Will climate engineering ever be ready for prime time?

Space-based technologies, carbon dioxide removal systems mostly not viable any time soon

Carbon Engineering's air capature project
You may or may not be old enough to remember the TV commercial for margarine that had the tag line was "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." But that commercial came to mind as I was reading a report out recently that looked at the viability of large climate engineering projects that would basically alter large parts of the atmosphere to reduce greenhouse gases or basically reverse some of the effects of climate change.

The congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office took a look at the current state of climate engineering science and technology, which generally aim at either carbon dioxide removal or solar radiation management. Whereas carbon dioxide removal would reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), reducing greenhouse warming; and solar radiation management would either deflect sunlight before it reaches Earth or otherwise cool Earth by increasing the reflectivity of its surface or atmosphere.

More on climate technology: Federal climate change action? Not through this maze

The GAO gathered experts' views of the future of U.S. climate engineering research and potential public responses to climate engineering.  Some of their key findings were that:

  • Climate engineering technologies are not now an option for addressing global climate change, given our assessment of their maturity, potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences. Experts told us that gaps in collecting and modeling climate data, identified in government and scientific reports, are likely to limit progress in future climate engineering research.
  • The majority of the experts consulted supported starting significant climate engineering research now. Advocates and opponents of research described concerns about its risks and the possible misuse of its results. Research advocates supported balancing such concerns against the potential for reducing risks from climate change. They further envisioned a future federal research effort that would emphasize risk management, have an international focus, engage the public and national leaders, and anticipate new trends and developments.
  • A survey of the public suggests that the public is open to climate engineering research but is concerned about its possible harm and supports reducing CO2 emissions.

So what exactly are some of the major climate change projects that could emerge somewhere in the future?

In the carbon dioxide removal technologies world, the GAO said most can be characterized as predominantly land-based or predominantly ocean-based.

 "Land-based technologies include direct air capture, bioenergy with CO2 capture and sequestration, biochar and other biomass-related methods, land-use management, and enhanced weathering. Direct air-capture systems attempt to capture CO2 from air directly and then store it in deep subsurface geologic formations. Bioenergy with CO2 capture and sequestration would also store CO2 underground, and biochar and other biomass-related methods would sequester carbon in soil or bury it. Land-use management practices we reviewed would enhance natural sequestration of CO2 in forests. Enhanced weathering would fix atmospheric CO2 in silicate rocks in a chemical reaction and then store it as either carbonate rock or dissolved bicarbonate in the ocean. Ocean-based technologies would fertilize the ocean to promote the growth of phytoplankton to sequester CO2," the GAO stated

The GAO said seven solar radiation management technologies have been reported in sufficient detail for to assess them as candidates for climate engineering. Two would be deployed in the atmosphere-one scattering solar radiation back into space using stratospheric aerosols, the other reflecting solar radiation by brightening marine clouds. Two would be deployed in space-one scattering or reflecting solar radiation from Earth orbit, the other scattering or reflecting solar radiation at a stable position between Earth and the Sun. The three remaining technologies would artificially reflect additional solar radiation from Earth's surfaces-covered deserts, more reflective flora, or more reflective settled areas, according to the GAO.

In the end the GAO stated that since most climate engineering technologies are in early stages of development, none could be used to engineer the climate on a large scale at this time. "Considerable uncertainty surrounds the potential effectiveness of the technologies we reviewed, in part because they are immature. Additionally, for several proposed carbon dioxide  technologies, the amount of CO2 removed may be difficult to verify through modeling or direct measurements."

From the GAO: "Both research advocates and opponents cautioned that climate engineering research carries risks either in conducting certain kinds of research or in using the results (for example, deploying potentially risky technologies that were developed on the basis of the research). Some also noted that other nations are conducting research and warned that, in the future, a single nation might unilaterally deploy a technology with transboundary effects.

The research advocates suggested managing risks from climate engineering by, for example, conducting interdisciplinary risk assessments, developing norms and best practice guidelines for open and safe research, evaluating deployment risks in advance-and, potentially, as we discuss below, conducting joint research with other countries. Some advocates also indicated that rigorous research could help reduce risks from the uninformed use of risky technologies (as, for example, might occur in a perceived emergency) or emphasized the need to weigh potential risks from climate engineering against risks from climate change."

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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