Geo-engineering Workshop

On Monday 6 November Roger and I attended workshops put on by the People’s Climate Summit in Bonn. Whilst Roger was learning more about citizen’s action for urban decarbonisation, I headed for the session on Geo-engineering, technofixes and radical emission reduction pathways to stay under 1.5°C.

Simply put, geo-engineering techniques involve global-scale processes which seek to reduce the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere. These include such techniques as Ocean Fertilization (adding iron or urea to low-productivity areas of oceans to stimulate plankton growth which would extract more CO₂ from the atmosphere), Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) whereby the CO₂ emitted from burning fossil fuels is captured at source by a sorbent chemical and stored underground. Whilst eminently feasible from a scientific point of view, there is a range of possible unintended ecological side-effects of such schemes, let alone the economic cost of them.

Whatever happened to the Precautionary Approach which is the normal benchmark for any kind of industrial process and its impact upon the planet?

Other ideas include various forms of Solar Radiation Management (SRM), working on the principle that if one can reflect more of the incident sunlight back into space before it heats the atmosphere, it will reduce global warming. Techniques include Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI) where spraying large amounts of inorganic particles such as sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere would act as a reflective barrier to incoming solar radiation. Again, any such technique has many possible unforeseen and potentially irreversible consequences for atmospheric functioning. These include possible disruption of rain and wind patterns across the tropics and subtropics, impacting heavily on those people already disproportionately affected by climate change.

Yet another approach is that of large-scale Biosequestration, that is managing a global shift towards use of biofuels and the accompanying afforestation programmes. Whilst it seems a relatively benign approach, as it is using trees and forests to capture and store the excess CO₂ emissions, there are questions. For one thing, it fails to recognize the existing loss of natural forests which is already reducing the earth’s capacity for storing excess CO₂. Nor does it recognize that all that new tree planting often utilizes monocultural planting of non-native trees such as eucalyptus and such plantations frequently compete with the growing of food. As with the SRM technique above, the impacts of these proposals impact more greatly on the poorer peoples on this planet.

Thus the question is not “Can it be done?” but “Should we be doing something else?” Any geo-technological solutions would likely be seized upon by global corporations and growth-fixated politicians to continue carbon-fuelled “business as usual”, because if the CO₂ emissions are being sorted, why bother to get out of fossil fuels? In other words, it is a classic example of a technofix and an avoidance of the real problem, rather than the much more necessary change of direction of the whole of humankind towards a totally carbon-free future. “When will we ever learn?”

Some useful links to learn more:

  • Riding the GeoStorm briefing on Geoengineering Governance
    Geoengineering Monitor website has much other useful material
  • Heinrich Boell Institute section on GeoEngineering
    The HB Institute website has many other useful resources on various topics
  • ETC Group website monitoring the impact of emerging technologies and corporate strategies on biodiversity, agriculture and human rights.


Euan McPhee, 12 Nov.