Geoengineering Could Create More Problems Than It Could Solve

By Tim Radford

Geoengineering—the untested technofix that would permit the continued use of fossil fuels—could create more problems than it could solve.

By masking sunlight with injections of sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere, nations could perhaps suppress some of the devastating hurricanes and typhoons that in a rapidly warming world threaten northern hemisphere cities. But they could also scorch the Sahel region of Africa, to threaten millions of lives and livelihoods, according to new research.

Geoengineering is sometimes played as humanity's have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too option: humans have already unthinkingly engineered climate change over the last 200 years by profligate combustion of coal, oil and gas that releases ever-growing concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Since ferocious volcanic eruptions have been known to cool the global climate by pumping soot and sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, some reason that scientists and technologists could play the same card, in a calculated fashion.

But shortly after one research team showed that, in theory at least, geoengineering could be made to work, a second group has demonstrated that there would be a huge price to pay. And they call on policymakers to think carefully before testing any unilateral action.

"Our results confirm that regional solar geoengineering is a highly risky strategy which could simultaneously benefit one region to the detriment of another," said Anthony Jones, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter, UK, who led the study.

"It is vital that policymakers take solar geoengineering seriously and act swiftly to install effective regulation."

This is an argument that has continued for more than a decade: in 2006, the Nobel laureate and chemist Paul Crutzen pointed out that, while burning hydrocarbon fuels, humans also released sulphate aerosols that represented a health hazard, linked to half a million deaths a year.

Multiple Effects

If a proportion of this pollution reached the upper atmosphere, it would not only save lives, it would change the reflectivity of the planet, dim solar radiation and contain global warming.

Since then, researchers the world over have repeatedly looked at the geo-engineering option, and repeatedly conceded that the ideal answer would be to stop burning fossil fuels.

And since greenhouse gas emissions have failed to fall, other groups have repeatedly returned to the study, to find that such solutions may not work, or that they could create more problems than they solve.

Dr. Jones and his colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they tested the sulphate solution in simulation to find what others have suggested: that in addition to damping global temperature rise, a deliberate darkening of the skies would also suppress hurricane activity in the north Atlantic.

Drought Risk

But, as others have argued, it would also heighten the likelihood of sustained drought in the Sahel, a region which extends across 14 nations in Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia.

"It is obvious from first principles that stratospheric aerosol geoengineering deployed in only one hemisphere would lead to huge shifts in tropical climate patterns," said Peter Irvine, a researcher at Harvard University in the U.S., commenting on the study.

"Deploying stratospheric aerosol geoengineering in only one hemisphere is pretty certainly a bad idea, and this work helps reinforce that view."

And John Shepherd, an Earth system scientist at the University of Southampton in the UK, said: "This is not a technique that is ready to use in the near future: reducing CO2 emissions and planning our adaptation must remain top priorities for climate policy."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

Show Comments ()
Statoil / YouTube

Early April Fool's Joke? Statoil Rebrands Itself as Equinor

By Andy Rowell

First came BP, which went from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. Then Denmark's Dong Energy changed its name to Orsted, to mark its departure from oil and gas. Then earlier this year Shell announced it was morphing from an oil company into an integrated energy company.

And now, the Norwegian company Statoil is proposing to change its name to "Equinor." The rebranding exercise—or what some may call greenwashing exercise—will cost as much as 250 million kroner or $32 million.

Keep reading... Show less

World's First Mass-Market 3D-Printed Electric Car Costs Less Than $10K

The world's first mass-produced 3D-printed electric vehicle could hit the roads by 2019.

Italian startup X Electrical Vehicle (XEV) and Shanghai-based Polymaker, a 3D-printing filament manufacturer, are behind the LSEV—a $9,500 two-seater with a top speed of 42 miles per hour and a range of 93 miles.

Keep reading... Show less
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Pruitt Sees EPA As Political Stepping Stone

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chief Scott Pruitt was already voted "worst Trump minion," but, according to reports published last week, Pruitt has his eye on more illustrious titles.

Vanity Fair reported on Wednesday that President Trump was thinking of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him with Pruitt.

Keep reading... Show less
Gogama oil train derailment. CBC / YouTube

Risky Move: Canada Shipping More Tar Sands Oil by Rail

By Justin Mikulka

The Motley Fool has been advising investors on "How to Profit From the Re-Emergence of Canada's Crude-by-Rail Strategy." But what makes transporting Canadian crude oil by rail attractive to investors?

According to the Motley Fool, the reason is "… right now, there is so much excess oil being pumped out of Canada's oil sands that the pipelines simply don't have the capacity to handle it all."

Keep reading... Show less

What Standing Rock Gave the World

By Jenni Monet

At the height of the movement at Standing Rock, Indigenous teens half a world away in Norway were tattooing their young bodies with an image of a black snake. Derived from Lakota prophecy, the creature had come to represent the controversial Dakota Access pipeline for the thousands of water protectors determined to try to stop it.

Keep reading... Show less
Zero Point Zero

Netflix’s 'Rotten' Reveals the Perils of Global Food Production

By Katherine Wei

We all love to eat. And increasingly, our cultural conversation centers around food—the cultivation of refined taste buds, the methods of concocting the most delectable blends of flavors, the ways in which it can influence our health and longevity, and the countless TV shows and books that are borne of people's foodie fascinations. However, there's one aspect we as consumers pay perhaps too little heed: the production of food before it reaches markets and grocery store shelves. We don't directly experience this aspect of food, and as a result, it's shrouded in mystery, and often, confusion.

Keep reading... Show less
About 2,700 square miles of Amazonia's forest is destroyed annually. Dallas Krentzel / Flickr

Earth's Intact Forests Are Invaluable, and in Danger

By Tim Radford

The world's unregarded forests are at risk. Intact forest is now being destroyed at an annual rate that threatens to cancel out any attempts to contain global warming by controlling greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.

A second study finds that trees in the tropical regions are dying twice as fast as they did 35 years ago—and human-induced climate change is a factor.

Keep reading... Show less
Modern Event Preparedness / Flickr

5 Billion People Could Have Poor Access to Water by 2050, UN Warns

As the world's population grows and the planet warms, demand for water will rise but the quality and reliability of the supply is expected to deteriorate, the United Nations said Monday in this year's World Water Development Report.

"We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change," said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a statement. "If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050."

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!