Geoengineering – sky hook or silver bullet?
Willow Aliento | 15 February 2018
As the clock ticks forward and the climate keeps warming, more people are turning their minds to desperate measures. According to those keeping track there about 800 geoengineering projects underway worldwide, including carbon capture, solar radiation management, weather modification and more. But are these “crazy climate techno-fix” or silver bullets?
Geoengineering – the intentional altering of the planet’s climate or earth systems – is not entirely new. In many ways the results of industrialisation’s unintended experiment with the climate in terms of galloping rates of carbon emissions is a form of it. So too is the terraforming involved in raising parts of Holland above sea level and cloud-seeding to generate rain in drought-affected areas.
What is different about many of the current crop of concepts is, frankly, how far out they get and the degree to which their proponents appear comfortable with uncertain consequences.
There are two basic approaches – one is expected to work by reducing the level of solar heat reaching the earth’s surface; the other relies on ways of absorbing and locking up carbon emissions both present and future.
The Victorian government is one of the latest to jump on the bandwagon, backing a new study by CarbonNet into the potential for commercial scale carbon capture and storage offshore in Gippsland.
CarbonNet is a body managed by the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, and jointly funded by the Australian and Victorian governments.
Its new scientific study, again funded jointly by the state and federal government, will assess the suitability of the region’s Bass Strait rock formations for storing carbon dioxide captured from industrial processes.
Therein lies the rub – the underlying assumption appearing to be that industrial processes will continue to emit problematic levels of CO2 and that the best solution is to capture it, compress the gas, then build massive pipelines so it can be transported to somewhere else, where it can then be injected into rock formations and hopefully locked up forever.
The Victorian government is quite ebullient about the whole idea.
“Victoria is at the cutting edge of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” resources minister Tim Pallas said in a media statement.
“The CarbonNet project holds the promise to be a catalyst for new global investment, industry and jobs in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley, while helping us combat climate change.”
The Victorian-based research centre, Co2CRC has been undertaking a decade-long CCS experiment in the Otways since 2008. To date, the project has stored around 80,000 tonnes of CO2 in rock layers beneath the mountains.
In Western Australia, the South West Hub Project near Harvey, is another potential geosequestration project that aims to pump CO2 captured from industrial and power plant emissions deep into the earth.
Initial feasibility studies including investigative drilling and data collection is underway, jointly funded by the federal and Western Australian governments.
If you think these projects have an uncanny resemblance to how we dispose of non-recyclable domestic and commercial waste, or the approach to managing the waste from nuclear reactors, you’re probably on the right track.
It’s the same principle of “we made some rubbish, so let’s just find somewhere to put it where it won’t get in the way” that civilisation has been applying to waste for eons.
In the wild and increasingly wacky world of geoengineering, however, geosequestration is among the less freaky ideas.
Other innovative methods suggested for sequestering CO2 include seeding the ocean with quantities of iron filings to encourage the growth of CO2-gobbling planktons and algae.
There are already trials underway, including the Korean Iron Fertilisation Experiment in the Southern Ocean off the tip of Antarctica.
However, as some scientists have observed, the potential impact of any form of marine geoengineering on marine ecosystems is entirely unknown. There are also governance issues to be considered.
One method of land-based sequestration that is generating less concern is the use of biochar as an additive to soils, to increase soil carbon sequestration. Studies are showing this approach also has co-benefits in terms of soil fertility, plant growth, water retention and pest resistance.
According to data gathered by the ETC Group and Heinrich Boell Foundation, trials of biochar are being undertaken at many sites world-wide, including Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, North America, South America and the Middle East.
More than 800 projects underway
By 2017, the organisations had identified more than 800 geoengineering projects underway worldwide, including carbon capture, solar radiation management, weather modification and other initiatives.
Weather modification ranges from attempts to reduce precipitation in Russia through to enhancing rainfall in places such as Syria, parts of Africa and South America.
There are also experiments underway to combat the impacts of extreme weather events due to climate change. Croatia, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia are among the nations where hail suppression methods are being trialled.
To reduce the amount of heat reaching the earth’s surface, ideas that have been pitched into the ring include giant orbiting solar parasols, using aerosols to deliver fine particles that can reflect a proportion of the sun’s rays and using sulphates from volcanos as aerosols.
Italy is experimenting with some of its non-active volcanos, Finland is trialling aerosol intervention technologies, and in the US a range of approaches are being investigated including the StratoShield in Washington State, forest albedo investigation in Vermont and cirrus thinning in Nevada.
In a report released late last year, The Big Bad Fix: the case against geoengineering, by ETC group, Biofuelwatch and Heinrich Böll Foundation, experts raised concerns that many of the proposed approaches could have negative consequences for human rights, democracy and world peace.
The report analyses the risks of some of the types of geoengineering trials that are being undertaken, and cautions that many of them could worsen, rather than abate carbon emissions.
There are also concerns around weaponisation, impacts on vulnerable peoples and ecosystems, and that these techno-fixes could divert efforts potentially better utilised in reducing emissions and restoring natural ecosystems as a means of sequestering carbon.
“Avoiding efforts to address the root causes of climate change, and focusing on end-of pipe geoengineering technologies, is a political choice, not a destiny,” the authors says.
“It says that it is more acceptable to risk irreparable harm to our planet than alter the dominant economic system. It is not a technical or scientific necessity – it is a defence of a failed status quo that continues to protect the riches of the few.”