The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Blotting Out the Sun to Save the Earth? Seriously?
By Jeff Turrentine
Science fiction doesn't always stay fictional. Space exploration, robots and self-driving cars are just a few of the modern-day wonders that once existed only as plot devices or fantastical theories. Our capacity for turning science-fictional notions into the stuff of everyday life has grown with each new generation of scientists and microchips, such that more and more ideas previously deemed too far "out there" are now actually here, or at least technologically plausible.
To this list we can now add geoengineering—whether we want to or not. As broadly defined by the science-fiction author and environmentalist Kim Stanley Robinson, geoengineering is the "deliberate planned attempt by human beings to mitigate the damages of climate change, of carbon dioxide and methane buildup in the atmosphere, and of ecological damage generally, by way of some action that is large-scale." In theory, geoengineering might look like any number of things: engaging in mass, worldwide reforestation; dumping iron dust into the oceans to encourage the growth of carbon-eating plankton; "brightening" clouds to make them more reflective; dotting the planet with millions of industrial-strength carbon scrubbers.
Geoengineering ideas are as numerous and varied as the scientific imaginations that spawn them. What usually ties them together is the goal of dramatically reducing global temperatures and/or carbon emissions over a short period of time. Scale and speed are what separate most geoengineering schemes from other, less risky, more tried-and-true attempts at climate mitigation, such as building seawalls or boosting energy efficiency. But increasingly, many who once disparaged geoengineering are now citing its scale and speed as the two main reasons why it may be our best hope for fighting climate change—the biggest and most immediate threat to life on earth as we currently know it.
The latest geoengineering conversation has been sparked in part by a study published last week in the journal Nature that acknowledges the potential benefits of solar radiation management (SRM)—as well as the very real risks that would come along with it. One much-discussed iteration of SRM would involve saturating Earth's atmosphere with sulfur-laden aerosols to reflect solar light back into space, cooling the planet in the process. Support for the theory began to swell among geoengineering proponents after the discovery that global temperatures fell by as much as 0.6 degrees Celsius following giant volcanic eruptions in Mexico and the Philippines that spewed millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.
The summit of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines, 15 days after its eruption in 1991. Global temperatures fell slightly after the volcano's eruption sent vast quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.United States Geological Survey
If we could mimic the effects of these volcanoes (so the theory goes) by strategically injecting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, the researchers propose that we might be able to effectively "shade" the entire planet and save vulnerable crops from frying under the sun. The problem with that scenario, though? While crops might not wither and die from heat, the ever-cloudy conditions under sulfur-laden skies would also severely stunt the crops' growth, causing them to yield far less food. Whatever gains realized from the lower temperatures, in other words, would be more than offset by losses resulting from the dearth of direct sunlight.
Though they do not state it explicitly in the "Conclusions" section of their study, the researchers confirm a hypothesis that nearly everyone who has looked at geoengineering already accepts: There are no risk-free scenarios. At its core, geoengineering is really just a globally scaled hack, a work-around born of exigency as much as industriousness. And like any hack, it's less than ideal.
Every geoengineering proposal that's been put forth so far, in fact, has come with its own bold-print caveat that we ignore at our peril. Adding iron ore to the oceans, for instance, carries the risk of over-oxygenating water and destroying bacteria crucial to the marine food chain, or of generating dangerous amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. As for cloud brightening, even those who support more research into this approach admit that it could alter precipitation patterns in unexpected and quite possibly harmful ways.
But what's telling is the evolution of the scientific community's response to geoengineering over the past few decades—from outright alarm to qualified alarm to extreme hesitation. This response tracks our understanding of just how much trouble our carbon pollution has gotten us into. Ask any climate scientist, and she'll tell you that the only surefire way to save ourselves is to immediately cut carbon emissions and transition to a clean-energy economy. But she may also be more willing today than she was five or ten years ago to entertain the idea of further research into solar radiation management, cloud brightening, and the like.
Geoengineering is extraordinarily risky. In a perfect world—or even in an imperfect but climatologically hospitable one—we would never even consider it, for fear that our actions could usher in the dystopia we've seen in countless science-fiction movies. But we need to be honest about where we are in the story of humanity and climate change. It's the third act. And while we'd have to be desperate to try to geoengineer our way to a happy ending, there's just not that much time left to argue over the definition of the word desperate.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
- Brazil's New President Could Spell Catastrophe for the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.
Gina Lopez, a former Philippine environment secretary, philanthropist and eco-warrior, died on Aug. 19 from brain cancer. She was 65.
Thousands of union members at a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant outside of Pittsburgh were given a choice last week: Stand and wait for a speech by Donald Trump or take the day off without pay.
By Simon Mui
States across the country are stepping up to make clean cars cheaper and easier to find. Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) voted Friday to adopt a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program that will increase the availability of electric vehicles in the state, improve air quality and increase transportation affordability.