The Big Bad Fix

ETC Group, BiofuelWatch and Heinrich Boell Foundation present a comprehensive argument against geoengineering in this report.

Click here to download the full report (pdf)

As a rapidly warming world manifests heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes, geoengineering – large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – is being presented as a strategy to counteract, dilute or delay climate change without disrupting energy- and resource-intensive economies. Alarmingly, current debates about this big techno-fix are limited to a small group of self-proclaimed experts reproducing undemocratic worldviews and technocratic, reductionist perspectives. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities are excluded and left voiceless.

As this report details, each of the proposed geoengineering technologies threatens people and ecosystems. Holistic assessments of the technologies also show that if deployed they are highly likely to worsen rather than mitigate the impacts of global warming.

The irreversibility, risk of weaponization, and implications for global power dynamics inherent in large-scale climate geoengineering also make it an unacceptable option.

UN to extend freeze on climate change geoengineering

Iron fertilization involves dumping iron-rich soil into the ocean. Scientists say iron-rich dirt promotes the growth of plankton, microscopic organisms that provide a food source for salmon and other sealife. (CBC/HSRC)
Geoengineering proposals include iron fertilization, involving dumping iron-rich soil into the ocean (CBC/HSRC)

Update to this article: The plenary of the COP 13 adopted the decision described below on Friday 9th December

By Ed King (Climate Home)

Draft documents suggest countries will agree to further ban on large-scale climate techno-fixes, warning risks of damage to biodiversity outweigh potential benefits

Countries should resist the urge to experiment with large scale planetary geoengineering until it’s clear what the consequences of meddling with the oceans or atmosphere may be.

That’s the nub of a decision expected to be taken at the UN’s biannual biodiversity summit taking place in Cancun, Mexico this week, emphasising a “precautionary approach” to such projects.

With greenhouse gas emissions closing in on levels that could guarantee warming of 1.5C above pre industrial levels and an El Nino-boosted 2016 likely to be the hottest year on record, some scientists are looking to emergency measures.

But the UN is sticking to a familiar line: pumping the atmosphere with tiny mirrors to deflect sunlight, boosting the uptake of CO2 in oceans by stimulating plankton growth, or burning wood and pumping the emissions underground could be a bad idea.

“We’re concerned that with any initiative regarding the use of geoengineering there needs to be an assessment,” UN biodiversity chief Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias told Climate Home.

“These can have unforeseen results and spin-offs. If you capture carbon in the oceans, this is effective through all the food chains.”

Even national risk assessments on individual geoengineering projects would still form an “incomplete basis for global regulation” says the latest iteration of the UN draft decision, echoing previous Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) decisions in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

“More trans-disciplinary research and sharing of knowledge among appropriate institutions is needed,” it says, citing potential impacts on ecosystems and potential ethical issues.

For instance, one study by scientists at the UK Met Office in 2013 said the release of fine particles into the northern hemisphere atmosphere could lower temperatures, but heighten drought risk in the Sahel.

Still, Bristol University academic Matt Watson – one of the UK’s top geoengineering researchers – told Climate Home there are still a “range of experiments that would not have any effect on biodiversity”.

“We are not doing a great job of protecting biodiversity now (the IPCC’s projections are truly terrifying) – how will we know if geoengineering would exacerbate (or reduce) impacts on biodiversity unless we research it?” he said in an email.

That view was echoed by Richard Darton, co-director of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, who said controlled tests allowed under CBD rules should continue “to verify the science and engineering” but that more research was inevitable given the scale of warming

“Whilst I thoroughly agree that we can best cut anthropogenic emissions as the best way to manage climate change, the CBD will have to face the fact that it simply isn’t happening fast enough,” he said.

“Learning more about geoengineering is absolutely necessary. At the moment we have the bizarre circumstance that climate scenarios which will meet 2C assume BECCS [bioenergy with carbon capture and storage] will be applied on a very big scale – an assumption at odds with the resolution of CBD apparently.

“We simply must explore BECCS and all the other techniques to understand what (if anything) they can do for us, and what the entire earth-system and human-system impacts might be.”

The last publicised large-scale geoengineering trial took place in 2012 when a US businessman dumped tonnes of iron filings into the sea off Canada, in violation of the UN moratorium.

The aim was to suck carbon from the atmosphere by stimulating the growth of plankton which would then die and sink to the ocean floor, thus sequestering the CO2.

In 2013, leaked documents revealed Russia pushed for the UN’s climate science body to support the potential of geoengineering to lower global temperatures in its major AR5 climate report.

In the event the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study did cover geoengineering, warning of “numerous uncertainties, side effects and risks” of efforts to manage solar radiation.

Since then, information on other programmes has been thin. Germany is conducting indoor experiments while the UK government recently stumped up £8·3 million (US$10.5m) for research into technologies to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Policy inertia

The UN CBD draft decision notes “very few countries” have provided “information on measures they have undertaken”.

Poor reporting and the lack of debate around the issue are a concern, said Andrew Light, a former US senior state department climate official and a professor at George Mason University, who interpreted the CBD text as a “plea” rather than a ban.

“If we are ever to have a conversation about governance we need to normalise reporting,” he told Climate Home, suggesting this would be a first step before out-of-laboratory experiments are authorised.

“We need to be looking into the full range of activities, especially when we’re talking about the need to move towards net decarbonisation by 2050 or thereafter.”

“Countries have not provided information because they are not talking about it,” said Janos Pasztor, climate advisor to outgoing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and head of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project.

“There is practically no discussion at a policy level – it’s a big gap and we need to shift the debate.”

Climate Change Policy and The Super-Hero Syndrome

Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Jeremy Thompson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

by Roger Boyd (Resilience)

There is a genre of Hollywood “feel-good” disaster movie, where everything seems nearly hopeless until the end, and then suddenly, many times against all hope, the super-hero (or super-heroes) saves the day. Whether it be human heroes that blow up the Earth-killing asteroid just in the nick of time; good mutants that defeat the bad mutants just in time; bad mutants turned good mutants that destroy the stayed-bad mutants just in time; future humans and non-human allies that save the Galaxy from the Empire. Anyway, you get the general storyline. The bad people/organisms /things win for the first 95% of the movie then the good people/organisms/things win against all the odds in the last 5%.

The United Nations Climate Change bureaucracy, which tends to be full of economists, engineers and enviro-managers rather than actual climate scientists and ecologists, seems to have been watching too many of these feel-good disaster movies. Seems we need to make them watch the “feel bad” disaster movies instead, like the one where the Sun eats up the Earth, or perhaps a steady diet of the unlimited supply of zombie apocalypse movies. They need something a lot darker, where super-heroes don’t save the day. Then again, maybe they should just grow up and accept that super-heroes only exist in movies. Or maybe they should just listen to the scientists and ecologists a lot more.

The United Nation’s main super-hero is called BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture & Storage). I know, not exactly as catchy as Superman, Thor, Cat Woman, or Wolverine, but what would you expect from a bunch of climate bureaucrats? BECCS is a true super-hero. The Bad Carbon will continue spewing itself into our atmosphere for decades to come, threatening to remove the ecological basis for modern human civilization. BECCS’s friends, Energy Efficiency and Clean Power, will have held back Bad Carbon a bit, but could not stop BC in time! Then at the last minute, just before human civilization melts down, BECCS sucks up BC and deposits it deep in the Earth never to return (well at least for a few thousand years hopefully).

The problem is that BECCS is not real; it’s a bunch of hopes and a religious belief in technology wrapped together. It assumes that we can set aside about a third of the current arable land on the planet to grow energy crops, instead of food. Then we can burn all those energy crops to help power our modern civilization, and can store all of the resulting carbon dioxide (billions of tons of the stuff) underground safely for thousands of years. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide per year, needing an infrastructure equivalent to the current oil & gas industry to transport it and pump it into the ground. What tiny-scale testing of the CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) part of BECCS that has been carried out so far could most politely be described as “deeply disappointing”.  Ignoring this, the U.N. people assume that BECCS will start riding to the rescue on a major scale within 20 years or less.

What if BECCS isn’t up to the task? Other eco-technocrats have an army of super-heroes ready to help. These eco-techies seem to be into super-hero ensemble movies – maybe we should call them “The C-Men”. If EE, CP and BECCS cant beat the deadly BC, there is always – wait for it, drum roll please… DAC!!!! (Direct Air Capture) will save the day! BECCS couldn’t suck up enough of the highly concentrated carbon dioxide at the power plant exhaust, but DAC can get enough of it after it has become highly diffuse in the air! If that doesn’t work there is EW (Enhanced Weathering: dig up truly colossal amounts of a certain type of rock, turn it into powder and spread it over the Earth), OF (Ocean Fertilization: fertilize carbon capturing organisms in the ocean), and SRaM (Solar Radiation Management: block/reflect the Sun’s energy to cool the planet).

Why do we need all these super-heroes? Because without these super-heroes we would have to accept that large-scale government intervention will be required to fundamentally change our societies to use a lot less energy. A lot like a war-style economy. A lot less belief in “free markets”, perhaps no economic growth for a while, a ton of pressure for a more equitable sharing of income and wealth, and a lot less use of fossil fuels. Not a reality that the powers-that-be want to deal with. So we get the mythical super-heroes instead.

Those that consider a Trump presidency to be a disaster do not understand that we are already in the disaster. Trump may speed up the disaster a little and is certainly more “in your face”, but he is just a symptom of a larger problem. In a way, you could say he is being a bit more truthful about his version of reality-denial. The problem is the inability of even the “progressives” among the powerful to accept the reality that the time for small measures is gone, and that drastic action is required now. In the early 1990’s, those actions may have been relatively mild. Now, they are much bigger and the longer we wait, the bigger and riskier they get. Only denial, facilitated by mythical technocratic future super-heroes, can keep us from this truth.

Study evaluates geo-engineering to reduce global warming by increasing aerosol levels

by Christine Lepisto (treehugger)

For those who lower their stress levels with the hope that we will be able to geo-engineer our way out of any impending global warming crises, here is another bit of sobering news.

The suggestion has been made that increasing aerosol levels in the atmosphere cools the earth. It does work: for example, after a volcanic eruption, the aerosol particles in the stratosphere reflect solar radiation back into space. In the troposphere, aerosols promote cloud formation and whiter clouds, which also reflect more solar warmth away from the planet. The unfortunate events following the attacks of 9-11 gave scientists a unique opportunity to improve modeling of the effects of contrails, by comparing the before (normal trans-Atlantic air traffic) and after (reduced flight frequencies) situations.

This has led people to suggest options like increasing the levels of sulfur compounds in jet fuels, so that the air transport industry would cool the globe while circling it. The possibility drives chemtrail conspiracy theories, although there is no evidence that anyone has taken these suggestions seriously so far.

Now a study by Anton Laakso of the Finnish Meteorological Institute proves that even if a proposal so wrought with potential unintended consequences could get approved, it can’t fix our global warming problem. The more aerosols added to the atmosphere, the less effective the cooling.

So yet another extreme alternative bites the dust. We have to go back to plan A: reduce climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Read the full study here: Modelling radiative and climate effects of aerosols: from Anthropogenic emissions to geoengineering

Firing lasers at clouds to change the Earth’s albedo

A recent paper in the “Science Advances” journal describes research that has been conducted into the possibility of firing lasers at clouds to change their albedo, and hence reflect more light away from the Earth.

Here’s an explanation of the science behind it, from an article by Neel V. Patel in Inverse:

…the study shows how the research team built a lab-controlled environment that recreated clouds formed in high-atmosphere conditions (a.k.a. cirrus clouds). Then they zapped those clouds with powerful blasts of lasers.

Here’s where things get really interesting: when the frozen ice particles hanging in those clouds are hit with lasers, an extremely hot plasma forms at the center, crushing into a shockwave that ripples through and breaks the ice particle up. Whatever water vapor is left quickly freezes into smaller ice particles.

Smaller ice particles can populate more of the surface area of clouds in a way that allows them to collectively reflect more sunlight than heavier particles can.

It sounds like a crazy idea and part of that reason is because we don’t have the laser technology to actually shoot powerful lasers up into the sky and blow frozen crystals in the clouds into smaller fragments.

This is probably one of the least sensible climate mitigation suggestions we’ve come across, in case you were wondering!

Sulphur sunshade is a stupid pollution solution

'Problem' pollution is overrun by 'solution' pollution. Cartoon by Greg Foyster

by Greg Foyster (Eureka Street)

It’s a credo of consumer capitalism: never address the cause when you can create an industry treating the symptoms.

This is the logic behind many profitable businesses, from cholesterol-lowering pills that compensate for poor diet and lack of exercise to factories that recycle unnecessary packaging.

Now there’s a new technofix on the table, and it’s called geoengineering. Geoengineering means intervening in the Earth’s climate to counter, or offset, global warming. It’s hacking the planet on a monumental scale.

Some proposals sound like pure science fiction. Building ‘artificial trees’ to suck in carbon dioxide. Fertilising entire oceans with iron, trigging carbon-sequestering algal blooms. Launching a fleet of ships to patrol the ocean, pumping seawater into the air to ‘brighten’ marine clouds.

The most ambitious and widely studied is spraying sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, cooling the planet.

The idea comes from huge volcanic eruptions, which can blast millions of tonnes of sulphur into the stratosphere, creating a kind of chemical sunshade. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, the Earth cooled by about half a degrees Celsius over the next year.

After decades of being taboo, this outlandish scheme, called ‘solar radiation management’, is now being taken seriously. It’s been explored through scientific papers in major journals, reports of the UK’s Royal Society, hearings in the US Congress, and a recent report of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Some environmentalists and climate scientists say it may be a ‘necessary evil’ to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points. Controversially, the most recent IPCC Assessment Report mentioned geoengineering in the prominent final paragraph of its Summary for Policymakers.

 

“Dimming the sun wouldn’t solve the other problems caused by carbon pollution. Dissolved carbon dioxide would still acidify our oceans. The climate would still change.”

 

There are deep pockets behind it too. Techno-philanthropist Bill Gates is a leading financer. Venture capitalists are circling, and some proposals have already been patented.

A firm called Intellectual Ventures owns the intellectual property for the ‘StratoShield‘, an invention to deliver sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere through a 30-km-long hose supported by balloons. A professor at Harvard, David Keith, is pushing for more research and testing.

Neoconservative think tanks have leapt at the technology, arguing it’s a cheaper solution to global warming than cutting emissions and restructuring the economy. Once the post-Paris Agreement buzz wears off and governments realise the hard work ahead of them, they might find this line seductive.

As a thought experiment to highlight the warped logic behind geoengineering, I’m proposing my own climate-hacking invention. It’s called The Problem-Solution Generator, and it has two parts.

The ‘Problem’ is a dirty coal power station that spews carbon dioxide into the lower atmosphere, overheating the planet. Burning coal also releases other forms of air pollution — sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, soot particles and mercury — responsible for millions of deaths worldwide.

The ‘Solution’ is a 30-km-high smoke stack which separates the sulphur dioxide emissions and pumps them into the stratosphere, where they won’t make people sick and should cool the planet. Thus a single machine generates a problem and then solves it — The Problem-Solution Generator!

Of course, we could shut down coal power stations and not create the problem in the first place. But that would address the cause — rising carbon emissions — which isn’t what technofixes like geoengineering are about. So let’s continue the thought experiment, using some of the same arguments as for other sulphur-spraying ideas.

Advocates of solar radiation management say that, unlike other responses to global warming, it doesn’t upset the economic or political status quo. It’s as if the current composition of society is more permanent and fixed than the composition of the entire upper atmosphere.

The Problem-Solution Generator shares this assumption. Fossil fuel companies could continue making money off heating the planet, while also making money off cooling the planet. It’s a win-win!

There are a few concerns. Previous large volcanic eruptions have been associated with lower global rainfall and famine. Climate modelling indicates solar radiation management might dry the Amazon and disrupt the Asian and African monsoons. The sulphur particles could damage the ozone layer.

The biggest fear is switching the off button. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries, but sulphur particles only stick around the stratosphere for a few years, so if we suddenly stop pumping the stuff up there, the temperature could spike abruptly. The faster the rate of warming, the less time plants and animals have to adapt, risking widespread ecosystem collapse.

But in the spirit of Silicon Valley techno-optimism, let’s look at these as opportunities. Lower global rainfall? That’s an opportunity for a spin-off industry in cloud-seeding drones. Disrupted monsoons? They’ll mostly affect poor African and Asian subsistence farmers, so the cost to the global economy will be small. Dangerous to stop once we start? That just shows what a great business model it is!

Dimming the sun wouldn’t solve the other problems caused by increased carbon pollution. Dissolved carbon dioxide would still acidify our oceans. The climate would still change, just differently. We might still see mass extinctions and so forth. But our clever minds will soon solve these problems too. The important thing is that we maintain our faith in human progress.

Sound crazy? This kind of thinking is actually conventional. The underlying assumption of Western industrial society is that nature is a resource for our exclusive use. Geoengineering just takes this domination of the natural world to its logical extreme. In one sense, complete control of the planet is where our civilisation has been heading for centuries.

In Earthmasters, Clive Hamilton writes that geoengineering proposals ‘entail building a vast industrial infrastructure in order to counter the damage done by another vast industrial infrastructure’. If the Problem-Solution Generator seems colossally stupid, it’s only because it makes the stupidity of geoengineering technofixes utterly transparent.

 


Greg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Cartoon by Greg Foyster

 

Sign-on letter: No to 1.5°C with geoengineering!

contaminacionParis, 11 December 2015

Seemingly out of the blue (or rather, out of the black smog of the UNFCCC process), some of the largest historical culprits for climate change, countries including the United States, Canada and the European Union, have decided to back an “ambitious goal” of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. To achieve this, radical emissions cuts would be needed from now, but in the case of these countries, that’s not their real intention.

Instead, behind the smokescreen of a more ambitious goal, there is a set of Trojan Horse technologies being proposed, collectively called “geoengineering”.

The new proponents of the 1.5°C goal include also the largest oil companies. (*) They tell us that they can continue to burn fossil carbon and protect their assets because they are inventing something called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that will eventually capture CO2 emissions and store them “safely” in deep geological formations.

And, further still, they say that they can develop bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), a so-called “negative emissions” technology that will burn carbon that is locked up in the soils and forests, and bury this underground too. These are false “solutions” proposed by the oil industry, that will allow it to keep polluting in the false hope that future technological innovation can bring down emissions at a later date.

These phantom technologies won’t function, but they will bring vast new subsidies to the industry, and allow it to access even more oil through Enhanced Oil Recovery, where CO2 is pumped into aging oil fields to squeeze even more out of them. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was called Enhanced Oil Recovery before, but it has been renamed as a “climate technology”.

The expansion of large scale plantations for bioenergy will be devastating for ecosystems, and displace forest and peasant communities from their territories. This will destroy many of the real alternatives to climate crisis, alternatives that really cool the planet.

In a few years, when efforts to reduce emissions and the technological quick-fixes have failed, with the temperature continuing to rise, industry and government will tell us that the only way out is “solar radiation management”, an even more dangerous geoengineering technology.

The terminology underpinning this cover-up is changing rapidly: from “net zero” to “climate neutrality”, to “net GHG contributions” and now in the latest COP21 draft to “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality”. They are all the same trap designed to open the door to false climate solutions and geoengineering.

 

No to 1.5°C with geoengineering!

No to the lie of “GHG neutrality”!

 

(*) See Shell’s position on 1.5°C and geoengineering at COP21: http://blogs.shell.com/climatechange/category/paris-cop21/

 

International Organizations

ETC Group

Biofuelwatch

Corporate Europe Observatory

Focus on the Global South

Food and Water Watch

GRAIN

Grasroots Global Justice Alliance

Heinrich Böll Foundation

Transnational Institute

Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF)

Women’s earth and climate action network (WECAN)

World Rainforest Movement

 

National organizations
Acción Ecológica, Ecuador

ATTAC, France

Centro Ecológico, Brasil

Ecologistas en Acción, Spain

Fairwatch, Italy

Friends of the Siberian Forests, Russia

Fundación Solon, Bolivia

Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria

NoGeoingegneria, Italy

Plataforma Freskiemos el ambiente, Colombia

Polaris Institute, Canada

The Corner House, UK

 

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