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Climate climate Man-Made

Solar geo-engineering as the ultimate answer to climate change

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by: Sharai Hoekema
solar geo engineering as the ultimate answer to climate change

It sounds like the concept of a super futuristic, sci-fi blockbuster movie starring a handful of the earth’s most brilliant geniuses as well as a few brave, daring astronauts and engineers. Solar geo-engineering is a fancy term for spreading particles in our earth’s stratosphere, that will effectively block the sun from ‘breaking through’.

Although in all of these movies, it usually goes wrong whenever one country tries to take over control of the system. What better weapon could there be, after all, than the mighty sword of playing God and changing the global climate for good? Rather unfounded fears, thankfully, as scientists that are hoping to one day make this dream a reality now claim. 

How does solar geo-engineering work?

The process of solar geo-engineering most closely resembles major volcanic eruptions, that effectively reduces the temperature on earth through the release of small sulphate particles. Perhaps surprisingly so, it actually adds up to be a rather affordable solution for climate change. 

In the most cost-effective way, specially designed aircrafts are used to release the sulphate particles in the atmosphere, at a altitude of about 20 km. Releasing it from regular commercial jets would not be effective enough, as it will lead to the particles falling out of the sky within a very short time. These modified airplanes will be able to carry a huge amount of particles to the 20 km mark, at which the particles can remain afloat for at least a year. For this, it needs four engines instead of two and substantially larger wings. Nothing that science hasn’t invented yet, and therefore fairly simple.

Estimations as made by Harvard University, based on a hypothetical deployment program, show that it could come in at a remarkably low 2 million dollar per year. When compared to the annual budget currently spent on green technologies - an amazing 500 billion dollar - it seems to be a no-brainer. Why, then, has it not been implemented yet?

Facing the opponents of geo-engineering

Well, for starters, the entire topic of geo-engineering is very controversial. First of all, for the argument given before, where hostile countries or persons could attempt to gain control of the system and eventually harness its power for bad intentions. Although experts are stating that this is theoretically impossible to do, as it would require thousands and thousands of high-altitude flights in order to affect the global temperature significantly - something that would not go by unnoticed.

A second argument that opponents frequently bring to the table is the effect that it would have on people’s attitude towards global warming and sustainability. After all, it does sound and feel like a quick, easy fix for global warming. As such, it would drastically weaken any attempts made to actually tackle the root causes for global warming in the first place. Why should we try so hard to cut back on our emissions if we can neutralise them in this way?

Finally, there are some side-effects that it could have on the planet, including lengthy droughts and damage to crops. This effect of the particles on the land have not been properly investigated yet, adding fuel to the fire of those fears.

Geo-engineering: a long-term solution or a last resort?

The effects of geo-engineering are suspected to be quick and quite significant. Projections of its impact are that it will reduce global warming by 0.1 degrees Celsius per year, with a total reduction of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This would be sufficient according to recent reports, that indicated that there will be an increase in temperature of 3 degrees Celsius if emissions will continue to rise - which would be catastrophic - and naming a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius as much more desirable. 

Hence, geo-engineering would be capable of bringing the earth’s climate back down from the brink of disaster to a much more manageable level. The advocates of this technology claim that it is definitely worth investigating, as it has the power to serve as the ‘last resort’ for nations if climate change becomes too bad. Yet they are also quick to emphasise that it should only be used - if ever - in combination with a climate change policy that includes hefty cuts in emissions, adaptation and carbon removal from the atmosphere.

And this is probably what it is. Geo-engineering seems suitable as a final lifeline, yet it is not a solution in itself. It merely combats the symptoms of an underlying illness and does not, nor will it ever be, a cure of its own. Therefore, nations should - while taking it seriously as an option - never see it as a quick way out, allow them to sit back and relax. 

The only way to combat climate change is by permanently changing our behaviour. As for geo-engineering: it will only be a feasible plan of action if it serves an ultimate goal, rather than being the goal in itself.

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