Catherine Brahic | New Scientist
Many scenarios have been proposed to help us engineer our way out of potential climate disaster, and now a new study could point us towards the ones that are most effective.
Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia, UK, has put together the first comparative assessment of climate-altering proposals such pumping sulphur into the atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic emissions, or fertilising the oceans with iron.
“There is a worrying feeling that we’re not going to get our act together fast enough,” says Lenton, referring to international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have reached a “social tipping point” and are starting to wonder which techniques might complement emissions cuts, he says.
Lenton says he is not necessarily advocating engineering the climate, but, faced with a growing trend among his peers, he and colleague Naomi Vaughan decided to provide a comparison of the options that are on the table.
First, Lenton says the exercise shows there is no “silver bullet” – no single method that will safely reverse climate change on its own.
Scrubbers and mirrors
Climate engineering schemes would work by either removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or reflecting solar energy back out into space – both with the intention of lowering global temperatures.
Proposals for removing CO2 from the atmosphere include planting vast forests, chemically absorbing the gas, or turning agricultural waste into charcoal and burying it.
Reflecting solar energy back into space does not decrease the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but lessens their warming effect by reducing the amount of solar energy that gets trapped near Earth’s surface. Possible schemes have included space mirrors in orbit around the planet, clouds of sulphur particles in the atmosphere, or ground-based reflectors.
The researchers calculated how effective each scheme is at reducing the amount of solar energy trapped in our climatic system – a measure known as “radiative forcing”.