Geo-engineering (or climate engineering) is the study of the deliberate manipulation of Earth’s natural systems to mitigate the effects of climate change or to address other environmental challenges. Geo-engineering can include techniques such as carbon capture and storage, modifying the albedo (the ability of a surface to reflect sunlight) of the Earth’s surface to reflect more solar radiation, cloud management, the fertilization of the ocean to promote the growth of phytoplankton, the modification of biogeochemical cycles and the management of solar irradiance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists began to think about deliberately trying to modify the Earth’s climate. Some suggested the use of space mirrors to reflect sunlight and cool the Earth, while others suggested dispersing particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight. In the 1990s, geoengineering began to be considered as a serious option in response to climate change. At that time, international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions had begun, but progress was slow. Geo-engineering has emerged as a potential alternative to reducing emissions. During the 2000s, geo-engineering began to generate increasing interest in the scientific community. Research projects have been launched to explore different geo-engineering options, and reports and articles have been published to discuss the pros and cons of these techniques. In 2009, the United Nations (UN) Plan B was published, highlighting the need to consider geo-engineering as a possible option to fight climate change.
One of the most explored solutions is that of Stratospheric Aerosol Injection. It involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sunlight and cool the planet. The particles used can range from magnesium sulfates to nanoparticles. The particles reflect sunlight, preventing part of it from reaching the Earth’s surface. This leads to a decrease in surface temperature, offsetting the effects of global warming caused by greenhouse gasses.
Using geoengineering can look as the perfect solution to fight climate change without having to drastically reduce our CO2 emissions and thus to continue leading the same lifestyles and pursuing economic growth. Proponents of geoengineering argue that it could be a quick solution to reduce the effects of climate change, which is particularly important given the urgency of the problem and the slow progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Geo-engineering could be also less costly than other solutions, such as the complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions, which may require major changes in the way energy is produced and consumed.
However, playing with the Earth’s natural systems is a very dangerous thing to do, and to this stage, scientific knowledge on geoengineering is not enough to ascertain that such practices are without risks. Many proposed geoengineering interventions are still in the early stages of development and face significant technical challenges. The scale and complexity of these interventions are enormous, and there is no guarantee that they will work as intended. Geoengineering interventions could have unintended and unpredictable consequences, such as changes in weather models or impacts on ecosystems, that could be impossible to reverse. There is currently no global governance framework for geo-engineering, and it is unclear who would be responsible for the regulation and oversight of these interventions. This lack of accountability is dangerous: imagine a country unilaterally spraying aerosols over its own country’s stratosphere, with the unintended consequence of completely disturbing weather patterns in the neighboring countries.
Geoengineering is thus a false good idea, very appealing in that it proposes an alternative to the costly reduction of GHG emissions, but it would be naive and even dangerous to think that it offers a silver bullet solution to tackle climate change.
By Jade Pannetier