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Is Geoengineering the Answer to Limit Global Warming?

Climate
Cirrus clouds over Golden Gate Bridge. Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Geoengineering, the deliberate alteration of the planet to undo its inadvertent alteration by humans over the past 200 years, is back on the scientific agenda, with a climate compromise suggested as a possible solution.

One group wants to turn down the global thermostat and reverse the global warming trend set in train by greenhouse gases released by fossil fuel combustion, by thinning the almost invisible cirrus clouds that trap radiation and keep the planet warm.


Another group proposes to inject sulphur particles into the stratosphere, and keep on doing so for 160 years, to block enough sunlight and lower the planetary temperature.

And a third group wants to see a cocktail of both approaches: thin the high cirrus clouds that stop heat from escaping, and at the same pump particles into the stratosphere to scatter the incoming sunlight and limit the disadvantages of each approach by mixing them.

The verb "wants" in all three studies is neither fair nor appropriate: all three groups concede that the healthy answer is for humans to fulfill the pledge made in 2015, and start to reduce fossil fuel emissions so drastically that global average temperatures stay well below the 2°C maximum rise agreed by 197 nations at the Paris climate conference.

Change inevitable

But while most nations have yet to deliver on the plans they have made, and some nations have yet to even devise a plan, and one nation—the U.S.—has announced its withdrawal from the agreement, scientists have been looking for ways to reverse the potentially catastrophic warming and climate change that is now inevitable if the world continues with its "business as usual scenario."

And so, tentatively, and with unpromising conclusions, researchers have looked at ways to alter the planet to protect it from rising temperatures.

They have played with the idea of pumping sea water onto the Antarctic mainland ice to increase the mass of ice and slow sea level rise.

They have looked at the northern icepack and wondered if making it whiter would increase solar reflection and slow global warming.

They have repeatedly investigated ways of reducing the incoming sunlight, usually by pumping sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere, and they have even investigated the possibility of making the ocean more thirsty for carbon dioxide, the most problematic greenhouse gas, by pumping iron into the sea to nourish the photosynthesising algae.

Bad answer

And other groups—and sometimes the same groups—have stressed the hazards: while darker skies might reduce hurricane ferocity, such approaches could drastically interfere with rainfall patterns, make life worse for some of the poorest people on Earth and anyway, in the long run, make things hotter.

All in all, the technofix has been pronounced a bad answer to a good question.

But by the end of the century, as sea levels rise by a meter and global average temperatures by 4°C or more, even a bad answer could be the only one on offer. So Ulrike Lohmann and Blaz Gasparini, two scientists from the Swiss Technical Institute known as ETH Zurich, write in the journal Science that the answer might lie in the clouds.

Cirrus clouds in particular don't reflect much sunlight back into space, but because of the altitude and the temperature they do emit less long-wave radiation: they behave, in effect, rather like greenhouse gases.

So if cirrus clouds were carefully created by artificial means at lower altitudes, then perhaps they would trap less heat.

Such an experiment, the scientists concede, could go badly wrong, would not solve problems linked to rainfall patterns and might even make the world warmer. For the moment, they say: "cirrus cloud thinning should be viewed as a thought experiment."

And in the same journal two scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, look once again at the stratosphere solution: what sulphur particles could do to cool the planet.

This is an idea already tested naturally. Volcanic eruptions have been linked to planetary cooling, and other groups have even warned that a modest nuclear war could darken the skies and lower global temperatures to potentially lethal levels.

So Ulrike Niemeier and her colleague Simone Tilmes consider what would be necessary if humans wait until 2040 to reduce fossil fuel use and look for effective ways to suck impossible volumes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

To limit the temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, humans would have to pump sulphur into the stratosphere at a cost of $20 billion a year for 160 years, to darken the skies and reduce incoming sunlight.

Side effects

Such a step, which could slow the water cycle and suppress the Asian monsoons, would not reduce the acidification of the oceans, and could trigger other unwelcome side effects that could lead to global conflicts. So, the scientists say, any such plan would need international agreement and supervision.

And, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Chinese, Indian and U.S. researchers arrive at the compromise solution. The dark skies approach could reduce rain too much, thinner cirrus could reduce rain too little.

But computer models suggest that if both methods were deployed carefully and in concert, geoengineers could cool the world but keep the rainfall steady overall.

"The same amount of rain fell around the globe in our models, but it fell in different places, which could create a big mismatch between what our economic infrastructure expects and what it will get," said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in the U.S., and one of the authors.

"More complicated geoengineering solutions would likely do a bit better, but the best solution is simply to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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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.

Thaís Borges.

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."

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