Climate Engineering Conference 2017: a CSO perspective

By Oli Munnion (Biofuelwatch)

The Climate Engineering Conference 2017 aimed to “bring together the research, policy, and civic communities to discuss the highly complex and interlinked ethical, social and technical issues related to climate engineering.” In practice, the conference represented a concerted effort to normalise geoengineering among researchers, scientists and policy-makers, focusing almost solely on the technical and engineering challenges, and neglecting the social and ethical aspects.

Civil society representation felt largely tokenistic, with an unapologetic promotion of various forms of geoengineering research throughout the 4 days of events. The conference highlighted just how urgent it is for civil society to reject geoengineering publicly, and to bring this clique of academics and policy-makers back in line with global thinking on the subject.

Speaking and presenting slots were dominated by men from countries in the global North, to the extent that at least one panel discussion was entirely populated by men from either the US or Europe. The lack of diversity amongst the presenters reflected just how problematic it is that research into geoengineering techniques that will affect everyone, and in the global South disproportionately, is largely taking place in countries responsible for the greatest historical contributions to climate change.

The dominant discourse from academics and researchers was that they didn’t want to geoengineer the climate, but that if other forms of mitigation fail (i.e. drastic emissions reductions), the world needs to know whether geoengineering can step in, and if so, how to use it. In the case of solar radiation management (SRM) research, academics want to “know now if it’s not going to work“, so that we know whether it can be relied upon in the future. And if it can’t be relied on, then we know that we really do have to seriously reduce emissions instead. Read more about why experiments of one type of geoengineering are unwise and unethical here.

There were also two distinct camps of geoengineers – the “solar radiation management” geoengineers, who come across as your stereotypical ‘mad scientists,’ and who really don’t want to live in a geoengineered world but just can’t stop themselves from researching it. And the “carbon dioxide removal” geoengineers, who don’t consider themselves geoengineers and scoff at the irresponsible ideas of the SRM camp. The similarity they share is the belief that “carbon dioxide removal” or “negative emissions,” through technologies such as “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” and “direct air capture,” will be essential mitigation strategies if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. The promotion of these seemingly more benign forms of geoengineering from this section of the scientific community is very dangerous as it gives governments and industry another excuse to delay making essential emissions reductions, even though the technologies don’t exist yet, and are unlikely ever to.

In summary, the conference tried to normalise geoengineering as a response to climate change, both as a mitigation strategy (alongside emissions reductions) and as a “fail safe” in the event of mitigation not working.

Geoengineering is an unjust and inequitable solution to climate change, especially when its research, governance and deployment are in the hands of those most responsible for it. Climate change is not an engineering problem, it is a symptom of the multiple, deep-rooted crises that pervade human societies and the planet. The promotion of geoengineering is therefore very much part of the problem, and not the solution.

Highlights of the conference: 

CEC17 press briefing (video), 10 October 2017, which set the tone for the conference and highlighted key narratives and areas for debate.

 

Speakers were David Keith, Professor of Applied Physics and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, Mark Lawrence, Scientific Director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Lili Fuhr, Head of the Ecology and Sustainable Development Department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Pablo Suarez, Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

CSO-led Sessions: 

Linda Schneider from Heinrich Böll Foundation introduces delegates to the new Interactive Map of Geoengineering Experiments

A change of course: Radical emission reduction pathways to stay under 1.5°C

Climate change is not an engineering problem. There are many viable alternatives to bring our societies on a pathway towards 1.5°C without geoengineering. A technofix mentality and powerful vested interests prevent us from implementing them. This session will explore how we can change course for a climate-just future.

Linda Schneider – Heinrich Böll Foundation , Lili Fuhr – Heinrich Böll Foundation & ETC Group

Barbara Unmüßig – Heinrich Böll Foundation , Karin Nansen – Friends of the Earth International , Silvia Ribeiro – ETC Group , Uwe Leprich – German Federal Environment Agency , Bernd Nilles – Fastenopfer – Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund

Social Movements & Climate Engineering Justice from the Periphery

Debate around the justice of geoengineering has often, implicitly or explicitly, assumed the perspective of high-emitting groups that are disproportionately responsible for geoengineering research. We should re-orient our normative thinking regarding climate engineering research, governance, and deployment to include the agency and perspectives of the global South and subaltern groups. We will convene global representatives from diverse social movements to lead intersectional discussions on what geoengineering means for racial and environmental justice, food sovereignty, youth, gender, health and global justice as well as climate justice.

Patrick Taylor-Smith – National University Singapore , Jim Thomas – ETC Group , Duncan McLaren – Lancaster Environment Centre

David Morrow – American University & Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment , Aniruddh Mohan – Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy , Octavio Rosas-Landa – National University Mexico , Nnimmo Bassey – Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)

 

 

New briefing: Climate change, smoke and mirrors

For the past decade, a small but growing group of governments and scientists, the majority from the most powerful and most climate-polluting countries in the world, has been pushing for political consideration of geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale technological manipulation of the climate.

Geoengineering is inherently high-risk and its negative effects will likely be unequally distributed. Because of this, geoengineering has often been presented as a “Plan B” to confront the climate crisis. But after the Paris Agreement, which set the ambitious goal of keeping the temperature to well below 2°C and possibly even 1.5°C, the discourse has changed. Now, geoengineering is increasingly being advanced as an “essential” means to reach this goal, through a mix of risky technologies that would take carbon out of the atmosphere to create so-called “negative emissions” or take control of the global thermostat to directly lower the climate’s temperature.

A new briefing paper by ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation in advance of the UNFCCC intersessional meetings in Bonn, May 2017, gives an overview of what geoengineering is and why it is dangerous, as well as up-to-date information on proposed geoengineering technologies and governance.

A crucial read for anyone engaged in the fight against climate change.
Read the briefing paper here.

New briefing: Why are Solar Radiation Management Experiments a Bad Idea?

by ETC Group.

A new briefing from ETC Group outlines the ethical, political and environmental arguments against solar radiation management (SRM), and explains why even SRM experiments are a bad idea. The backgrounder was released in late March 2017 after Harvard University announced they are planning open-air SRM experiments  in Arizona in 2018. Read the briefing and related materials at: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/why-srm-experiments-are-bad-idea

ETC Group also issued a news release and supporting materials explaining how the new US administration could “inflate geoengineers’ balloon” and create favourable circumstances for geoengineering experiments now and in the future.

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.

The 2-degree goal and the question of geoengineering

NASA via FlickrDisclaimer: This article is broadly pro-geoengineering, but alarmingly the authors say it would take 160 years of sulphate injections to keep global temperature increases to under 2 degrees!

by Atmos News

How much geoengineering would be necessary to hit temperature target?

Sept. 7, 2016 | With world leaders agreeing to try to limit the increase in global temperatures, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) are taking a look at whether geoengineering the climate could counter enough warming to help meet that goal.

In a new study, the scientists found that if society doesn’t make steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the next couple of decades, injections of planet-cooling sulfates into the atmosphere could theoretically limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. But such geoengineeing would mean a sustained effort stretching over more than a century and a half, and it would fail to prevent certain aspects of climate change.

“One thing that surprised me about this study is how much geoengineering it would take to stay within 2 degrees if we don’t start reducing greenhouse gases soon,” said NCAR scientist Simone Tilmes, the lead author.

For the study, the research team focused on the potential impacts of geoengineering on temperatures, the drying of land surfaces, and Arctic sea ice. They did not examine possible adverse environmental consequences such as potential damage to the ozone layer. The sulfate injections also would not alleviate the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on ocean acidification.

The research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Meeting an ambitious target

Representatives of 195 nations negotiated last fall’s Paris Agreement, which sets an ambitious target of capping global warming at no more than 2 degrees. Scientists have found, however, that such a target will be extremely difficult to achieve. It would require society to begin dramatically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases within a few years. Efforts to develop new technologies that could draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would also be needed to succeed.

A volcano erupts in Alaska in 2006
Volcanic eruptions spew sulfates into the air, which can block incoming sunlight and have a cooling effect on the planet. One type of proposed geoengineering would rely on a similar method: injecting sulfates high in the atmopshere to try to cool the Earth. (Image courtesy of USGS.)

The new study examined a scenario in which emissions continue growing at current rates until about 2040, when warming would reach 2 degrees. The authors found that, even if society then adopted an aggressive approach to reducing emissions and was able to begin drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, warming would reach 3 degrees by the end of the century.

So they explored an additional possibility: injecting sulfate particles, like those emitted during volcanic eruptions, into the stratosphere. This approach to geoengineering, which is untested but has generated discussion for several years, would theoretically counter global warming because the sulfates would block incoming sunlight and shade the planet. This is why large volcanic eruptions can have a planet-cooling effect.

The research team estimated that society would need to keep injecting sulfates for 160 years to stay within the target of 2 degrees. This would require a peak rate of 18 megatons of sulfur dioxide per year, or about 1.5 times the amount emitted by the massive eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1992.

A different climate

Even so, the climate would be noticeably altered under this scenario. Extreme hot days with geoengineering would be about twice as frequent in North America and other regions compared to present-day conditions. (In comparison, they would be about five to six times more frequent without geoengineering.) Summertime Arctic sea ice would retreat significantly with geoengineering, whereas it would disappear altogether if society relied solely on reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after 2040. Precipitation patterns would also change with geoengineering, causing drying in some regions.

“If society doesn’t act quickly on emissions, we may be facing more uncertain methods like geoengineering to keep temperatures from going over the 2-degree target,” Tilmes said. “But even with geoengineering, we’d still be looking at a climate that’s different than today’s.

For the study, Tilmes and her colleagues used a pair of computer models: the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model and the Integrated Science Assessment Model at the University of Illinois. These enabled the authors to simulate climate conditions with different levels of greenhouse gases as well as stratospheric sulfates.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Climate scientists are now relying on a terrifying assumption

Mrs. Gemstone via Flickr by Ryan Cooper (THE WEEK)

How can we solve climate change? One option is obvious, if a bit strange: If dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the problem, then we could always suck it back out.

If you think that sounds tricky, congratulations, you’re correct. However, scientists are increasingly relying on just this idea to construct workable future scenarios where global warming does not spin out of control. And the reason is that governments around the world have not been remotely equal to the task of keeping overall warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the level at which climate change becomes unacceptably risky according to the international Paris climate accords.

 As a result, scientists crunching the numbers on how humanity might achieve this goal are increasingly leaning on outlandish assumptions about pulling billions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The math checks out — but the science is not guaranteed to work, and it would be a lot easier to just implement proper climate policy right now.

Here’s the basic shape of climate change. In order to stay below 2 degrees, humanity can emit a sum total of roughly 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide for all time. Emissions in 2014 were about 32 billion tonnes. We’re headed towards that limit at high speed — so to stay below it (without pulling anything out of the air) humanity must cut its emissions very fast, very soon.

Now, world emissions may have actually declined slightly in 2015 — an encouraging sign, but a temporary one. Renewable energy has been advancing fast, but it’s massive structural change and economic chaos in China alone that is responsible for the decline, not any sort of worldwide systematic attack on use of fossil fuels. What’s more, developing countries — particularly India — are projected to emit a lot more as their economies grow. As I noted two years ago, even if 2014 were to be a permanent emissions peak, staying under 2 degrees would require a crash course of decarbonization never seen in history outside of economic collapse.

So the only escape hatch is to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Benjamin M. Sanderson, Brian O’Neill, and Claudia Tibaldi examined what it would take to achieve the targets contained in the Paris climate accords — and most of their plausible future scenarios involve a years-long period of immense carbon dioxide removal. One plausible scenario for this involves biofuels (which would grow by pulling carbon out of the air, like any plant), and then sequestering the emissions far underground after the fuel is burned.

Staying under 2 degrees can happen if we get to net zero emissions on a fairly moderate course by 2085, for example — but it would require a long-term effort taking some 26 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year.

This sort of thinking is becoming more and more common as climate policy remains woefully insufficient. A pseudonymous scientist notes:

What I think is interesting is that negative emissions and temperature overshoots seem to now [be] becoming part of the narrative. One obvious reason for this is that we’re on the verge of leaving it too late to achieve these targets without them. We could still do so, but it would probably require drastic emissions reductions starting now… [And Then There’s Physics]

If we procrastinate much longer, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stay under that 2 degree limit. Meanwhile, climate change itself marches on. The last year has shattered temperature records across the globe, and seen multiple disasters of the sort predicted by climate models. The most powerful El Niño ever recorded has caused the worst recorded instance of coral bleaching, particularly hammering Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Maldives. Roads are buckling across Alaska as permafrost melts. Record heat in Siberia led to an anthrax outbreak among humans and reindeer.

 The politics of climate change always seem tough. But it should be noted that it will be vastly easier to head the problem off now than it will be to fix it after we’ve let it fester for another couple decades. Carbon dioxide emissions are the product of several gigantic industries today. Creating a brand new industry to reverse the damage of other massive industries will be a terrifically expensive logistical nightmare.

And there’s also no guarantee that it will work on the scale required! Technologies to scrub carbon from the atmosphere are still in the early development stage. Historically, human ingenuity has solved such problems — but there’s no guarantee it will happen, especially if it needs to be done very fast. It’s completely possible we’ll run into unsolvable technical bottlenecks, and be forced to rely on hugely risky Hail Mary geoengineering efforts like partially blotting out the sun with sulfur dioxide.

Don’t think of technology predictions 70 years out as a promise. Acting to prevent climate change as soon as possible is always going to be the smart move.

Will Developing Nations Hack the Climate?

Using ship wakes to fight climate change? Time to anchor climate research to common sense

Jenni Konrad CC BY-NC 2.0An article published in January by the Journal of Geophysical Research and covered briefly in Nature describes how brightening and extending the lives of ship wakes can be used to alter the albedo of the oceans, and cool global temperatures. It adds ship wakes to a growing list of Solar Radiation Management techniques.

The theory is based on extending the lives of the microbubbles generated by ship movements from the minutes that they currently last, to days. These bubbles are created by “surfactants”, and their lifetimes in sea water “are strongly dependent on the amount of natural surfactant (surface-active carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids often derived from phytoplankton) and amphiphilic nanoparticles which help stabilize microbubbles.”

Therefore, the study suggests, to achieve global cooling on the scale and scope required, extra surfactants would need to be added to ship wakes, and additional shipping movements would need to account for the fact that there are far more wakes in the Northern Hemisphere, than the Southern.

The most obvious flaw is that the study doesn’t mention what these surfactants could be, or what their effect on the oceans would be. The “assessment of the amount or type of surfactant required is beyond the scope of this study, as is the assessment of undesirable side effects from the addition of surfactant.” However, this is tempered by the statement that the surfactants would need to be benign, and not harmful ecologically as, otherwise, “surfactants may be microbially and photochemically processed with undesirable impacts on ecosystems”.

Granted, this study was just a modelling exercise, playing with changes to sea surface albedo. On the face of it, perhaps it’s a good idea to look into making seemingly small tweaks to already global phenomena, to counteract global temperature rises. The fundamental problem though is that ideas such as this one are being taken increasingly seriously by policy-makers, and encouraged by corporations wanting to maintain the status quo.

This kind of study could well inform policy decisions, despite the glaring omissions from it. For example, without knowing what the surfactants would be, or what volumes would be required, or indeed what the impacts of substantially increasing shipping in the southern hemisphere would be, studies like this should not be taken seriously. Natural surfactants may be derived from phytoplankton and marine processes, but they can also be highly toxic, and indeed carbon intensive in their production. Likewise, the contribution of shipping to global anthropogenic CO2 emissions is close to becoming the largest single source after cars, housing, agriculture and industry.

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point. The oil dispersant BP used was a mixture of two surfactants. BP of course claimed that the chemicals were safe, and the EPA didn’t even require any safety testing prior to its use. A record 1.8 million gallons were used to disperse the oil, and it potentially killed more sea life than the oil would have destroyed by itself. This is an example of what “technofixes” of this kind could mean in practice, especially if put in the hands of irresponsible companies, or unscrupulous government agencies.