Plan B: Seven ways to engineer solutions to climate change

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BERLIN: Dismissed a decade ago as far-fetched and dangerous, schemes to tame global warming by engineering the climate have migrated from the margins of policy debate towards center stage. “Plan A” remains tackling the problem at its source. But efforts to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions have fallen woefully short and cannot, most scientists agree, avert catastrophic climate change on their own. Here is a “Plan B” menu of geoengineering solutions that can be broken down into two categories: dimming the sun, which remains highly controversial, and capturing carbon dioxide (CO2).

Solar radiation management 

The goal is simple: prevent some of the sun’s rays from hitting the planet’s surface, forcing them instead back up into space.

One idea worthy of a “Star Wars” sequel would assemble giant orbiting mirrors to deflect a bit of Earth-bound radiation. A more feasible scheme would inject tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere.

Nature sometimes does the same: Debris from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines lowered the planet’s average surface temperature for a year or two afterward. Scientists have also devised ways to alter clouds to help beat the heat and block the sun. 

DRAWBACKS: Even if it works as intended, solar radiation management would do nothing to reduce atmospheric CO2, which is making oceans too acidic. There is also the danger of knock-on consequences, including changes in rainfall patterns, and what scientists call “termination shock” – a sudden warming if the system were to fail. 

Ocean fertilization

Microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton gobble up carbon dioxide and drag it to the bottom of the ocean when they die. Colony size is limited by a lack of natural iron, but experiments have shown that sowing the ocean with iron sulphate powder creates large blooms. 

DRAWBACKS: Again, scientists worry about unintended impacts. Die-offs of plankton, for example, use up oxygen, which could create massive “dead zones” in the oceans, something already on the rise.

Enhanced weathering

Natural weathering of rocks – a chemical process – removes about 1 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, about 2 percent of total man-made C02 emissions. What if technology could accelerate that process? Spreading a powdered form of a greenish iron silicate called olivine across certain landscapes – especially over the oceans and in the tropics – does just that, experiments have shown.

DRAWBACKS: Enhanced weathering could probably be rapidly scaled up, but it would be expensive to mine and mill enough olivine to make a difference.

Biochar

Biochar is charcoal made by heating plant waste – rice straw, peanut shells, wood scraps – over long periods in low-oxygen conditions, for example buried in the ground. It can store CO2 for long periods and also enriches soil.

DRAWBACK: The scientific jury is still out on how quickly this method could be scaled up, and on the stability of biochar used as a fertilizer.

BECCS

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage marries a natural process with a high-tech one. 

Step 1: Plant rapeseed, sugarcane, corn or “second generation” biofuel crops such as switchgrass, which pull CO2 from the atmosphere while growing. 

Step 2: While burning the harvested plants for energy, sequester the CO2 produced. 

The net result is “negative emissions,” with less CO2 in the atmosphere than when the process started. Virtually all climate change models projecting a future consistent with the Paris Agreement’s core goal of capping global warming at “well under” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) assume a key role for BECCS.

DRAWBACK: Studies calculate that upward of 40 percent of arable land would need to be given over to biofuel crops, putting the scheme in conflict with food crops.

Direct CO2 capture

Experiments have shown it is possible to suck CO2 directly from the air, converting it into fuel pellets or storing it underground. 

A Canadian company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates launched a pilot facility in Canada in 2015, and another company is set to unveil one in Iceland this week.

DRAWBACK: As of now, the technology is prohibitively expensive.

Massive afforestation

Extensive planting of trees could slow the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, currently at more than 400 parts per million.

DRAWBACK: Even if deforestation could be reversed – millions of hectares of tropical forests continue to disappear every year – the number of trees that would be required would clash with food and biofuel drops.

 

The Global Energy Network Institute (GENI) focuses on the interconnection of electric power networks between communities, nations and continents, with an emphasis on tapping abundant renewable energy resources.  This strategy is the highest priority of the World Game simulation developed by Buckminster Fuller.  Linking renewable energy between all nations mollifies conflicts, grows economies, and increases the quality of life and health for all.

TEL: 619-595-0139    peter@geni.org   http://www.geni.org

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