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Geoengineering: a Solution to our Overheated Planet?

Geo-engineering, also named climate engineering, is a study that involves manipulating the Earth’s environmental systems to counteract the impacts of climate change. It does not address the causes of climate change but could be used to complement the strategies to reduce GHG emissions.

Today, many geoengineering strategies are theoretical and thus untested. Little is known about their effectiveness, cost and environmental impacts. However, there are two key approaches:

  • removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere AND
  • solar radiation management

CO2 Removal

A lot of carbon dioxide is absorbed by photosynthetic phytoplankton in the oceans – the carbon sink of our planet. These carbon moves through the food web, and when organisms die, they sink to the lower layers. The carbon is stored in the sediments. This absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its movement into the deep oceans is referred to as the biological pump. The biological pump could be further enhanced by:

  • fertilizing the oceans with nitrates, phosphates and iron to encourage photosynthesis by phytoplankton
  • increasing upwellings; for example, using mechanical pumps to move cold, nutrient-rich waters from the lower layers to the surface, encouraging photosynthesis and enhancing carbon dioxide uptake.

However, the consequences of using either method are unknown, leading to the potential to create unintended consequences and could cause irreversible harm to the environment.

Solar Radiation Management

Methods of solar radiation management (SRM) are currently only theoretical. They focus on increasing the reflection of sunlight back into space and reducing the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the Earth. For example:

  • increase the reflection from the Earth’s surface by
    • painting rooftops with white reflective paint to increase the albedo 
      • If we do that for all tropical areas, the cooling effect could be equivalent to getting 300 million cars off the road every year for 20 years
    • growing plants with high reflectivity, for example genetically-engineered crops or grasses with high albedo
    • covering areas with reflective material, for instance covering desserts with reflective plastic sheets
  • use aerosols to increase the albedo effect; however, the effects of this are unknown, including the potential impacts on stratospheric ozone
  • enhance the reflectivity of clouds by increasing particles that attract water molecules in the cloud
  • use solar deflectors in space to reduce sunlight reaching the Earth.



Space Engineering with Reflective Mirrors to Reflect Heat from the Sun

How Realistic is Geo-engineering in Saving our Planet?

The efficacy of geoengineering as a potentially life-saving solution has long been a subject of debate, given the risk of its misuse and the potential for political objections. The continued denial of climate change by some governments makes it difficult to entrust them with managing such a massive project with global implications. Additionally, the impact of attempting to cool a particular region on other areas, along with the question of who should make such decisions, creates further complications. Moreover, the varying perspectives of different nations towards these proposed solutions and the significant cost involved in their implementation could pose a challenge, particularly for low-income countries still struggling with poverty and hunger.

However, the scariest thing out of all this is that we do not have any backup plan at all while the effects of climate change continue to threaten human existence. The consequences of climate change are far-reaching and include rising sea levels, more frequent and severe natural disasters, food and water scarcity, and the spread of diseases. These effects will only continue to worsen if we do not take immediate action. While reducing our carbon emissions is crucial, it may not be enough to prevent the worst-case scenario. 

Geo-engineering seems like a possible life-saving solution at a very late moment. The edge-cutting technologies may actually be able to bring some changes to the irreversible damages we made. Despite the risks associated with geo-engineering, the need for a backup plan to deal with the effects of climate change is becoming more urgent. If we continue to ignore the problem, we may reach a point where geo-engineering is our only option. Therefore, it is essential to research and develop safe and effective geo-engineering strategies that can be implemented in a responsible and ethical manner – or even better – to reach carbon zero before the need of geo-engineering. 

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