By: Jomiro Eming (@jomiroeming)
Geo-engineering, refers to any process involving the deliberate intervention of humans into the planet’s natural systems in order to counter-act the effects of climate change. The large-scale operations of this nature can include anything from as simple as afforestation (planting trees to reduce carbon dioxide levels) to something as complex as stratospheric aerosols (reflective particles pumped into the upper atmosphere to reflect some of the radiation from the sun back into space). However, despite being banned by over 190 UN-member states back in 2010, it has recently returned to discussions regarding efforts to slow down global warming.
The treaty established in 2010 arose out of the fear that countries would operate on self-serving guidelines when it comes to geo-engineering. This continues to be a major concern as to why such scientific interventions might only favour those with the necessary capital, and leave the poorer states to suffer the losses – something which resonates with most of our history.
Despite strictly prohibiting geo-engineering, it did allow for research into such endeavours, but required both justification and assessment into the effects – the positive and the negative – on the general environmental and the immediate surrounds.
Now, however, with circumstances growing more and more severe, governments have again, turned to geo-engineering for solutions to reversing climate change. As of the last three years, China is operating the largest geo-engineering research programme in the world. The global Ministry of Science and Technology is funding the $3-million project, which is investigating the effects of various geo-engineering processes.
These processes can be divided into two main kinds, namely Solar Radiation Management (SRM), and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), and include: albedo enhancement (making clouds and land surfaces more reflective so as to return some of the solar radiation that enters the atmosphere), space reflectors (satellite-like plates that block some of the sun’s rays), stratospheric aerosols, afforestation, biochar (burning biomass and burying it to lock carbon away in the soil), bio-energy with carbon capture and sequestration (growing biomass for energy creation, and capturing and isolating the resulting CO2), ambient air capture (machines that remove and store CO2 directly from the air), ocean fertilisation (adding nutrients to the ocean to increase how much CO2 they draw out of the atmosphere), and enhanced weathering (releasing particles and minerals into the atmosphere that react with carbon dioxide in the air).
Ethically, critics have called such measures geo-engineering “playing ‘God’”. Furthermore, many believe that geo-engineering avoids the crux of what’s wrong, namely our current processes and systems and how they interact with the environment. The greater goal of geo-engineering might well be to cool the planet generally, but what is stopping it from becoming yet another capitalist mechanism driven by profit and self-serving benefits?
Even if legislation could prevent such things from happening, reversing climate change comes with its adaptive risks as well. Since no large-scale global geo-engineering projects have ever been pursued (some non-UN-members states have carried-out small-scale programmes in the past, but none commercially), the effects of changing the climate back have not yet been explored to any great insight. Will weather patterns change even more drastically? Will rainfall completely shift from tropical areas to the dessert if geo-engineered particles unintentionally migrate out of control-areas?
With China having the most resources and funding in geo-engineering to date, it is very likely that – should any of the above processes be carried-out – China will be the first. Right now, it seems to just be a matter of “when.”