are already seeing.
Geoengineering is indeed something scientists are seriously exploring in many different ways to try to prevent or slow down climate change.
Some of them are simply the increase of already occurring phenomena in nature, while others seem to be taken out of science fiction novels.
What they all have in common is that they are not feasible solutions at present. There are too many factors to consider and none of the options offer solutions to all the concerns. In other words, more research is required, as well as further development of both new and already existing ideas.
Knowing that scientists seem to be exploring all imagined options is a comfort. There is no doubt that it is both important and very necessary that the world as a whole do everything that can be done to limit our CO2 emissions.
However, with the climate meetings of the past decade, it sometimes seems hopeless, with agreements being made to cut CO2 emissions during one meeting and broken before the next. This makes it seem like an impossible task. A sense of hopelessness is not the best foundation for finding new solutions.
With geoengineering, the focus is less on the constant battle with CO2, and more so on combatting the effects of the CO2.
It is ignoring the root of the issue, but perhaps it can buy us time to actually get to that root. If we can combat the effects of climate change for a while, there will be more time to develop new technology to treat the root problem and, hopefully, limit our CO2 emissions to the degree that we will no longer need the geoengineering solutions to combat the effects thereof.