Geoengineering: A solution?

Globally there is an agreement that the world needs to limit long term rise in average temperature to 2°C from 1990 levels (IPCC, 2007) by reducing Greenhouse gas emissions to limit the significant risks we are imposing on threatened, unique systems. However, it is questionable as to whether this will be achieved due to the increasing production of emissions, especially in the developing world. Stabilisation of CO2 would require a 60-80% reduction in current emissions which is unlikely unless policies are implemented. We can’t leave the future of the planet to chance and do nothing as some climate sceptics believe. Therefore, a solution is needed. A highly debated option to prevent warming is geoengineering. Is this really a viable option, or are we justifying continued destruction without having to see the consequences?

So far, global efforts have not been enough to mitigate against anthropogenic impacts on the climate. Geoengineering has been proposed as a “quick-fix” for the environment. The Royal Society (2009) define geoengineering as “deliberate large scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change” and comes under two categories: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM). CDR reduces the amount of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for example through afforestation more carbon is stored. SRM aims to reflect sunlight away from the Earth cooling the planet (University of Exeter). These methods are shown in the image below (Fig. 1). This doesn’t act on the cause of the problem, only treating one of its symptoms: cooling the planet. Emissions will continue to rise unless we actively make the decision to change our behaviour globally rather than covering up the impacts.

Methods of Geoengineering
Methods of Geoengineering

A popular pathway of SRM is to spray sulphur particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, as done naturally by volcanic ash particles after an eruption. Crutzen (Crutzen, P., 2006) suggested this could prevent effects of climate change for a grace period of 20 years with continual spraying. Therefore, it is not a long term solution but could limit warming to the required 2 degrees C. One tonne of sulphur dioxide would cancel out the climate effects of almost 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide. This may make it appealing as it is affordable, however it would do nothing to bring about a change in emissions we produce unless we enforce policy to reduce them.

Climate change is not a new issue and we are no closer to an answer. The time it will take for behaviour change concerning energy and the building of infrastructure needed may be too slow in terms of limiting the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees posing a threat for tipping points. On the other hand, geoengineering the climate is fast and much cheaper than reducing emissions. In a post by the Guardian, Wagner and Weitzman estimate that the total cost of lowering temperature via geoengineering is likely to be less than $10 billion per year. This obviously makes it an appealing option to those who don’t wish to alter their lifestyle. Do we deserve to have this control over the planet in which we live? It could lead to a ‘moral hazard’ if we cover up the damage we are doing to the climate rather than looking for a long term solution. There is no easy fix for carbon dioxide – especially considering the oceans as they would stay warmer and more acidic, leading to issues of coral bleaching, which could have catastrophic impacts on marine life (The Guardian).

Geoengineering is not the key to stopping climate change, we need to alter our behaviour and stop looking for an easy way out. We are the generation who needs to make the change and find a viable solution. – Is this the future of our skies?

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