Endgame: Geo-engineering Avengers
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
Life around us is being decimated. The climate is wreaking havoc. Our own wellbeing is threatened. It feels like the endgame. Grandiose geo-engineering schemes are emerging to save us, with ideas to intervene in the Earth's natural systems on a large enough scale to counteract the effects of our unwanted emissions and waste. While we huddle in safety, perhaps it’s time to deploy some of the geo-engineering avengers: Iron-Spam, Falcon Jet, Anti-Thaw and Carbon Marvel.
Earth is really an ocean planet, so one geo-engineering scheme to remove more atmospheric carbon is to increase the capacity of the oceans to absorb our emissions, by “fertilising” the oceans with tons of iron or other nutrients to stimulate plankton blooms. These organisms pull carbon out of the atmosphere and become deposited in the deep ocean when they die. Researchers worldwide conducted thirteen major iron-fertilisation experiments in the open ocean since 1990, until the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity put in place a moratorium on all ocean-fertilisation projects. This moratorium was in response to adverse effects of these experiments, such as the massive toxic algal blooms they generated. The unintended impacts of ocean fertilisation are so far removed in distance and time from the initial sites of the iron that it is very difficult to quantify the amount of carbon removed with any acceptable accuracy.
The subject of hundreds of research papers by scientists, another big idea to fight global warming is “solar radiation management” whereby we inject sulphide gases into the atmosphere to block sunlight. The plan is relatively straightforward: spray a mist of sulphuric acid into the lower stratosphere from jet planes flying above typical cruising altitudes; the sulphate aerosols formed are swept upwards by natural wind patterns and dispersed over the globe including the poles; once spread across the stratosphere, these aerosols will reflect about one percent of the sunlight back into space and offset some of the warming effects below. Unfortunately, some of consequences include depletion of ozone that acts as our natural atmospheric protection against the sun’s ultra-violet radiation; reduction in water precipitation around the world; and potential side effects to our health from tons of sulphate particles returning into the lower atmosphere.
The melting of the ice sheets means more than just a dramatic rise in sea levels as the lack of ice at the poles would also change the ocean’s water currents, the jet streams and how weather forms across the planet. The polar ice is thawing fast, so we need a plan to ‘refreeze’ the ice caps. In one scheme, around ten million wind pumps covering ten percent of Arctic Ocean would spray seawater onto the icy surface where it would freeze and thicken the ice cap. Other scheming to halt the thaw involves reflecting solar radiation back into space, either by artificially whitening the ice cap by scattering light-coloured aerosol particles over the ice, or by spraying seawater into the atmosphere above it to create reflective clouds. Even if there were an effective way of restoring ice in the Arctic, it would not solve the carbon dioxide problem, or the acidification of the oceans, or fully decrease temperatures.
There was a time when the marvel of ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) was seen as the way ahead, allowing fossil fuels to be burnt with impunity simply by adding a CCS unit to power plants to capture the carbon dioxide produced. However, adding the extra process doubles the capital cost of a plant, while running the CCS unit effectively decreases its efficiency by around a quarter – making conventional coal-fired power with CCS more expensive than simply using clean, renewable power instead. CCS also has uncertainties regarding how securely the carbon dioxide will be stored underground and limitations in capturing other greenhouse gases. Alternatively, carbon could potentially be captured directly from the air using giant suction machines, located anywhere. However, the proportion of carbon dioxide in air is much lower than in the exhausts of power plants making this option very inefficient, and the amount of steel and concrete required to build these machines could exceed climate tipping points before any positive effects are felt.
Taking ourselves seriously
Our geo-engineering avengers are defective and dangerous. However, the very idea of smart scientists and eager engineers pouring of geo-engineering technology is an invitation for us to sit back and wait. Believing that technology will save the day, we willingly incur more risk by not cutting emissions now, safe in the false assumption that a future geo-engineering solution will protect us from the consequences of our inaction. However, when it comes to the deployment of such technology, technical considerations are no more important than social, legal, ethical and political concerns. For example, there are significant ethical and political consequences of injecting sulphide gases into the stratosphere that become unevenly dispersed and hence disproportionately impact some countries more than others. Such concerns may yet be our best form of defence against such experimentation.
The hard truth is that “negative emissions technologies” do not exist on the large scale needed for scrubbing carbon from the air, and waiting for geo-engineering avengers to assemble is a moral hazard. Business magnate Richard Branson’s prize of twenty-five million dollars to the first person to invent a “commercially viable design” that would shield us by removing one billion tons of greenhouse gases a year has gone unclaimed, for over ten years. We have very few realistic options, although fortunately there is one we can call upon at any time. Plants are nature’s solution to a negative emissions technology that is both proven and works on a large scale. Provided we take necessary action to reforest, rewild, and reintroduce nature into our concrete jungles.
The plot line is Geo-engineering Avengers is fatally flawed and they are yet another distraction. We are not innocent victims of some extra-terrestrial threat, but are the very agents who have created this endgame.
The smartest and cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions is to not emit them in the first place. Billions of people can do that in a million different ways, by reducing their consumption, using current technologies more efficiently, or shifting to existing low-carbon technologies and practices. We will still need to remove some of the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere – by integrating nature’s known solution, by protecting and regenerating friendly green hulks.
We don’t need our brightest minds to try to invent new-fangled technologies. We need them to find amazing ways to help all of us change our behaviour. Individually and collectively, we need to bridge our schisms to find common cause; to shrink massively the size of our overconsumption; to embed nature as a vital element of urban life; to bend our economies from straight lines into circles. Finally, we must destroy the stark myth of our own self-importance. Perhaps, inevitably, this myth of our centrality is the last to fall. And when it does, it is not hard to reimagine a different plot line with the potential for greater wellbeing by being part of something greater than us.