What is solar geoengineering?
Solar geoengineering is a proposed idea to cool the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight back into space when reaching the atmosphere. Solar geoengineering is sometimes referred to as ‘solar radiation management’. There are many proposed ideas on how this could be done. However, this text will only explore one idea that is probably the most likely candidate. This technique is called ‘stratospheric aerosol injection’ or SAI for short.
The volcanic eruption in 1991 and the SAI proposal:
In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted. It was/is believed to have been the largest eruption in a largely populated location. It left around 28,000 to 30,000 homeless and around 700 dead. During this event, the volcano injected 20 million sulfur dioxide particles into the 2nd level of the atmosphere (stratosphere). When this occurred, the sulfur dioxide spread and formed a chemical cloud hundreds of miles long. This cloud showed to bounce 2% of sunlight back into space. The following year (1992) scientists found that the earth was one degree cooler than in 1991. Although, this wasn’t because of the sulfur dioxide, the one-degree cooling came from what was found inside the ginormous volcanic dust cloud called ‘aerosols’.
Stratospheric Aerosol Injection:
The idea behind this proposal is very similar to what occurred in the Philippines during 1991. The plan is to fly thousands of planes up to the stratosphere where they will release billions and maybe even trillions of tiny aerosol particles to form a large shield around the entire planet, bouncing a large portion of sunlight back into space. This would be capable of dropping the temperature by one degree or more. There are just a few problems…
A few of the problems that stratospheric aerosol injection could cause include:
• A reduction in blue skies due to the large cloud/shield that covers the earth.
• Massive floods caused by colder conditions and rain.
• Colder conditions and less sunlight mean a drastic reduction in food growth in agriculture potentially leading towards mass famine.
• If the project stopped, the cloud after a year or two would disappear and lead
to a warming of the planet at a far quicker rate than if the project hadn’t begun in the first place.
• When the aerosols reach the stratosphere, they could potentially act as a catalyst in depleting the ozone layer (a thin layer that helps block large amounts of UV).
Some of these problems could easily be avoided but would require immense planning and strategic targeting techniques.
How much would the project cost?
Stratospheric Aerosol Injection could actually be a rather cheap project when compared to the potential cost for dealing with climate change destruction and implementing green technologies like wind and solar farms. Scientists believe that the deployment of stratospheric aerosol injection would cost 2.25 billion (each year) for the entire world for the first 15 years. This is significantly cheaper than dealing with climate change destruction alone which is predicted to cost the United States around 475 to 500 billion by 2100 and the entire world almost 50 trillion dollars in the worst-case scenario over only the next two decades!
Suddenly, 2.25 billion x 15 isn’t looking so bad.
Who supports the proposal?
Currently, there are around fourteen foundations and around a dozen individuals who are supporting the first-ever stratospheric aerosol injection experiment. This experiment is called ‘Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment’ or SCoPEx for short. Some of the foundations include J.Baker Foundation, Teza Technologies LLC, The Crown Nest Foundation, The Open Philanthropy Project and a few individual donors include Howard Fischer, Andrew Stark, John Rapaport, Ross Garon, Michael Smith and even Bill Gates.
The project SCoPEx was supposed to go ahead a few years ago as simply an experiment but was stopped in its tracks by a group of environmentalists in Sweden (where the project was supposed to take place) who sent a letter demanding the experiment be abandoned. They commented that the technology “entails risk of catastrophic consequences”. The SCoPEx project was to fly a balloon into high altitude (around 20 kilometres or 12.4 miles) up to the stratosphere where it would then release around 1.5 kilograms to 2 kilograms of natural chemicals. After releasing the chemicals, the machine connected to the balloon would measure the difference in atmosphere light scattering and chemistry. As of August 2019, the Harvard lead team had raised around $21.7 million AUD ($16.2 million USD). Far higher than any other solar geoengineering project/experiment before.
Temperature increase by 2100 based on current trend:
Many scientists believe that if we remain on our current course, by the end of the century we are likely to see an increase in temperature by around 5 to even 8.6 degrees celsius (41 to 47.48 degrees fahrenheit) from before pre-industrial times. To place that into perspective, the goal is for the entire planet to be carbon neutral by 2050 and remain below 1.5 degrees celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) recently said that we have to start greatly lowering our emissions annually but instead, our emissions in 2021 continue to rise. This has now led to more and more scientists around the world suggesting that even controversial ideas like solar geoengineering need to be greatly considered.
This picture to the right shows the huge impacts of even a two-degree celsius increase in temperature, yet today we are projected to go well beyond that if no serious action is taken.
If the temperature by 2100 was to increase by around 5 to 8.6 degrees celsius (41 to 47.8 degrees farenhiet), the impacts could be detrimental. The last ice age was around 4 degrees celsius (39.2 degrees Fahrenheit).
Saving species with solar geoengineering:
According to NASA, since 1880 the planet has warmed just a little over 1-degree celsius (33.8 degrees fahrenheit) (the majority of the warming coming from recent years) and with stratospheric aerosol injection, we could cool the planet down by almost 2-degrees (35.6 degrees farenheit) meaning we would actually completely reverse the warming and start cooling down. Currently, thousands of animals and plant species have been driven into extinction due to global warming with recent studies suggesting that one-third of all animals and plants will be extinct by 2050 because of even greater warming. With this new solar geoengineering proposal, millions of species could be saved leaving the ecosystem in balance. Saving the ecosystem would be crucial to survival as even a small loss could place even us in dangerous territory.
Should we risk running out of time solving the climate crisis without solar geoengineering or risk this technology today?
Based on current predictions and continuous warnings from climate scientists,
environmentalists, etc it would definitely seem taking a gamble with a solar geoengineering technology like stratospheric aerosol injection may be the best way to go. However, this technique won’t solve all environmental problems we now face on earth. While it may cool down the planet, continuous greenhouse gas emissions will still cause huge problems making lives in certain countries increasingly difficult. The biggest and more obvious problem being air pollution, affecting our health and killing millions of people annually. A problem like this can’t be solved with solar geoengineering and only with a push for clean technology and helping countries reach carbon neutrality. In the end, solving the greenhouse gas emission catastrophe will probably be the best thing for us, it’s just about making sure we can all become carbon neutral before it’s too late. Thankfully we already have many of the solutions, it’s now just a matter of setting strong policies, spending the money and having these green technologies implemented into our daily lives.
While solar geoengineering may be controversial and have its negatives, the science does support ideas like stratospheric aerosol injection and does show how this could be a game-changer in solving the planets warming crisis that’s bound to have extinction level consequences. That being said, I personally believe that in order for us to learn from our mistakes, we must first become carbon neutral and discover proof that a sustainable lifestyle with no negative effects is possible. I think proposals like stratospheric aerosol injections should come in later once carbon neutrality is achieved and act as the cherry on top reducing the temperature by a degree or two more to ensure we are 100% safe from a seriously dangerous warming event. If all goes to hell in a handbasket though and we can’t find a way to reach carbon neutrality…well at least we know there is always a plan B waiting.