It would be funny if it weren’t so serious: While some skeptics are still ignoring the scientific evidence and insisting that global warming is a hoax, engineers and scientists are already looking for the best “plan B” that can help out humanity in the likely event that the world’s governments can’t agree to cut carbon dioxide emissions fast enough to prevent serious global consequences. Just last week Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers released their picks for the most realistic geoengineering tactics, and now the Royal Society, Britain’s top science academy, has weighed in with its suggestions.
A 12-member working group of scientists, engineers, an economist, a social scientist, and a lawyer spent nearly a year examining technologies, such as fertilizing the oceans to suck down atmospheric carbon dioxide or orbiting giant mirrors to deflect sunlight [ScienceInsider]. The subsequent report (pdf) argues that many of the most-hyped geoengineering ideas are simply too risky, including the proposal to fertilize the ocean to create carbon-absorbing algae blooms. “Most of the things that have gone wrong in the past have happened when we’ve tampered with biological systems” [New Scientist], says John Shepherd, who chaired the report committee.
The report separates geoengineering tactics into two basic approaches: those that reflect sunlight back into space to cool down the planet, and those that remove the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide from the air. Of the two strategies, the report concluded that those involving the removal of carbon dioxide were preferable, as they effectively return the climate system closer to its pre-industrial state. But the authors found that many of these options were currently too expensive to implement widely. This included “carbon capture and storage” methods, which require CO2 be captured directly from power plants and stored under the Earth’s surface [BBC News]. Yet carbon capture and storage projects have been touted as an important response to global warming by power plants and governments alike.
Instead of such big, institutional carbon capture projects, the Royal Society report agrees with last week’s assessment from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which suggested that “artificial trees” could line roadways and efficiently suck carbon dioxide out of the air. The new report also suggests that the planting of real, biological trees would help matters–but says both of these techniques would only produce results in the long run, over the course of decades.
But what do we do if we need to cool the planet in a hurry? In the event of an emergency where the Earth suddenly pitched into a different, hotter climate, however, the world may need to reflect back some sunlight, the report said, for example by shooting highly reflective aerosols into the atmosphere [Reuters]. While this would have an immediate impact, researchers note that it would do nothing to address the underlying problem of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. It also wouldn’t help our acidifying oceans, since oceanic carbon dixoide levels would continue to increase. Finally, the aerosols could change weather patterns in unforeseen ways.
There are costs and possible repercussions associated with each geoengineering proposal, Shepherd says, but humanity may not have a choice. “It is an unpalatable truth that unless we can succeed in greatly reducing CO2 emissions, we are headed for a very uncomfortable and challenging climate future. Geo-engineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change” [BBC News], he says.
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