Thomas White Global Investing
Green Reports

April 15, 2010

The Green Report

Geoengineering to Combat Global Warming – Will it Work?
Geoengineering to Combat Global Warming – Will it Work?

Environmental jargon is a rapidly expanding category. Algal fuel, bioplastics, the Bloom Box, smart grids – these words are now becoming increasingly familiar in a world suffering from the angst of global warming. Now, geoengineering is the latest entrant into the green lexicon.

The level of global warming is calculated by measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii is one of the most trusted sources for atmospheric CO2 measurement, and in 2009 Mauna Loa’s latest reading stood at 387.35 parts per million (ppm). Although safe levels hover around 350 ppm, the count has consistently been on the rise since around 1988.

Considered a radical plan, geoengineering involves manually altering the atmosphere to revert the damaging effects of global warming. How is this done? There are currently several methods under the scanner, including cloud seeding to change the level of precipitation, ocean iron fertilization to stimulate plant growth, and installing space sunshades to divert some of the sun’s harmful rays.

At this time, there are two primary techniques of geoengineering. The Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) method attempts to divest the atmosphere of carbon through various ways such as Carbon Capture and Storage, and carbon sequestration, as well as the establishment of new forests, and varying land use. The second technique, Solar Radiation Management (SRM), attempts to deflect the severity of the sun’s heat and light away from earth. To achieve this, SRM might include installing reflective mirrors in space, injecting aerosols or foggy particles into the atmosphere, or simply painting roofs white.

Nature itself has provided the clues that have inspired many of these techniques. For instance, the idea to create a sun-filtering haze by spraying sulphur into the atmosphere was gleaned from Mount Pinatubo’s volcanic eruption in the Philippines in 1991. The explosion spewed 10 million tons of sulphur into the atmosphere, cooling global temperatures by 0.5 Celsius the following year.

In fact, geoengineering can be traced back to the 19th century. One of the first instances dates back to the 1830s when American meteorologist James Pollard Espy proposed stimulating rain by burning huge swathes of forest. But geoengineering for the specific purpose of addressing climate change originated in 1965 when the U.S. Presidential Science Advisory Committee authored a report named, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment.” Carbon dioxide was pointed out to be one of the prime culprits in global warming and the report put forward, “possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes.”

Perhaps geoengineering sounds a bit like science fiction. Climos, a U.S. based geoengineering company, hopes to break that notion by initiating the first ocean fertilization project. Ocean fertilization involves sprinkling the ocean with iron particles, which nurtures the production of carbon dioxide hungry phytoplankton. The absorbed carbon will be left in the seabed along with the phytoplankton when they die. Before Climos could hope to get started on such an ambitious project though, the company would have to address environmentalist concerns about tampering with the ocean system. Most importantly, they would have to gain authorization, which appears to be problematic. A moratorium, agreed upon by 200 countries during the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008, halts any plans at present for ocean fertilization on the grounds that it might threaten marine life and pose other unknown risks. It is a vicious cycle, which Climos must overcome.

While CDR techniques are slowing sprouting up in many countries with at least minimum policy frameworks, it is SRM that draws the biggest question mark. Straining out incoming sunlight to suit our needs can cause serious reactions like changes in local temperatures, and major shifts in ocean currents, soil moisture and rainfall. Clearly, SRM would require regulatory policies that would avert these imminent hazards. Skeptics also point out that it is the multiplication of technology that has caused global warming in the first place. Would geoengineering, with its advanced techniques, make it worse?

At this stage, it is simply not possible to know the full consequences of geoengineering. And while further exploration and research is needed, geoengineering, like many environmental techniques, will only work if economically feasible. On one end of the spectrum are egregiously expensive options like spreading a network of tiny light refractors in space between the Earth and the sun that would significantly curve sunlight away from the planet. Roger Angel, director of the Centre for Astronomical Adaptive Optics at the University of Arizona, says the method is “probably the most expensive and the cleanest,” requiring $1 trillion just to launch the proposed network into space.

But U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is pushing a more practical geoengineering alternative: painting our roofs white. According to Chu, doing this would slash electricity consumption for air conditioning as much as 15% and effectively reduce carbon emissions equivalent to eliminating all of the world’s automobiles for eleven years. Scientists estimate that white roofs and pavements reflect up to 80% of sunlight back into space compared to 20% from dark colors.

So far, geoengineering has been one of the most daring and elaborate solutions spurred by the global warming conundrum, a force behind some ingenious scientific ideas in the past few years alone. But reshaping the universe and changing an entire life system is clearly not a typical course of action. Many feel that geoengineering is akin to playing god. But it may be one more tool to tame an environment that is fast turning against us.




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