It has recently come to the general public’s attention that even if we reduce our carbon emissions to the points that scientists recommend, we will not be able to save the planet from the devastating effects of global warming. This is not great news for pretty much anyone who lives on earth and would like to continue doing so. This begs the question: what are our other options?
What’s great about humans is we’re kind of hard-wired to find solutions for every situation and believe that we are never in a scenario with no way out. That’s pretty awesome in a lot of cases and means that human will can often triumph in the end (like in every Disney story ever). So naturally, scientists took it upon themselves to find a way to reverse the effects of global warming and save the planet.
Enter geoengineering, ‘the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of affecting adverse global warming,’ according to Wikipedia. Basically, this is science to undo the damage we’ve done to the environment and it sounds really brilliant on the surface. The two major technologies under development are Carbon Dioxide Removal and Solar Radiation Management.
Carbon Dioxide Removal focuses on just that: removing the excess CO2–which causes the greenhouse effect that’s warming the planet–from the atmosphere. That makes perfect sense, right? Suck that stuff right out of the air. Maybe not.
While science has it’s best on it (Oxford has a renowned geoengineering program), Dr. Miriam Diamond from the University of Toronto thinks the process is way too costly for the perceived benefits. Climeworks specializes in removing CO2 from the air with fans and they aim to remove 900 tonnes of carbon a year. That’s pretty cool, but it’s only one millionth of the carbon that needs to be removed to reverse global warming and it costs $600/tonne to do that removal. So that’s a lot of money to spend without the benefits we would hope for.
Solar Radiation Management is similar in that it sounds like a good idea but isn’t exactly practical. This method is about filtering the sun’s rays so fewer of them reach the earth and become trapped underneath layers of carbon to produce the greenhouse warming effect. The most prevalent idea here is to release stratospheric aerosols into the atmosphere. These are small reflective particles that are supposed to reflect sunlight back into space before it reaches the surface of the earth. Again, sounds like a good idea, but as Diamond points out, we have no idea what kind of long-term effects these particles might have on the earth.
So while this active saving-the-world approach to climate change seems all science-fictiony and cool, it probably isn’t the grand solution we’ve been searching for. It looks like the best option is still to reduce carbon emissions and shift to alternative renewable sources of energy. We don’t like that there isn’t a happy-ending answer to our climate problem, but sometimes that’s life. We might not be able to reverse it or stop it, but we know there are ways to slow it down considerably. Just go see An Inconvenient Sequel and do exactly as Al Gore says. He knows what’s up.