Geoengineering: Biodiversity Ker-plunk

Merrick, 8th January 2009ce

'Geoengineering' is the calm and measured sounding word for altering the planet's natural processes. These days it's most commonly used to refer to the schemes to mitigate climate change.

They come in two main categories; reflecting the sun so there's less warmth for the greenhouse gases to trap, and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon absorption can be done by encouraging more lifeforms that absorb carbon or by inventing machines that filter it out of the air.

Reflecting the sun is done by increasing cloud cover, painting vast areas of the earth white, growing shinier crops, putting mirrors in space and covering deserts in shiny plastic.

I'm really not making that up. Check out Corporate Watch's magnificent and essential Technofixes report for chapter and verse on this stuff.

With absorption, the machines don't exist and aren't likely to within the next few decades. As such, they’re of no use in making the serious carbon cuts we need now. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global emissions need to peak by the middle of the next decade if we’re to stand a good chance of avoiding runaway climate change.

The main lifeform-absorption method involves tipping iron particles into the sea to encourage plankton which absorb CO2 as they grow, then take it with them to the ocean floor when they die.

A big problem is that we can't know how much they'll absorb, nor how much they'll release back once they've died. A bigger problem is that we can't predict the other effects this will have on ocean life. And if we're doing it to such a colossal degree that we're making a real difference to atmospheric CO2 levels, we're doing any ill-effects on a grand scale too.

As Alex Steffen's nail/head-interface analysis says, the very term 'geoengineering' is a misnomer.

"It implies the certainties of engineering. It makes profound alteration of the Earth's climate and biological systems sound as easy as building a bridge or tunnel or skyscraper, when the reality is that we don't know anywhere near enough about the impacts on systems we're talking about changing to be sure of the results of our meddling. The term "geo-experimentation" or "geo-gambling" might be more accurate."

What if we commit to a scheme and find it has some dreadful side effect? For example, geoengineering enthusiasts like to cite Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen who says if we fire sulphates into the stratosphere we'd increase cloud cover.

They tend to ignore the part where he says 'by far the preferred way to resolve the policy makers’ dilemma is to lower the emissions of the greenhouse gases'. They also ignore the fact that we've already done the experiment.

The massive industrial emissions from the mid 20th century pumped out sulphates that caused acid rain and moved rainfall patterns elsewhere. Even at present levels, before any increase for climate mitigation, sulphate emissions cause half a million premature deaths every year. Crutzen himself cites this.

And by the way, can people please stop using 'Nobel laureate' as some unquestionable badge of all-purpose value? It's the scientific equivalent of an Oscar, the top award and yes Apocalypse Now and American Beauty got them but so did Chicago. Whilst Crutzen is unarguably a great scientist, that doesn't mean he's right on the political implications and wider effects of the stuff he knows about.

It now appears that the African famines of the 80s were caused by sulphate emissions. All our righteousness as we bought our Band Aid records, yet we did that to those people. Those who advocate sulphate aerosol geoengineering are advocating that we do it again.

Any geoengineering project could have a similarly disastrous effect, and we'd be unlikely to spot and reverse it. Alex Steffen again:

"In general, the larger the scale of the project, the greater the bureaucratic inertia (in both governments and corporations), the stronger the tendency to corruption and cooked results, and the larger the financial incentives of those involved. Most geo-experimentation schemes would require budgets in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. That sort of money tends to make people less willing to admit it when things go wrong... and with schemes like these, if things went wrong, they could go wrong in massive and unpredictable ways."

Yet if we’ve embarked upon a project that turns out to have devastating side-effects, we’d have to continue it for centuries to come. People not yet born would be committed to wholesale devastation because to stop would remove the reflection of the sun. It would be the equivalent of instantaneously melting the ice caps.

Also, reflecting the sunlight means we keep increasing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Whilst we may fend off the warming, it will still acidify the oceans, killing the coral reefs and making sealife unable to form shells properly, thus taking links and huge lengths out of the food chain.

This is basically a game of biodiversity ker-plunk. You'd have thought that climate change itself was lesson enough in unforeseen effects of geoengineering.

All this stuff was seen as totally left-field bonkersness until recently. I mean, when we all know how to reduce carbon emissions safely and effectively, why choose a plan that is just as unweildy but a lot more risky and may not actually work?

But when deep carbon cuts would mean unpopular regulation of the whole population whilst geoengineering just involves chucking a load of money at a few scientists and no major ill-effects until long after the next election, what politician would pick the former?

As the climate imperative intensifies, geoengineering is creeping towards credibility. Last week The Independent asked 80 climate scientists whether it'd be wise to look into geoengineering to solve the problem of climate change.

The premise is that the Kyoto agreement has failed to cut emissions, therefore cuts aren't possible so we need a technofix. As opposed to it meaning that Kyoto was a flimsy piece of crap and what we need is a binding international treaty that has compulsory carbon cuts, no offsets allowed, and penalties for missing targets.

The report says that geoengineering could be a stopgap "at least until deep cuts are made in CO2 emissions".

Half of the Independent's climate scientists said we need to evaluate it, but "almost everyone who thought that geoengineering should be studied as a possible plan B said that it must not be seen as an alternative to international agreements on cutting carbon emissions".

Firstly, as Corporate Watch's Technofixes report says of geoengineering ideas;

"they will not be used help achieve increased cuts in carbon emissions, as any emissions cuts these schemes might make would be traded away to whichever large polluter wants the credits. This is why venture capitalists are interested. If geoengineering were being pursued only as a last resort option linked with strong emissions cuts then no venture capitalist funder would touch it because there would be no hope for them to gain significant financial returns."

A world that was really ready to use massive geoengineering in tandem with serious carbon cuts is a world that could simply do deep carbon cuts. Geoengineering is a decoy, like biofuels and carbon offsets, it's an distraction that lets the emitters continue.

But even the simple view of it as a stopgap until cuts kick in is obvious nonsense. The urgency of the climate crisis is precisely what makes geoengineering a non-starter. We cannot waste time on undeveloped technologies that may not even work. We can only afford to use what we already have.

Before it could be effective any geoengineering technology would have to be developed, tested to the highest degree of certainty that such a planet-wide solution won’t have ill effect, then scaled up and rolled out.

The time and effort involved is at least as great as making the deep cuts; the risks far greater.