Saturday, November 5, 2011

Geo-engineering as a solution to climate change: Milestone or Mirage?

By Kimbowa Richard

Geo-engineering schemes are projects designed to tackle the effects of climate change directly, usually by removing CO2 from the air or limiting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet's surface.

In this blog, I explore some arguments that have been put forward by both the advocates and critics of geo-engineering schemes.

What does geo-engineering involve?

According to The Guardian Newspaper, the projects designed to remove CO2 from the air – include machines (sometimes called "artificial trees") that pull the gas from the atmosphere using plastic polymers. Other proposals seek to increase the amount of CO2 absorbed by the oceans.

Geo-engineering also involves schemes to harness the capacity of trees and plants to absorb CO2 from the air. These include burning large quantities of wood in power plants with carbon-capture technology; making and burying large amounts of charcoal to lock carbon into the soils; and grazing cattle in a way designed to turn grasslands into giant carbon sinks.

Other geo-engineering schemes are designed to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching Earth. This involves firing sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back to space; using unmanned ships to increase above-ocean cloud cover by spraying sea water into the air; and floating thousands of tiny mirrors in space between Earth and the sun.

What are the pros of geo-engineering?

According to the Hudson Institute – a US based Think Tank, proposed dramatic cuts in American carbon emissions alone would not solve the problems of climate change. American emissions would just be replaced by emissions from others like India and China
In this case, successful geo-engineering would permit Earth's population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still achieve the same retarding effect on global warming at a lower cost. Hence it is seen along with nuclear power, as the only practical planetary way to avoid catastrophic climate change.

What do critics of geo-engineering have to say?

Geo-engineering evokes ideological, political and financial passions. It is seen as an irresponsible move into the unknown by the rich world that will inevitably have unintended consequences, most probably for the poorest.

According to Civil Society groups opposed to Geo-engineering, climate manipulation has been on the radar of powerful Northern governments for decades. Originally conceived as a military strategy, climate manipulation has been rebranded as geo-engineering: a weapon in the war on climate change

The groups add that, in altering the climate using high-risk technologies such as blasting particles into the stratosphere to mimic volcanic eruptions (to block sunlight) and “fertilizing” oceans to grow plankton blooms for carbon sequestration could modify monsoon and wind patterns and put at risk the food and water sources for 2 billion people."

According to Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group, “ the climate is a complex system; manipulating climate in one place could have grave environmental, social and economic impacts on countries and peoples that had no say on the issue.

Meenakshi Raman from another civil society organisation - Third World Network - Malaysia, argues that it is misguided for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assume that geo-engineering has any place at all in what they call the ‘portfolio of response options’ to climate change.”

All in all, geo-engineering might be a milestone for the developed world - seeking to achieve desirable CO2 emission targets as soon as possible without destabilizing their ‘lifestyles and way of life’. But it is a mirage for the developing countries, where vulnerable communities are uncertain whether this manipulation will not generate unintentional adverse effects that will further marginalize them.

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