Wednesday, September 5, 2012


“Homo sapiens has emerged as a force of nature rivaling climatic and geologic forces,” Erle Ellis

"Geo-engineering" as a solution to climate change is increasingly gaining attention within the science world. "Isn’t it just one of those things that come up and everyone seems excited about only to learn later that it can’t really help after all?”, I asked myself the first time I read about geoengineering. So what is this technology that is gradually becoming the main word in climate change talks?

The concept of GEOENGINEERING refers to "the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming". The definition of geoengeneering in itself seemed ironic to me, upon first hearing. How can anyone possibly make any meaningful interventions in the climate system which is so complex that I am yet to come across someone who can claim to fully understand it! Then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in 2007 that geoengineering options remained largely unproven. Such is the controversy surrounding geongeneering.

But why should anyone not be happy with what appears to have solution to arguable the greatest challenge the world faces: CLIMATE CHANGE. The world has been grappling with this challenge for a while now. Climate change MITIGATION, activities that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or enhance the capacity of carbon sinks to absorb GHGs from the atmosphere, has been proposed several years ago and we are still grappling with it. Climate Change ADAPTATION, i.e., reducing the negative impacts of climate change and take advantage of any opportunities is also being tried and its successes are there for all to see. It has been extremely difficult and sometimes even thought of as impossible to build the international political consensus on how and to what levels to reduce GHG emissions. Talk of adaptation is equally discouraging. So, with all these challenges with mitigation and adaptation, are we now closer to what will save the world?

Geoengeneering is divided into two broad categories:
1.Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques which address the root cause of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and
2. Solar radiation management (SRM) techniques which attempt to offset effects of increased greenhouse gas concentrations by causing the Earth to absorb less solar radiation.

CDR techniques will reduce the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, allowing outgoing long-wave (thermal infra-red) heat radiation to escape more easily. SRM techniques will reduce the net incoming short-wave (ultra-violet and visible) solar radiation received, by deflecting sunlight, or by increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the atmosphere, clouds or the Earth’s surface. These are surely what the world needs to address climate change, don’t you think so? At last, we are going to win the battle with climate change! Well, don’t be too fast to conclude, does geoengineering not have any negatives?

Some of the few studies into geoengineering has revealed that despite all the positives, including counteracting many effects of climate change, that are touted about Geoengineering, there could be unintended negative repercussions as well. The climate system is inherently too complex and the possibility of unanticipated harmful side effects must be expected. In their book “GEOENGINEERING FOR DECISION MAKERS” the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, lists the ten (10) major concerns of Geoengineering as:
1.Unintended Negative Consequences
2.Potential Ineffectiveness
3.Risk of Undermining Emissions-Mitigation Efforts
4.Risk of Sudden Catastrophic Warming
5.Equity Issues
6.Difficulty of Reaching Agreement
7.Potential for Weaponization
8.Reduced Efficiency of Solar Energy
9.Danger of Corporate Interests Overriding the Public Interest
10.Danger of Research Driving Inappropriate Deployment

These concerns, some of which have been addressed partially by some studies, are important and need addressing before any large-scale deployment of geoengineering technologies is undertaken.

So is geoengenieering to the rescue? It’s time for us to think, work and engage. Maybe YES, maybe NO. What do you think?

"Before we start geoengineering we have to raise the following question: are we sufficiently talented to take on what might become the onerous permanent task of keeping the Earth in homeostasis? Consider what might happen if we start by using a stratospheric aerosol to ameliorate global heating; even if it succeeds, it would not be long before we face the additional problem of ocean acidification. -- James Lovelock