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A Bright Green Argument for Geoengineering
Alex Steffen, 14 Jun 09

Jamais wrote an excellent opinion piece in the WSJ arguing for geoengineering research and experimentation.

While I disagree with his conclusion and find geoengineering a poor strategy for getting us out the the troubles we're in, his piece is really worth reading. He manages to steer clear of offering political cover to denialists (who have been using the idea of geoengineering to deny the need for emissions reductions), yet make a really cogent, clear argument about what he thinks geoengineering itself means and can and cannot do. It is, when all's said and done, a bright green argument for engineering the Earth:

With all of these drawbacks, why would I consider myself an advocate of geoengineering, no matter how reluctant? Because I believe the alternative would be worse.

The global institutions we rely on to deal with a problem like climate change seem unable to look past short-term roadblocks and regional interests. At the same time, climate scientists are shouting louder than ever about the speed and intensity of environmental changes coming from global warming.

In short, although we know what to do to stop global warming, we’re running out of time to do it and show no interest in moving faster. So here’s where geoengineering steps in: It gives us time to act.

That’s if it’s done wisely. It’s imperative that we increase funding for geoengineering research, building the kinds of models and simulations necessary to allow us to weed out the approaches with dangerous, surprising consequences.

Good job, Jamais!

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The world's emissions of the main planet-warming gas carbon dioxide will rise over 50 percent to more than 42 billion tonnes per year from 2005 to 2030 as China leads a rise in burning coal, the U.S. government forecast on Wednesday. China's coal demand will rise 3.2 percent annually from 2005 to 2030, the Energy Information Administration said in its International Energy Outlook 2008. --Reuters, 26 June 2008

In 2006, China added 90 gigawatts of coal fired power capacity—enough to emit over 500 million tons of CO2 per year for 40 years; by comparison, the European Union’s entire Kyoto reduction commitment is 300 million tons of CO2.

Any carbon diet strategy would be dependent upon clean coal:

"The vast majority of new power stations in China and India will be coal-fired; not "may be coal-fired"; will be. So developing carbon capture and storage technology is not optional, it is literally of the essence." --"Breaking the Climate Deadlock," Tony Blair, June 26, 2008

But, Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon d ioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide -- a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. "Beware of the scale," he stressed."

It will take more than a century to make the final massive shift to zero carbon energy, but the world doesn't have a century of time and will need geo-engineering technologies to cool the climate within the next 25 years, says one of the country's leading thinkers Thomas Homer-Dixon." --"Canada has to tackle peak oil and climate change as one big carbon problem," The Hill Times, 1 Jun '09

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 14 Jun 09

In other words ("comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted"), in response to Mr Steffen's comment that "...I disagree with his conclusion and find geoengineering a poor strategy for getting us out the the troubles we're in...":

A severe carbon diet is unfeasible (duh), and there is a cheap and simple way to immediately cool down the Earth (just put a little -more- sun dimming aerosol into the upper atmosphere). Heck, we're already dimming the sun big-time with our short-lived sun dimming pollution (it is cooling us over 1C!).

Let's recap: we can spend trillions of dollars trying to unsuccessfully cut our emissions fast enough (with China and India's rise in emissions erasing our expensive cuts), or we can do a little more of what we're already doing and save our civilization and prevent the next Great Extinction.

Yeah, Mr Steffen, that's a hard one.

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 14 Jun 09

Interesting. I've gone the opposite way in my own thinking: from geoengineering to a narrow study of one technology, air capture. This is because the practical geoengineering schemes deal only with temperature, while issues such as ocean acidification are potentially more urgent. Temperature is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is too much atmospheric CO2. I am increasingly certain that the disease itself can be partially addressed using air capture technologies, and these new industries paid for by a global price on carbon.

Agrichar, carbon farming and reforestation are all examples of (low-tech) air capture techniques. But air capture can also be done via straightforward industrial techniques that can be scaled in traditional ways. What is required is a financial incentive for the building of such plants. (Yes, they'll require energy to run; and yes, they can still be highly carbon-negative after taking this fact into account.)

Incidentally, Vaclav Smil's warning about the scale of carbon capture and sequestration is reasonable, but assumes that we'd be building an infrastructure to move the CO2 around. That would have to be the case for "clean coal" plants (which would be built near cities, generally far from the geological strata where the CO2 would be sequestered), and this is one more reason why "clean coal" is a non-starter. However, industrial-scale air capture stations that are actually built on top of the deep-rock strata where the CO2 is injected may still work, because the gas will only have to be moved a couple of kilometers in each case.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 15 Jun 09

Brad: you say "A severe carbon diet is unfeasible." That's not the conclusion reached by numerous studies, including the most recent work lead by the former chief economist of the World Bank, Lord Nicholas Stern, who finds that holding CO2 to 450 ppm would cost 2% of global GDP a year, and save perhaps twice that in costs by 2050. The EIA and Hill Times are not credible sources to the contrary.

We do have the technology, the money and the capacity to go carbon-neutral. All we lack is the clarity and will.

Karl: I'm also quite interested in biological sequestration methods.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Jun 09

Geo-engineering kind of reminds me of the scorched sky in the matrix - doesnt sound like a great idea. Here is another interesting article about the effects of geo-engineering on our climate:

Posted by: Jim Tressor on 13 Jul 09

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