Climate engineering (or geoengineering) is an umbrella term for both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification, when applied at a planetary scale.[1]: 168  However, these two processes have very different characteristics. For this reason, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change no longer uses this overarching term.[1]: 168 [2] Carbon dioxide removal approaches are part of climate change mitigation. Solar radiation modification is reflecting some sunlight (solar radiation) back to space.[3] Some publications place passive radiative cooling into the climate engineering category. This technology increases the Earth's thermal emittance.[4][5][6] The media tends to use climate engineering also for other technologies such as glacier stabilization, ocean liming, and iron fertilization of oceans. The latter would modify carbon sequestration processes that take place in oceans.

Some types of climate engineering are highly controversial due to the large uncertainties around effectiveness, side effects and unforeseen consequences.[7] However, the risks of such interventions must be seen in the context of the trajectory of climate change without them.[8][9]

According to climate economist Gernot Wagner, the term geoengineering is "so vague and all-encompassing as to have lost much meaning".[7]: 14 

Terminology

Climate engineering (or geoengineering) has been used as an umbrella term for both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management, when applied at a planetary scale.[1]: 168  However, these two methods have very different geophysical characteristics, which is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change no longer uses this term.[1]: 168 [2] This decision was communicated in around 2018, see for example the "Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C".[10]: 550  Specific technologies that fall into the "climate engineering" umbrella term include:[11]: 30 

The following methods are not termed climate engineering in the latest IPCC assessment report in 2022[1]: 6–11  but are included under this umbrella term by other publications on this topic:[23][7]

Technologies

Carbon dioxide removal

Planting trees is a nature-based way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, however the effect may only be temporary in some cases.[30][31]

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is a process in which carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed from the atmosphere by deliberate human activities and durably stored in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products.[32]: 2221  This process is also known as carbon removal, greenhouse gas removal or negative emissions. CDR is more and more often integrated into climate policy, as an element of climate change mitigation strategies.[33][34] Achieving net zero emissions will require first and foremost deep and sustained cuts in emissions, and then—in addition—the use of CDR ("CDR is what puts the net into net zero emissions"[35]). In the future, CDR may be able to counterbalance emissions that are technically difficult to eliminate, such as some agricultural and industrial emissions.[36]: 114 

CDR includes methods that are implemented on land or in aquatic systems. Land-based methods include afforestation, reforestation, agricultural practices that sequester carbon in soils (carbon farming), bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and direct air capture combined with storage.[36]: 115  There are also CDR methods that use oceans and other water bodies. Those are called ocean fertilization, ocean alkalinity enhancement,[37] wetland restoration and blue carbon approaches.[36]: 115  A detailed analysis needs to be performed to assess how much negative emissions a particular process achieves. This analysis includes life cycle analysis and "monitoring, reporting, and verification" (MRV) of the entire process.[38] Carbon capture and storage (CCS) are not regarded as CDR because CCS does not reduce the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

Solar radiation modification

refer to caption and image description
Proposed solar radiation modification using a tethered balloon to inject sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere

Solar radiation modification (SRM), or solar geoengineering, refers to a range of approaches to limit global warming by increasing the amount of sunlight (solar radiation) that the atmosphere reflects back to space or by reducing the trapping of outgoing thermal radiation. Among the multiple potential approaches, stratospheric aerosol injection is the most-studied, followed by marine cloud brightening. SRM could be a temporary measure to limit climate-change impacts while greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and carbon dioxide is removed,[39] but would not be a substitute for reducing emissions.

Multiple authoritative international scientific assessments, based on evidence from climate models and natural analogues, have generally shown that some forms of SRM could reduce global warming and many adverse effects of climate change.[40][41][42] Specifically, controlled stratospheric aerosol injection appears able to greatly moderate most environmental impacts—especially warming—and consequently most ecological, economic, and other impacts of climate change across most regions. However, because warming from greenhouse gases and cooling from SRM would operate differently across latitudes and seasons, a world where global warming would be offset by SRM would have a different climate from one where this warming did not occur in the first place. Furthermore, confidence in the current projections of how SRM would affect regional climate and ecosystems is low.[39]

Passive daytime radiative cooling

Enhancing the thermal emissivity of Earth through passive daytime radiative cooling has been proposed as an alternative or "third approach" to climate engineering[4][43] that is "less intrusive" and more predictable or reversible than stratospheric aerosol injection.[44]

Passive daytime radiative cooling (PDRC) can lower temperatures with zero energy consumption or pollution by radiating heat into outer space. Widespread application has been proposed as a solution to global warming.[45]

Passive daytime radiative cooling (PDRC) is a zero-energy building cooling method proposed as a solution to reduce air conditioning, lower urban heat island effect, cool human body temperatures in extreme heat, move toward carbon neutrality and control global warming by enhancing terrestrial heat flow to outer space through the installation of thermally-emissive surfaces on Earth that require zero energy consumption or pollution.[46][47][48][49][50][45][51][52][53] In contrast to compression-based cooling systems that are prevalently used (e.g., air conditioners), consume substantial amounts of energy, have a net heating effect, require ready access to electricity and often require coolants that are ozone-depleting or have a strong greenhouse effect,[54][55] application of PDRCs may also increase the efficiency of systems benefiting from a better cooling, such like photovoltaic systems, dew collection techniques, and thermoelectric generators.[56][57]

PDRC surfaces are designed to be high in solar reflectance (to minimize heat gain) and strong in longwave infrared (LWIR) thermal radiation heat transfer through the atmosphere's infrared window (8–13 μm) to cool temperatures even during the daytime.[58][59][60] It is also referred to as passive radiative cooling, daytime passive radiative cooling, radiative sky cooling, photonic radiative cooling, and terrestrial radiative cooling.[59][60][56][61] PDRC differs from solar radiation management because it increases radiative heat emission rather than merely reflecting the absorption of solar radiation.[62]
Video to explain some of the marine geoengineering approaches with a focus on their risks, negative impacts and potential side-effects, as well as on the question of governance of these technologies.

Ocean geoengineering

Main article: Carbon sequestration § Sequestration techniques in oceans

See also: Ocean fertilization

Ocean geoengineering involves adding material such as lime or iron to the ocean to affect its ability to support marine life and/or sequester CO
2
. In 2021 the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) requested $2.5 billion funds for research in the following decade, specifically including field tests.[29]

Ocean liming

Main articles: Carbon sequestration § Adding bases to neutralize acids, and Ocean acidification § Carbon removal technologies which add alkalinity

Enriching seawater with calcium hydroxide (lime) has been reported to lower ocean acidity, which reduces pressure on marine life such as oysters and absorb CO
2
. The added lime raised the water's pH, capturing CO
2
in the form of calcium bicarbonate or as carbonate deposited in mollusk shells. Lime is produced in volume for the cement industry.[29] This was assessed in 2022 in an experiment in Apalachicola, Florida in an attempt to halt declining oyster populations. pH levels increased modestly, as CO
2
was reduced by 70 ppm.[29]

A 2014 experiment added sodium hydroxide (lye) to part of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It raised pH levels to nearly preindustrial levels.[29]

However, producing alkaline materials typically releases large amounts of CO
2
, partially offsetting the sequestration. Alkaline additives become diluted and dispersed in one month, without durable effects, such that if necessary, the program could be ended without leaving long-term effects.[29]

Iron fertilization

Iron fertilization is the intentional introduction of iron-containing compounds (like iron sulfate) to iron-poor areas of the ocean surface to stimulate phytoplankton production. This is intended to enhance biological productivity and/or accelerate carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration from the atmosphere. Iron is a trace element necessary for photosynthesis in plants. It is highly insoluble in sea water and in a variety of locations is the limiting nutrient for phytoplankton growth. Large algal blooms can be created by supplying iron to iron-deficient ocean waters. These blooms can nourish other organisms.

Submarine forest

Another 2022 experiment attempted to sequester carbon using giant kelp planted off the Namibian coast.[29] Whilst this approach has been called ocean geoengineering by the researchers it is just another form of carbon dioxide removal via sequestration. Another term that is used to describe this process is blue carbon management and also marine geoengineering.

Glacier stabilization

A proposed "underwater sill" blocking 50% of warm water flows heading for the glacier could have the potential to delay its collapse and the resultant sea level rise by many centuries.[25]

Some engineering interventions have been proposed for Thwaites Glacier and the nearby Pine Island Glacier to physically stabilize its ice or to preserve it. These interventions would block the flow of warm ocean water, which currently renders the collapse of these two glaciers practically inevitable even without further warming.[63][64] A proposal from 2018 included building sills at the Thwaites' grounding line to either physically reinforce it, or to block some fraction of warm water flow. The former would be the simplest intervention, yet equivalent to "the largest civil engineering projects that humanity has ever attempted". It is also only 30% likely to work. Constructions blocking even 50% of the warm water flow are expected to be far more effective, yet far more difficult as well.[65] Some researchers argued that this proposal could be ineffective, or even accelerate sea level rise.[66] The authors of the original proposal suggested attempting this intervention on smaller sites, like the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, as a test.[65][64] They also acknowledged that this intervention cannot prevent sea level rise from the increased ocean heat content, and would be ineffective in the long run without greenhouse gas emission reductions.[65]

In 2023, it was proposed that an installation of underwater curtains, made of a flexible material and anchored to the Amundsen Sea floor would be able to interrupt warm water flow. This approach would reduce costs and increase the longevity of the material (conservatively estimated at 25 years for curtain elements and up to 100 years for the foundations) relative to more rigid structures. With them in place, Thwaites Ice Shelf and Pine Island Ice Shelf would presumably regrow to a state they last had a century ago, thus stabilizing these glaciers.[67][68][64] To achieve this, the curtains would have to be placed at a depth of around 600 metres (0.37 miles) (to avoid damage from icebergs which would be regularly drifting above) and be 80 km (50 mi) long. The authors acknowledged that while work on this scale would be unprecedented and face many challenges in the Antarctic (including polar night and the currently insufficient numbers of specialized polar ships and underwater vessels), it would also not require any new technology and there is already experience of laying down pipelines at such depths.[67][68]

Problems

Interventions at large scale run a greater risk of unintended disruptions of natural systems, resulting in a dilemma that such disruptions might be more damaging than the climate damage that they offset.[8]

According to climate economist Gernot Wagner the term geoengineering is "largely an artefact and a result of the terms frequent use in popular discourse" and "so vague and all-encompassing as to have lost much meaning".[7]: 14 

Ethical aspects

Climate engineering may reduce the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, a form of moral hazard.[69] Also, most efforts have only temporary effects, which implies rapid rebound if they are not sustained.[70] The Union of Concerned Scientists points to the danger that the technology will become an excuse not to address the root causes of climate change, slow our emissions reductions and start moving toward a low-carbon economy.[71] However, several public opinion surveys and focus groups reported either a desire to increase emission cuts in the presence of climate engineering, or no effect.[72][73][74] Other modelling work suggests that the prospect of climate engineering may in fact increase the likelihood of emissions reduction.[75][76][77][78]

If climate engineering can alter the climate, then this raises questions whether humans have the right to deliberately change the climate, and under what conditions. For example, using climate engineering to stabilize temperatures is not the same as doing so to optimize the climate for some other purpose. Some religious traditions express views on the relationship between humans and their surroundings that encourage (to conduct responsible stewardship) or discourage (to avoid hubris) explicit actions to affect climate.[79]

Society and culture

Public perception

A large 2018 study used an online survey to investigate public perceptions of six climate engineering methods in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.[11] Public awareness of climate engineering was low; less than a fifth of respondents reported prior knowledge. Perceptions of the six climate engineering methods proposed (three from the carbon dioxide removal group and three from the solar radiation modification group) were largely negative and frequently associated with attributes like 'risky', 'artificial' and 'unknown effects'. Carbon dioxide removal methods were preferred over solar radiation modification. Public perceptions were remarkably stable with only minor differences between the different countries in the surveys.[11][80]

Some environmental organizations (such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace) have been reluctant to endorse or oppose solar radiation modification, but are often more supportive of nature-based carbon dioxide removal projects, such as afforestation and peatland restoration.[69][81]

History

Several organizations have investigated climate engineering with a view to evaluating its potential, including the US Congress,[82] the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,[83] the Royal Society,[84] the UK Parliament,[85] the Institution of Mechanical Engineers,[86] and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IMechE report examined a small subset of proposed methods (air capture, urban albedo and algal-based CO2 capture techniques), and its main conclusions were that climate engineering should be researched and trialed at the small scale alongside a wider decarbonization of the economy.[86]

The Royal Society review examined a wide range of proposed climate engineering methods and evaluated them in terms of effectiveness, affordability, timeliness, and safety (assigning qualitative estimates in each assessment). The key recommendations reports were that "Parties to the UNFCCC should make increased efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change, and in particular to agreeing to global emissions reductions", and that "[nothing] now known about geoengineering options gives any reason to diminish these efforts".[87] Nonetheless, the report also recommended that "research and development of climate engineering options should be undertaken to investigate whether low-risk methods can be made available if it becomes necessary to reduce the rate of warming this century".[87]

In 2009, a review examined the scientific plausibility of proposed methods rather than the practical considerations such as engineering feasibility or economic cost. The authors found that "[air] capture and storage shows the greatest potential, combined with afforestation, reforestation and bio-char production", and noted that "other suggestions that have received considerable media attention, in particular, "ocean pipes" appear to be ineffective".[88] They concluded that "[climate] geoengineering is best considered as a potential complement to the mitigation of CO2 emissions, rather than as an alternative to it".[88]

In 2015, the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded a 21-month project to study the potential impacts, benefits, and costs of climate engineering. The differences between these two classes of climate engineering "led the committee to evaluate the two types of approaches separately in companion reports, a distinction it hopes carries over to future scientific and policy discussions."[89][90][91] The resulting study titled Climate Intervention was released in February 2015 and consists of two volumes: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth[92] and Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration.[93]

In June 2023 the US government released a report that recommended conducting research on stratospheric aerosol injection and marine cloud brightening.[94]

As of 2024 the Coastal Atmospheric Aerosol Research and Engagement (CAARE) project was launching sea salt into the marine sky in an effort to increase cloud "brightness" (reflective capacity). The sea salt is launched from the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum (based on the project's regulatory filings).[95]

See also

Further reading

References

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