Jan 292021
Geoengineering – is it Greenwashing?

This is the second installment in my series “Is it Greenwashing?”, where I look at the nuances of climate and environmental crises solutions. In this post, I’m venturing into the fraught territory of geoengineering. I explain what geoengineering is, and address the question: is it greenwashing?

For more on greenwashing, see my resources page: All about Greenwashing.

What is Geoengineering?

Geoengineering, or climate engineering, is the human driven intervention in the Earth’s climate systems.

Geoengineering is complex topic to cover in one post, so I’m giving a disclaimer that I’m only introducing some of the issues surrounding geoengineering. I encourage you to do your own research on any subject I discuss on this blog, particularly with climate change solutions. It’s important to stay informed of current discussions as the technologies, and perceptions of them, are constantly evolving.

The Silver Bullet

Geoengineering, like any proposed climate change solution, is not a silver bullet, or stand-alone fix. Yet, geoengineering has a track record of being labelled as such. One of the main greenwashing tinges of geoengineering is that has been proclaimed as being THE fix to global warming and climate change. It’s not.

This silver bullet perception has come about in the past few decades primarily because it benefits the capitalist system. It’s a way for the wealthy to invest in new technologies and “fix” the warming issue, without having to sacrifice the fossil fuel industry and consumerism (and the associated profits). It’s also short sighted. Geoengineering looks to fix a problem without addressing causation (i.e. continual emissions). Moreover, research into the long term consequences of geoengineering projects is lacking.

The best analogy for solving climate change with geoengineering is the bathtub scenario. If your bathtub is overflowing, is it more effective and beneficial to your home to firstly turn the water off, or do you continue to bail out the tub and mop up while the faucet runs? The caveat here is that after you turn the water off, you then need to mop up… but you need an effective mop.

The Crisis Point

Gabriel Levy’s article on geoengineering helpfully outlines the false premise of arguing that society will get to a critical point where we need to take radical measures beyond mitigation and look to large scale geoengineering. She argues that there is no critical desperation point that everyone will reach simultaneously; it has happened for many communities already. It will also be challenging to collectively agree on a global approach and regulation.

The IPCC has historically been supportive of Geoengineering, and in the 1.5C Report authors argued that SAI (see below) could be used as an emergency remedial measure. But, when is that emergency? How long would we use the technology for? These hypothetical crisis scenarios push the responsibility of taking action into the future, rather than dealing with the crisis now.

What are the types of Geoengineering?

This isn’t an exhaustive list but, briefly, there are:

Solar Radiation Management

SRM blocks or reflects solar radiation back into space, aiming to offset global warming.

Within this category are technologies such as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), which relies on aircraft to regularly inject inorganic particles in to the stratosphere to block radiation. If the injections are faulty or not sustained, it could cause temperatures to rise higher, and more rapidly, having devastating consequences. SAI also relies on fossil fuels for the aircraft, and would likely alter rainfall patterns, and potentially cause issues with the ozone layer and acid rain.

Another example is Cloud Thinning where sand injections remove cirrus clouds, which trap in heat. What is important here are the consequences for these proposed planetary experiments. Who would finance and regulate it? These technologies have huge potential to be weaponized and would be unilateral, likely causing changes in weather systems and food and water security for neighbouring countries.

Volcanic eruption
Volcanic eruptions can inject large amounts of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, which can cause a temporary reduction in solar radiation. It is this natural phenomenon upon which SAI technology is based.
Carbon Dioxide Removal / Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

CCS is an umbrella category for the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it. These can also be referred to as Net Emissions Technologies.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

CCS is championed by the fossil fuel industry and their investors because it is an alternative to reducing emissions by giving up fossil fuels. It has been used for decades at refineries and power stations on a small scale, capturing CO2 from chimneys. On a large scale, i.e. removing CO2 from the atmosphere, this technology is extremely expensive and untested.

The energy, mining, and agricultural industries are embracing carbon removal for their businesses as a way of increasing prosperity. To serve their stakeholders better, not the planet. I don’t mean that CCS is bad, the motives of using CCS just need to be carefully considered.

CO2 Capture Project
Graphic copyright of the CO2 Capture Project
Bioenergy carbon capture (BECCS)

BECCS uses bioenergy to capture carbon by growing biomass (e.g. crops), which capture carbon through photosynthesis, then burning the crops for energy, capturing the resulting emissions for sequestration. It is unproven to work on a large scale and has a massive impact on land use. The land needed grow enough crops for large scale BECCS would threaten social and environmental land use and rights. It would require significantly more biomass than produced by agricultural waste, and would be hugely resource intensive in terms of water, fertiliser etc.

For more on BECCS see this Timeline from Carbon Brief, and the video below.

Subcategories of CO2 removal techniques:

Afforestation, reforestation, ocean farming, ocean iron fertilization, and artificial ocean alkanization.

For more on Afforestation, see: Afforestation – Is it Greenwashing?

Biochar is process by which biomass (crop residues, grass, and so on) is combusted at low temperatures (pyrolysis) to make charcoal, which can be mixed into soils or buried to store carbon.

Climate Change Mitigation:

Geoengineering cannot be a substitute for climate change mitigation, meaning reducing our emissions. Climate change actions and technologies need to work together, not in isolation. We need to collectively focus on technologies that rapidly reduce emissions in an ethical and sustainable way as our first priority. We need to change our consumer behaviours. Then, as part of a global mitigation plan, it would be wise to consider local geoengineering efforts in carbon sequestration, which are regulated responsibly, thoroughly researched for their long-term impacts, and which don’t profit the fossil fuel industry.

Local soft technologies like soil regeneration, reforestation, and biochar that work with local natural environments and community land rights are likely to be beneficial geoengineering. Equally, in regions that have naturally occurring geothermal energy, it makes sense to use CCS.

geothermal powerplant
Geothermal power plants sustainably use CCS
So, is Geoengineering Greenwashing?

In the end, geoengineering on a large scale remains a highly problematic fantasy. Even if global mega projects could be implemented, they are fraught with ethical, political, and environmental repercussions. The consensus in the climate science community generally is, just because we could theoretically do these things, doesn’t mean we should. At a minimum, great consideration needs to be given to short and long term governance and consequences.

When geoengineering is positioned as a solution and get-out-clause for us to continue business as usual, it’s greenwashing. Geoengineering proposed solely for profit is greenwashing. If used in a considered way with climate mitigation, geoengineering has the potential to help regenerate natural environments, and get us on track to reducing emissions.

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