Geoengineering Is Inevitable in the Face of Climate Change. But at What Cost?

Geoengineering Is Inevitable in the Face of Climate Change. But at What Cost?
Production stack emissions from the Johns Manville fiberglass insulation plant in Alberta, Canada, Feb. 13, 2019 (Photo by Larry MacDougal via AP Images).

The world is losing its battle against climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions rose to record levels last year, as countries lagged in meeting their already inadequate pledges under the Paris Agreement. Based on the current trajectory, the warming Earth will blow well past the 2-degrees Celsius ceiling widely agreed to be the maximum acceptable increase in average global temperatures before catastrophic impacts set in. In the face of this looming threat, climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are necessary but insufficient. Humanity must also consider a third option it has long resisted: geoengineering, or the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment.

Geoengineering takes various forms, but most fall into one of two categories: carbon-dioxide removal and solar radiation modification. The first one, also known as negative emissions, entails the permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and its subsequent storage, either in plants, underground or beneath the ocean floor. Solar radiation modification denotes the deployment of technologies to alter the amount of radiation entering or leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike carbon removal, solar radiation modification does not remove greenhouse gases. Rather, it reduces the heat that they trap.

Both types of geoengineering encompass diverse approaches, of varying complexity and maturity. Carbon-dioxide removal strategies, for example, include planting forests at massive scale, capturing carbon from the atmosphere—or from the burning of biomass—and permanently storing it, fertilizing ocean ecosystems to accelerate phytoplankton growth, and dispersing carbon-binding minerals on land or in the oceans. Solar radiation modification technologies, meanwhile, range from injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, to seeding or thinning clouds and brightening Earth’s surfaces in order to alter the amount of incoming and outgoing radiation. Many approaches remain experimental, and none—with the partial exception of afforestation, or planting trees on non-forested land—have been attempted at scale.

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