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LQD: Geoengineering Ranked

by nanne Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 02:14:19 AM EST

Geoengineering describes a project of rapid, large-scale intervention at some points to alter the earth's surface temperature. It's been discussed in-depth in these two diaries on the European Tribune:

Cooling the Earth: CO2, SO2, and The Sunscreen Fix by technopolitical (Oct. 2006)
Geoengineering: basic principles, some thoughts, some questions by asiegel (Mar. 2008)

There may be large differences in how we think about geoengineering. In my opinion, it should be seen as both an extreme and transitional measure. But at least we seemed to agree that there is a need to research it and to set priorities. What I proposed was the following:

Planting trees and mechanical air capture of carbon are better than injecting SO2 into the stratosphere, which again is better than seeding the oceans with iron dust. In my opinion...

There are more interesting options beyond those, which you can find in asiegel's diary.

Now we have a bit more to go by, as some of the more common ideas about geoengineering have been studied and ranked in a Nature Geoscience paper by New Zealander Philip Boyd.

Promoted by afew

Unfortunately I don't have access, so I'll have to go by the online commentary.

The Great Beyond: Geo-engineering round up

In a new paper in Nature Geoscience, Philip Boyd of the University of Otago in New Zealand calls for geo-engineering schemes to be ranked according to their efficacy, cost, risk and impact on climate.

Via Jamais Cascio. The Great Beyond blog on Nature excerpts the following table:

The instruction that accompanies this is that a fuller bar indicates better performance (less side effects, better affordability).

Ideally, this will kick off more and broader scientific scrutiny of various proposals for geoengineering, as a new scientist piece seems to indicate.

Ranking methods to save the world - environment - 26 October 2008 - New Scientist

"The ideas for how to change our climate keep getting pumped out. They get lots of column inches," says Boyd. "My concern is that we will reach a tipping point, people will ask what are we doing about it, and none of the schemes will have been tested."

Boyd proposes that an international body such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prioritise the schemes according to possible risks involved, how quickly they could be got of the ground, their cost, and how efficiently they would change the climate.

Climate scientist Martin Manning of the University of Victoria in Wellington agrees that a systematic ranking is needed, in part because there is little communication between research communities working on different approaches.

More in this Q&A with the author.

Call me a Luddite, but I think it bordering close to madness to try to tinker with the climate on a global scale to reverse or halt a changing climate. I think reason dictates that all the proposed geoengineering solutions will have unintended consequences, many of which may be worse than or worsen climate change.

Tinkering with the climate — in the form of pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution — is the likely the cause the climate is changing in the first place.

On Tuesday, The Guardian had a story where UK climate minister Joan Ruddock suggested that Geoengineering is 'no substitute' for climate targets.

"The concern is that people who don't want to enter into agreements that mean they have to reduce their emissions might see this as a means of doing nothing, of being able to say, 'science will provide, there will be a way out'," she said, "it could be used politically in that way which would be extremely unfortunate."

While her concern is that geoengineering will divert funds from carbon capture, I think hoping for a silver bullet to solve the climate change problem is a form of denial. From the same article:

The science minister Lord Drayson added that many of the proposals - such as launching huge mirrors into space, adding particles into the atmosphere to deflect light or seeding algal blooms in the ocean using iron fertiliser - were extremely costly and had risks that were poorly understood. "Some of the projects that are being postulated under geoengineering do strike one as being in the realm of science fiction," he said.

Personally, I think we as a humans on our only planet must change. We cannot keep consuming and spreading and spoiling our home and not expect it eventually to be fouled. Science cannot solve what must be solved societally.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe the Luddites were right after all, but just for the wrong reasons?

by Magnifico on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 04:46:24 AM EST
I think we as a humans on our only planet must change.

I don't think anyone who has seriously considered the issue will argue with that, or assert that geoengineering is a solution to climate change, or even particularly desirable all else being equal. Probably even the proponents of geoengineering schemes don't like their ideas.

However, any change process (or at least any that does not involve a sudden collapse) would take years to decades to implement, and the reversal of the climate changes already committed would take decades to centuries - probably longer.

There is no point in geoengineering unless humanity embarks on a sustainable path. But if this should occur, the question to my mind becomes: If it is within our power to limit the extent of climate change by geoengineering - or even if there is a certain likelihood of our being able to do so - don't we have a moral obligation to at least seriously study the options?

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 07:16:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I look at this in the simple way: if, as it appears, some societies in the world are using resources unsustainably - i.e. at a rate that would require more than one planet to provide those resources, then future economic growth is finite.

Even without climate change - however caused - our unsustainable use of the planet's resources cannot continue indefinitely. Exponential population growth simply accelerates our trip to oblivion. Thus sustainable growth should be the focus.

What sustainable growth should look like is going to require some hard thinking, science innovation, cultural and behavioural change and an examination of what happiness is ;-)

Paradoxically, the one resource that we have that is sustainable (if fed and watered) is brain power. Everything else is just tools and materials.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 09:19:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You remind me that I still have a lot to write about...

Which is part of the paradox of brain power here. It's a 10% inspiration, 90% typing the skin off your fingers deal.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 01:00:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not just that.
Yes, we need to get to a sustainable path and it looks very, very difficult (I fear it may need a collapse in the population). But there are reasons to believe that we are ALREADY beyond the tipping point in greenhouse gas density that would make it impossible to avoid catastrophical changes even if we were to become neutral today.

There are even more reasons to fear that, even in the unlikely event of a general agreement followed by action to reach a sustainable path this century, and even this side of the century, we would have long passed the tipping point by the time we'd reach it.

So, there is quite a strong likelihood that we will need some sort of geo-engineering. In fact, I am on record as stating that we WILL use some. It doesn't exactly thrill me, but neither does the disappearance of the beautiful wilderness that was witnessed by people still alive today and that I will never see.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 11:01:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed. I don't know if we've already reached a tipping point, and I don't know if we will. But if we get to the point where we reach either a kind of warming that goes towards the 5 degrees celsius range, or rapidly accelerates within a short time span, we'll have no other option than to intervene.

This comes with a large amount of risk, and it doesn't solve the underlying problem. But geoengineering may become inevitable all the same. So it's always better to have a plan.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 01:35:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I doubt that too many people have seriously considered the consequences of the earth entering a new super interglacial period.  Only some of the effects can be modeled very well.  The carrying capacity of the earth is likely to be greatly reduced, including the amount of human life it will support.  

For starters, sea levels will rise by more than 70 meters.  It could lead to a world substantially without naturally occurring ice.  I think that a map of the world's land areas after a 70 meter rise in sea levels would be instructive. The conventional wisdom is that such a rise would take centuries.  But with non-linear processes it could be significantly quicker.  Even on a time scale of two centuries, that could be faster than much of the worlds existing fauna and flora could adapt.

While there would be extensive new littoral zones which are usually rich in marine life, much of that new area will be significantly polluted.  There is likely to be much less arable land.  The change would be of the kind that could best be illustrated by science fiction scenarios.  Literally, most of life as we know it is likely to disappear.  It is well worth serious efforts to slow and then reverse these trends.  To me it would be worth it on aesthetic grounds alone.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 04:31:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTY, carbon capture and sequestration, CCS, is itself a form of geoengineering.  All human activity is.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 04:37:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
CCS at the source is not a feasible idea, I think. Something for another diary, soon. It's alright to question whether we can have a meaningful definition of geoengineering. At least it needs to be deliberate and large scale with an intended effect to roll back surface warming. CCS is preventative, it does not revert already committed climate change, so it does not conform.

To some degree, we are already engaged in biochemical carbon capture: the generation of algal blooms through large scale injections of phosphates and other stuff in the seas and oceans. This is not a deliberate measure to roll back global warming, though. Anyway, the results are not pretty.

CSMonitor: Ocean 'dead zones' growing

Dead zones - areas of oxygen-depleted bottom waters - are spreading at an alarming rate in coastal waters, killing off huge amounts of marine life, a new study has found.

In a paper published today in Science, Robert Diaz, a biological oceanographer at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Rutger Rosenberg, a marine ecologist at Sweden's Göteborg University, identified more than 400 dead zones worldwide, affecting an area of more than 95,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Oregon. The number and size of these dead zones are far greater than previously estimated.

While some dead zones occur naturally, many are caused or exacerbated by chemical fertilizer runoff, fossil fuels, and rain. The fertilizer, which is rich in nitrogen compounds, is washed away from farmlands into rivers and ends up in the ocean. Burning fossil fuels produces airborne nitrogen oxides, which the rain washes into the ocean.

The nitrogen compounds feed massive algae blooms. When the algae dies, it sinks to the ocean floor where it is consumed by microbes, which also consume oxygen in the process. As the oxygen is depleted, creating a condition called hypoxia, marine life that can flee does, and life that cannot - some fish but also clams, crustaceans, and other bottom dwellers - die of asphyxiation. At that point, microbes that live in oxygen-free environments begin to thrive and produce hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas. Most dead zones are seasonal, as the algae thrives in warm water.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 05:32:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I should have put quotes around "geoengineering."

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:12:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Life as we know it survived the last 70m ocean level rise pretty well... Mass extinction is being caused by humans, but I don't think climate change, even rather quick, would be that catastrophic for a fauna that after all has been trained on quickly changing temperature for the last couple million years...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misŤres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 04:46:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The difference with previous shifts, even if they were as rapid as the one we're now speculating about, is that humans have fragmented the habitats of (at least the higher) species to an extreme degree. Migration is going to be a lot more difficult. On top of that we get the extinctions already caused by direct human influence and invasive species spread by humans. So we have a very dangerous situation.

I'm not an ecologist, but my guess would be that most of the top of the food pyramid comes tumbling off if we continue as we do, and a lot of ecosystems will go into disequilibrium, causing further extinctions. It's a very dangerous situation for the human species to be in. We're not technologically ready to survive as more than a rump if the ecosystem services we rely on fall down. The amount of social upheaval that will accompany this transition makes planning it impossible. I'm pessimistic about human survival in the face of catastrophic climate change.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 05:11:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I certainly believe the change could be catastrophic for humans, but this would mitigate the ecological catastrophe for those higher order species... And barring nuclear winter type scenarios, I don't see how the human species would actually die out, despite seeing its numbers vastly reduced.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misŤres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 05:17:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have seen articles within the last year which express concern that a shift into a super-interglacial, which was accompanied by a 6-8C increase in the average ambient, even over a period of several centuries, could exceed the rate at which local flora could successfully adapt.  There would, of course, be survivors, but these would not be appropriate to much of the local fauna, down to and beyond insectivora.  Unfortunately I do not have links or even hard copy, at least at hand.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:25:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You seem to have a very casual approach there. Life would take the mother of all blows from a rapid melting. The continents' shores are polluted enough that it would wipe off most of the shallow water marine life. Species are NOT trained to such a rapid change.
A lot of species died in the climate change periods of the holocen, and they were not nearly as rapid as what is projected. But also, species had a much larger and undamaged habitat then. And the shores were clean. Finally, there was no dominant species to kill all animals bigger than a grasshoper because it was starving from the huge reduction of its agricultural land.

It would be an unfathomable catastrophe.

Now, I don't expect +70m anytime soon, and by that I mean within the next million years. It would be too catastrophic not to take the most drastic of actions.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 05:19:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In this scenario, clouds of lotuses would likely become food for the, (noticeably less numerous,) masses.  Just because it sounds like doom porn and would make great backgrounds for post-apocalyptic barbarian epic movies doesn't mean it is, (or is not,) not a serious possibility.

Mig provided a link that showed the global effects of sea level increases up to 7 meters.  I believe that such a link that showed the effects of a 70 meter rise might be useful to show people what their great, great grandchildren, if any, could be inheriting.  Just because we will all be dead does not mean that we can abandon concern for posterity.  Perhaps one of the benefits of increased life span could be a heightened concern for future generations, more of whom some of us might see.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:48:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Planting trees and mechanical air capture of carbon are better than injecting SO2 into the stratosphere, which again is better than seeding the oceans with iron dust.

If "better" means "with a better outcome, allowing for side-effects", I agree. On the cost side, however, I'm not sure that the energy required to do direct, mechanical air capture has been fully taken into account.

Fundamental thermodynamic principles say that to collect CO2 and store it under high pressure, a system must do the mechanical work needed to compress the gas starting from its low, atmospheric partial pressure. (Doing better than this would be equivalent to building a perpetual motion machine of the second kind.) To capture and compress all the anthropogenic excess CO2 would require about 1021 Joules. That is roughly the amount of energy that all the world's electric power plants produce in a decade.

This would be clean and easy, if we were good at making things like solar-electric power systems, but that's on the other side of a major technological revolution. (By "good at making things", I mean "as easily as producing the same weight of hay.")

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Thu Nov 20th, 2008 at 10:30:39 PM EST
Looking at the table, cloud whitening seems to be an attractive option. We do need more testing of that idea.

Perhaps we could couple it to mechanical air capture, increasing the carbon content of soils, and reforestation, depending upon how quickly we need to hit the break. Boyd says the following in the Q&A on ieee spectrum:

IEEE Spectrum: Q&A With: Ecologist and Geoengineering Expert Philip Boyd

Spectrum: Which schemes are the most promising and why?

PB: The one I favor the most is atmospheric carbon capture. That is the direct capture of carbon dioxide using some sort of scrubbing system. There have been proposals from U.S. researchers where they've described a medium-sized water-tower structure with a turbine system. As the wind blows through, there is a scrubbing device, which has a chemical absorbent that absorbs the carbon dioxide. Then the carbon dioxide can be converted into a solid and stored so that it can't impact climate. And with these towers, it is possible that they could be incorporated with wind turbines, so you're actually generating power to help drive the process.

The reason that one gets a vote is, although it's one of the more expensive ideas, it is much lower risk. In terms of an emergency stop, it can be shut down quickly, and you can verify how much carbon is being removed.

So the capture would in part be chemical rather than mechanical. You could even make this into yet another stranded wind story.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 03:42:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For carbon capture to really work, I think they would have to get dedicated cells. Some sort of photosynthesis on high.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi
by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 05:21:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Storage under high pressure is not the only researched investigation - several carbon capture schemes are investigating if captured CO2 pumped underground can be associated with, for instance, gypsum and form a stable mineral at depth. This takes away the rupturing risk associated with underground pressurized CO2 reservoirs.

Unfortunately, the first tentative results I know of have been mixed and the energy needed to pump CO2 underground remains.

by Nomad on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 07:37:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is that even feasible in terms of scale? How many gigatons/y could such a system reasonably be scaled up to?

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman
by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 09:25:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This research is an approach of carbonisation that's truly in its infancy and there's the real possibility it will have to be abandoned.

The geological packages under consideration are salt and rocks, mostly. It all depends on reaction rates - and finding those out is part of the research. There's very little known on the kinetics of mineral formation at non-atmospheric pressures and temperatures.

Will know more in January; apparently there's a publication in the pipeline.

by Nomad on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 12:25:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My university has a rolling six-months delay on access to  Nature Geosciences but let me know if you'd like a copy later on.
by Nomad on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 07:39:23 AM EST
A kind ET member has already sent me a copy. I'll forward you the paper (not the email, naturally) and if anyone else wants to read it, please send me a request per email, the address below is real.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 07:52:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Seems to me this is akin to debating whether we should try for warp technology or hyperspace drive first.  Seeing as how in the near future we're going to be hard pressed to do regular old plain vanilla engineering, due to the lack of resources and capital.
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 09:52:43 AM EST
It's not as space age as it sounds. Crutzen's idea is basically to transport a few million tons of sulfur dioxide annually to the stratosphere by balloons. He says the costs would be around 25-50 billion a year. Note that this figure does not include any damages.

But it's nothing that a few rich countries could not do. The US is spending more on its wars of choice, alone.

Whitening clouds might be cheaper, still. Here's a fun piece of a Scientific American article on geoengineering:

Geoengineering: How to Cool Earth--At a Price: Scientific American

In Salter's concept, turbines spun by water moving past the ship would generate the electricity to keep the cylinders spinning and also to spray seawater out the stacks in 0.8-micron droplets. Salter and Latham estimate that 1,500 ships, each spraying eight gallons a second--and each costing $2 million, for a total of $3 billion--could offset the global warming caused by a doubling of CO2. Half the job could be done, according to modeling results from the Met Office Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter, England, by deploying ships over just 4 percent of the ocean.

Still, no one has modeled how evenly the cooling would spread around the planet. "You could end up with a polka-dotted world, where there are really cold places and really hot places," Battisti says. Another concern is drought downwind of the spray vessels; clouds made of many small droplets last longer, which is desirable in a sunshade, but they also produce less rain.

Finally, just how much brighter the new clouds would be is not known. Existing climate models overestimate the effect: according to them, the aerosols in the atmosphere right now should be canceling global warming, which is manifestly not happening. Rasch has thus started modeling La­tham's idea. "This is one of the parts of climate that we understand most poorly," he says.

Still, as geoengineering schemes go, spraying seawater into the air from wind-powered vessels sounds pretty benign. If anything went wrong, Latham says, you could shut off the spray within days or, at most, a few weeks--whereas sulfuric acid in the stratosphere would stay aloft for years. "It's definitely worth looking into," Wigley says. But only a field test could answer some of the questions about the idea--and so far the only support Latham has received has been from the Discovery Channel. In need of good visuals for a documentary series on geoengineering, television producers funded the construction of a small Flettner ship.

I wonder how many olympic swimming pools that small Flettner ship sprayed up...
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 02:51:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 We have a certain amount of sulfur dioxide today due to diesel fuel, among other things. Curiously, once peak oil really cuts into diesel usage the Earth will get warmer as reflective SO2 is precipitated.

  The proposals seem to be injecting less SO2 than we do now but mindfully making it very tiny particulates. It'll be just as reflective as the larger ones from diesel but less polluting in terms of acid rain, and it'll have a better resident time due to small size.

  No one seems to want to talk about arctic geoengineering with wind driven ammonia as being a viable alternative. It's the only one that makes fuel as part of the remediation effort.


by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Fri Nov 21st, 2008 at 10:48:04 PM EST
asiegel did cover that idea in his diary on geoengineering. I don't know enough about it, but like other forms of potential geoengineering (other than iron dusting oceans, which I think is out of the running) it deserves to be tested.

On the SO2, it is currently tropospheric and more localised (the concentrations are mainly on a sub-continental scale, I think). The proposal of Crutzen et al is to have stratospheric SO2, which will probably have negative effects on the ozone layer, for one.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Nov 22nd, 2008 at 08:16:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Emergency breeding program for plants with high albedo? Seriously. Soy, wheat, etc. with much more reflective leaves.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other. -- Dr Johnson
by melvin (melvingladys at or near yahoo.com) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 08:04:47 AM EST
As far as I know we are already doing so, but it isn't helping (the problem being the accompanying destruction of rainforests).
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 05:19:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]

They are back-of-the-envelop, no feedback modeling nor post-implementation consequences.  

They are fine for a sci-fi novel.  

As real projects they are insane.  

Their real purpose is to help us avoid thinking about the things we already know to do but won't do, because they are inconvenient or unprofitable.  Band-aids for cancer.  

I am beginning to think our impending financial collapse is our real hope.  The harder we crash, the less we will be destroying our environment.  Personally, there is a lot to dislike--even fear--about this course of events, but in the long run it offers the best possible outcomes.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 03:07:54 AM EST
They do tend to remind me of this:

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 01:49:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And I liked the part where they are dropping in the ice cubes.  Which, come to think of it, is what we are doing.  Too bad the polar bears liked the ice where it was.  

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Tue Nov 25th, 2008 at 05:30:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And that we are on the way to playing that card "once and for all!"

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Nov 26th, 2008 at 12:34:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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