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What is Geoengineering?
Blog...What is Geoengineering?

What is Geoengineering?

Ecology News
Global Warming
What benefits can geoengineering bring us? What is geoengineering in the first place, and what does it look like? Is geoengineering a good idea?
Ecology News

What benefits can geoengineering bring us? What is geoengineering in the first place, and what does it look like? Can it help to counteract climate change with carbon dioxide removal in the midst of the global climate crisis? Is geoengineering a good idea?

As our planet continues to warm due to anthropogenic climate change, our civilization is running out of  time to fully commit to halting emissions from greenhouse gases. Researchers have been looking for  creative ways to slow or halt these changes, such as with marine cloud brightening – which would attempt to brighten marine clouds in order to reflect sunlight towards outerspace. Some unique solutions fall under the umbrella of geoengineering.

👉 But what is geoengineering and how can it help us deal with the climate crisis?

Geoengineering, definition

Geoengineering is manipulation of the atmosphere in order to affect the climate in a way that limits or reverses some of the effects of global warming. The phrase also often refers to the various technologies that are being developed for this purpose, sometimes called “negative emission  technologies”.

Geoengineering solutions are usually discussed as supplemental methods to combat climate change. They would work in tandem with other global efforts of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

👉 Unfortunately, we need to consider alternative methods to solving the climate crisis beyond just switching to renewable energy sources and less consumptive ways of life. At the rate we are going, we will experience at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of warming and 5 meters (15 feet) of sea level rise due to global warming.

Scientists have been warning society about global warming for decades. But our society's inability to transition quickly enough from fossil fuels to green energy necessitates entertaining outlandish ways to quell global warming.  

Some people may ask, “Is geoengineering a great solution to climate change, ocean acidification, and greenhouse gas removal?” Of course, that can be a complicated question to answer. While it can have its benefits, there are also a lot of unknowns and risks associated with geoengineering methods and each method of it. Below, we will dive into some examples of  geoengineering.

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Solar geoengineering

Solar geoengineering, also known as solar radiation management, is a geoengineering technique that  works by reflecting some sunlight away from the earth, lowering the amount of solar radiation that  reaches earth's lower levels of atmosphere.  

This would be done by releasing massive amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere from across the globe. It would allow us to control the climate to a certain extent – by lowering the amount of ultraviolet radiation from the sun that hits earth surface, the sprayed SO2 would weaken the intensity of the greenhouse effect on earth and help to protect earth's natural systems and our climate system.

Logistically, this would happen by flying planes once or twice a year over the equator, spraying the SO2 aerosols into the atmosphere. What solar geoengineering research has going for itself is that we already have the planes and spraying technology available to implement this solution – so other geoengineering technologies wouldn't be necessary for this stratospheric aerosol injection.

Solar geoengineering is designed to mimic how an active volcano influences the atmosphere. When the  Philippino volcano Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it emitted 20 million tons of SO2 into the air,  reaching as high as the stratosphere. It was documented that global temperatures dropped by 1 degree  Fahrenheit (0.5 Celsius) on average for about three years after the eruption.

Solar geoengineering intends to lower earth's temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit. It would be a useful way for humanity to “buy time” as our planet continues to warm due to the effects of climate change, giving us a longer window to transition away from fossil fuels to green energy sources. This provides more time for climate scientists to seek new ways to bring sunlight back into space, reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gas levels, and develop ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air.  

Solar geoengineering risks

Unfortunately, solar geoengineering has a handful of hurdles it needs to cross before it can be taken seriously as a way to combat human-induced climate change.

First of all, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the implications of the technology – it is very  difficult to predict every possible or likely outcome of what adding aerosols to our atmosphere will do.

We know that volcanic eruptions that release millions of tons of SO2 into the atmosphere cause acid rain, an effect that has lasting impacts on ecosystems and infrastructure. This could prove problematic, as the World Resources Institute has estimated there are around 7.7 million square miles of forests already degraded. But the extent to which solar geoengineering or stratospheric aerosol scattering would cause acid rain and other climate impacts is globally is debated.  

Also, there tends to be unforeseen negative consequences when we try to execute a “quick fix” to solve  an environmental problem. It is unclear if solar geoengineering will significantly change weather  patterns and lead to more intense droughts, say.  

Another concern with solar geoengineering is that it could create a ticking time bomb of environmental degradation. If we were to start spraying SO2 aerosols into the atmosphere to cool our planet, we may have to keep doing so or else risk termination shock – when earth's global temperatures would  skyrocket in a matter of short years, making the transition to higher than 2 degrees Celsius much more  dangerous for ecosystems and agriculture to cope with.  
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Carbon capture technologies

Although our society relies heavily on power plants and the burning of fossil fuels, carbon capture technologies seek to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by capturing and storing them, lowering the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and contributing to emissions reductions.

Direct air capture

One of the technologies is called direct air capture. This method captures carbon from the outside air, using massive fans that function as gigantic air filters. It can be particularly useful in capturing emissions from sources that are hard to avoid or that widely distribute fossil fuels. 

Examples of these include emissions from:

  • Concrete
  • Transportation
  • Iron-steel industry
  • Wildfires

Currently, 18 direct air capture plants exist worldwide. These plants operate on a relatively small scale  – it is worth noting that at current technological levels, we can only gather about a thousand times less carbon dioxide from the air than we emit.  

Another part of the process of direct air capture is the storage of it. Where does the carbon go once it is captured from the air?

The carbon can be stored in deep geological formations that have high storage permanence where it is unlikely that CO2 will ever find its way back to the atmosphere. Another approach is to use the captured  carbon for industrial purposes like food processing and synthetic fuel production. The latter of these  examples can be achieved by mixing the CO2 with hydrogen, but can only be done in a sustainable way  if the carbon is captured from bioenergy sources.  

Carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage is like direct air capture, but the two technologies have a couple important differences.

Instead of capturing carbon from the outside air itself, carbon capture and storage is a system that collects it as it is being emitted, directly from the burning source. Basically, the same plant that emits  the gases also traps them during the process of energy generation.  

Also, carbon capture and storage would keep us dependent on future emissions for the technology to be  useful, unlike direct air capture.  

But, as discussed earlier, bioenergy sources are a potential way to offset these emissions.  

One of these bioenergy sources is called Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). As its  name suggests, BECCS captures bioenergy from green sources. These organic materials, often trees and  grasses, capture carbon themselves while they grow, minimizing the effects of the greenhouse gases  that are formed when the organics are burned.

And of course, the storage side of BECCS and other carbon capture and storage methods is critical to  bringing it whole circle. It is often done like the storage after direct air capture, sequestering carbon  deep underground.  

👉 Overall, carbon capture technologies could be useful to some degree, but the past and future money  spent on research, energy required to power direct air capture filters, and greenhouse gas emissions  needed for carbon capture and storage systems may not be worth the potential rewards these  technologies could bring us.

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Other issues with geoengineering

A big talking point about geoengineering is the world-wide cooperation that is needed to pull off some  of these measures.  

👉 With solar geoengineering, the science tells us that the SO2 aerosols will most effectively block the sun's rays if they are dispersed over the equator. But, that means the countries that the SO2-spraying planes must fly over would need to agree to the procedure.

Also, a solution like solar geoengineering might lead some policymakers to say that climate change is  “solved” if they point out that the technology is working when the climate has cooled by 1 degree  Fahrenheit.

When it comes to direct air capture, it is most effective when greenhouse gas emissions are limited to  the greatest extent possible – otherwise, the technology will have a very limited effect on the gas  makeup of our atmosphere.

Overall, geoengineering has a lot of promise to be a part of our strategy to handle the climate crisis, but it by no means represents either our first solution or last hope a a climate solution. In most of the geoengineering  examples we have outlined above, more research is needed to either make the technology viable for  practical use and global impact. But it is a good idea to invest in the research, as they have the potential  to aid us in our fight over the decades to come.

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