Solar geoengineering 101 -- Image courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists

Switzerland Advocates For Geoengineering Research

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Geoengineering. It’s either a way to prevent the Earth from turning into a baked potato where only species that can endure 50º C (120º F) heat can survive, or it’s a giant boondoggle designed to let fossil fuel companies continue extracting molecule of coal, methane, and gas they can find to fatten their corporate wallets. But could it be both?

The concept of geoengineering is simple — find a way to reduce some of the energy the Earth receives from the sun. The reason to do that is that human activity — burning fossil fuels — has caused the Earth to heat up by 1.5º C already with more heating on the way this year and next. It seems abundantly clear that humans are incapable of altering their behavior, even if it leads inexorably to their extinction. In that respect, we are like a virus or cancer that expands exponentially until it consumes its host.

Humans have been prolific when it comes to inventing things, but most of those things are powered by burning fossil fuels. Renewable energy is on the rise but not fast enough to stop the overheating of the Earth. As French architect and philosopher Paul Virilio has said:

When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.

Geoengineering & The UN

Later this month, the United Nations Environment Program conference will take place in Nairobi. In the preliminaries leading up to that conference, Switzerland has proposed a global debate on whether the “risks, benefits and uncertainties” of dimming the sun through geoengineering should be studied by a United Nations expert group. It suggests the UN should gather information about ongoing research into solar geoengineering and set up an advisory panel that could make recommendations about how to reduce global heating. Doing so would have implications for food supply, biodiversity, global inequality, and global security.

The Swiss proposal focuses on solar radiation modification (SRM), a technique that mimics the effect of a large volcanic eruption by filling the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide particles that reflect part of the sun’s heat and light back into space. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the sulfur dioxide it spewed into the upper atmosphere resulted in a volcanic winter caused by a reduction in the normal amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, according to Wikipedia.  This led to a decrease in average temperatures of about 0.6 °C in the northern hemisphere and a global decrease of about 0.4 °C.

But there is more to the story. The temperature in the stratosphere rose several degrees higher than normal, due to the absorption of radiation by the aerosol. The stratospheric cloud from the eruption persisted in the atmosphere for three years.

Supporters of the Swiss geoengineering proposal argue research is necessary to ensure multilateral oversight of emerging planet altering technologies which might otherwise be developed and tested in isolation by powerful governments or billionaire individuals. We hear all the time about how economic inequality has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, but now the dimensions of that inequality are becoming clearer. There are individual people in the world today — most of them white males — who could decide on their own to put their resources to work altering the interaction between the Earth and the sun. Wow!

Critics argue such a discussion would threaten the current de facto ban on geoengineering and lead to a long slide down a “slippery slope” towards legitimization, mainstreaming and eventual deployment of geoengineering technology.

Felix Wertli, the Swiss ambassador for the environment, said his country’s goal in submitting the proposal was to ensure all governments and relevant stakeholders “are informed about SRM technologies, in particular about possible risks and cross-border effects.” He said the intention was not to promote or enable solar geoengineering but to inform governments, especially those in developing countries, about what is happening, according to The Guardian.

The UN Environmental Program Conference In Nairobi

The executive director of the UNEP, Inger Andersen, stressed the importance of “a global conversation on SRM” in her opening address to delegates at a preliminary gathering in Nairobi. She and her colleagues emphasized the move was a precautionary one rather than an endorsement of the technology.

Nevertheless, some environmental groups are alarmed by the proposal. “There’s a real risk that mandating UNEP to write a report and set up an expert group on SRM could undermine the existing de facto moratorium on geoengineering and inadvertently provide legitimacy for delaying actions to phase out fossil fuels,” said Mary Church of the Center for International Environmental Law. “There are some areas that the international community has rightly decided are simply off limits, like eugenics, human cloning, and chemical weapons. Solar geoengineering belongs on that list and needs to join it fast, before seemingly harmless conversations on governance lead us down a very slippery slope towards deployment.”

Switzerland last proposed scrutiny of geoengineering at the 2019 UN environment assembly, but the topic was blocked by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Sources said this was because they wanted to conduct research into these technologies unfettered by international oversight or regulations.

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New Backers Of Geoengineering Emerge

The fossil fuel industry has been a supporter of geoengineering research in the past, primarily because it sees it as a way to give it a social license to continue plundering the Earth for profit. More recently, philanthropists, financiers, and tech entrepreneurs have jumped on the bandwagon, some motivated by the potential for lucrative rewards and some concerned about danger of an overheated planet.

More money is flowing into the sector particularly in the United States. Bill Gates is among supporters of the Harvard solar geoengineering research program, whose stated goal is to “produce research that advances solar geoengineering science and technology frontier, publishing high impact papers, and disseminating ideas that are taken up by other researchers and government research programs.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have expressed support for further studies into sunlight reflection technologies.

A company known as Make Sunsets is already selling “cooling credits” and claims to have conducted outdoor tests in Mexico. The Mexican government has since banned any such experiments on its territory. The European parliament stressed the need for restrictive governance and the application of the precautionary principle in a statement last year on solar geoengineering.

SRM Gets More Attention From Scientific Community

In scientific forums, SRM is a growing focus of concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted critical knowledge gaps and risks related to SRM in their Sixth Assessment Report. Last January, the Montreal Protocol reported for the first time on the damage that could be done to the ozone layer from the SRM technique known as a stratospheric aerosol injection. Last year, the UN Environment Program was criticized for publishing a paper on solar geoengineering, One Atmosphere, which included contributions from advocates of SRM and recommendations for more research including open air experiments. CIEL said this helped normalize the idea of geoengineering.

UNEP’s chief scientist, Dr. Andrea Hinwood, said such accusations were unfair because her organization was not advocating for these technologies and emphasized the priority was to reduce emissions. “At the same time, we don’t want to be in a position where some months or even years down the track we are caught off-guard and playing catch-up. I know people think this is potentially creating a space where these technologies may be supported, but I also think not discussing them is more problematic,” she said.

In Nairobi, the fate of the Swiss proposal hangs in the balance. Senegal, which was initially a co-sponsor, has backed out. Many other nations, including once again the US and Saudi Arabia, have expressed doubts. The African delegates have stressed no-use. But Wertli said he believed the mood was more positive than in 2019. “This time, you can see people are ready to discuss because the debate has progressed,” he said. “There was a general acknowledgment in the opening debate that more research and information is needed. That is new and shows that the resolution responds to a need.”

It should be noted that last year the US government quietly began a 5-year study of geoengineering and has expressed a willingness to pursue the topic with European nations. Three years ago the National Academy of Sciences admitted geoengineering was a “really dumb idea” that deserved to be explored further.

The Takeaway

Keeping in mind the words of Paul Virilio, which could be paraphrased as the Rule Of Unintended Consequences, what do CleanTechnica readers think of geoengineering? Is it something that should be discussed or is the idea of playing God with the Earth’s environment something that is too scary to even contemplate? Please share your thoughts with the rest of us in the comments section.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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