While governments tinker at the margins of miserably inadequate ETS schemes, a survey of 80 international climate scientists by The Independent  reveals 54% consider recent climate developments so dire that attempts at geo-engineered mitigation, or “Plan B”, are unavoidable.

About 35% of respondents disagreed with the need for a “Plan B”, arguing that it would distract from the main objective of cutting CO2 emissions, with the remaining 11 per cent saying that they did not know whether a geo-engineering strategy is needed or not.

Attempts at geo-engineering, aimed at artificially reducing solar radiation, as originally suggested by Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize atmospheric physicist, include artificially increased albedo (reflection) of the stratosphere, probably over the Arctic circle where ice melt and albedo loss are fastest. This could be achieved by injection sulphur dioxide aerosols, possibly shot from guns or mixed in jet fuel of planes over-flying polar regions.

The effects would be similar to volcanic events, such as the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption, or the 1816 Mount Tambora eruption, which resulted in freezing winters and snow storms in Europe and North America (dubbed “the year without a summer”). Both eruptions resulted in cooling of the Earth surface by about 0.5 degrees C for a couple of years.

Injection of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere are converted to sulfuric acid aerosol dust veil that encircles the Earth. Estimates of the mass of SO4 for the Tambora eruption vary between 60 and 100 terragram (0.6 to 1.0 million ton), not an easy task for a geo-engineering effort.

Other means of increasing the Earth albedo include dissemination of aluminum particles in or above the stratosphere, or installation of large solar reflectors in space. A “sunshade” 1800 km in diameter was proposed by Roger Angel to NASA, consisting of 16 trillion discs, contained in capsules fired by electric or magnetic guns (railgun, coilgun) to positions 1.5 million km from the Earth and capable of blocking 2% of sunlight, i.e. regulating several Watt/m2 of solar energy.

Other proposed methods include ocean fertilization with iron filings, enhancing algal and phytoplankton growth and photosynthetic CO2 capture, cloud seeding by atomized sea water (John Latham, US National Centre for Atmospheric Research; Stephen Salter, Edinburgh University; Mike Smith at Leeds), sodium pipe systems (“trees”) sequestering CO2 to sodium carbonate, and other methods, and vertical ocean-wide pipe systems to help pump cold CO2-absorbing water to the surface.

All these methods risk yet unforeseeable complications and side effects, including “collateral damage”.

That an interest grows in atmospheric geo-engineering, including US conferences, underpins the bankruptcy of international attempts at emission cuts. This includes partly watered down IPCC reports and woefully limited emission reduction targets of Kyoto — not to mention failures in Bali and Poznan, Garnaut’ conservative emission cut recommendations, and the 5/15 whitewash paper.

The astronomical costs of proposed geo-engineering methods make mockery of the economy-based arguments raised by business and governments against deep reduction in carbon emissions (while trillions are used for military purposes and the rescue of bankrupt financial institutions). The time for “business as usual” is nearly over.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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