What is geo-engineering and how can it help reverse climate change

Written by
February 22, 2024
6 min read

Geo-engineering was once seen as a spooky far away option to halt climate change but it is now being looked at with growing urgency due to the recent swell in temperature rises and by some as possibly the only solution to reversing Climate Change.. 

What is geo-engineering?

Geo-engineering is defined by the Oxford Engineering Program as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's natural systems to counteract climate change”. 

But it is an extremely controversial subject among scientists within the climate community and activists There is a worry that climate interventions that rely on technology will:

  1. A distraction - divert people's attention away from addressing the real root cause of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and would be seen as a substitute for cutting down these emissions. 
  2. a fear of unintended consequences - that intervening artificially into the environment could have unintended negative impacts due to the fact it is difficult to test the technology accurately and on a large scale and it could disrupt a complex and chaotic global connected eco system even further, the classic butterfly effect.

Afforestation is a type of geo-engineering 

However, there are many scientists who believe geo-engineering is a positive thing and needs to be implemented in order to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and to keep temperature rises well below the 2 degree number agreed on at the Paris Agreement of 2015. Geo-engineering is separated into two groups; 

  1. Greenhouse Gas Removal 
  2. Solar Radiation Management

Greenhouse gas removal

This aims to remove CO2 or other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere directly countering the increased greenhouse effect. Solutions already exists that are capable of removing vast quantities carbon out of the air, on a global scale. Some of the ideas we know already exist such as afforestation, but there are other more experimental concepts such as ocean fertilisation and ambient air capture, all of which aim to remove GHGs from the atmosphere.

Solar radiation management

These techniques attempt to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, therefore lowering the earth's average temperature. Some of these proposed techniques include albedo enhancement, which is increasing the effectiveness of the clouds or land surface so that more of the sun’s heat is reflected, and space reflectors. 

Geo-engineering is a ground for mind blowing ideas but not all of them seem as logical as the ones mentioned above and some scientists have untamed imaginations. Here are 6 geo-engineering proposals and projects ranging from the amazing to the ridiculous. 

6 Geo-engineering proposals from the amazing to the ridiculous 

1. Aerosol injection 
One of the most talked about forms of solar radiation management, it involves spraying aerosols high up into the atmosphere and it could cool the planet in the same way large volcanic eruptions do. An eruption sends clouds of ash up into the atmosphere, the sulfur dioxide released combines with water to form sulfuric acid aerosols which can act as a sort of force field by reflecting light and heat back into space. Scientists have suggested that artificially shooting aerosols into the atmosphere could have a similar cooling effect but there are untested risks to this idea, such as unexpected drought and sharp temperature changes which would be catastrophic for wildlife. 

2. Marine cloud brightening
This theory involves using ships to spray saltwater into the clouds above the sea, once in the air the salt particles would facilitate the condensation of water vapour above the ocean into liquid, as more and more droplets are created in the clouds they would grow in size and appear to be much lighter. The bright clouds would then reflect incoming sunlight, but like all geo-engineering methods the research is minimal and there are worries about the effects of marine cloud brightening on other parts of the climate and it could lead to unfavourable weather in other parts of the world. 

3. Cloud seeding

Chinese communist 100th anniversary celebrations in Beijing

This is a type of modification that aims to change the amount of rainfall from clouds, and was used in Beijing in 2020 during the 100th anniversary of the Chinese communist party. Cloud seeding involves dispersing chemicals such as silver iodide into the clouds which causes water droplets to cluster together, increasing the likelihood of rainfall and therefore clearing the clouds from the skies. In Beijing, they invested billions of pounds into this ‘blue-skying’ technology and a two hour cloud seeding operation was launched, with rockets carrying silver iodine released into the sky the evening before the ceremony. There was the next day, for the ceremony, unusually clear skies and it was suggested that the operation succeeded.

This cloud seeding could not only be used for aesthetic purposes but also to stimulate rainfall in areas suffering from climate disasters such as drought and also cooling the planet's temperatures in general. However, it does require the use of chemicals which could be potentially harmful to the environment and the rainfall produced could be contaminated.

Now for the more absurd ideas…

4. Painting the top of mountains with white paint

Eduardo Gold in 2009 splashed the Andean mountains, where the snow had melted, with white paint arguing that it could help to replicate the albedo effect of ice that cools the planet. Since the mountain's original painting in 2009 there has been no temperature drops or even any more coverage of the project and the $200,000 grant that he was awarded by the world bank has not been spoken of.

5. Killing feral camels from helicopters

In January of 2020 the Australian government proposed that they should kill a number of the 1.2 million wild camels that were roaming the outback. This would cut down their methane footprint which is estimated at 100 pounds of methane a year, per camel. Australia wanted to kill thousands of them from helicopters and citizens would be awarded carbon credits in exchange for dead camels.

6. Making newborns smaller and meat intolerant
Matthew Liao, a professor at New York University, did research into human engineering and proposed that in order to directly lower humanity’s carbon footprint newborns should be engineered to be meat intolerant or just smaller in size, two completely unrelated factors that supposedly would make humans carbon footprints lower. 

Ignoring these last absurd ideas, it is clear that geo-engineering methods need more research and attention in order to ensure that they do not have harmful side effects, but they do have a chance at keeping global warming to a minimum. However, the focus of our climate conscious communities should be to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Written by
February 22, 2024
6 min read