Efforts to curb carbon emissions are falling short. As climate change impacts become all too clear, geoengineering is again in the spotlight. Some see it as a last-resort option to fight climate change. Detractors highlight the risks and uncertainties. Will governments end up ‘tinkering with Earth’s thermostat’?
In the summer of 2018, a succession of heatwaves struck the EU. Record-breaking temperatures were reported, and wildfires ravaged the continent. Sweden suffered the worst forest fires in modern history. In Greece, blazes swept through Attica and left 102 dead. For many citizens, wildfires threw the reality of climate change into sharp relief.
Under the Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries pledged to keep global warming well below 2°C. But progress in curbing carbon emissions is not on track. If the current trend is not reversed, extreme weather events like the 2018 heatwave will become more and more frequent.
Geoengineering refers to large-scale interventions in the global climate system, intended to counteract climate change. In 2008, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity called for a moratorium on geoengineering ‘until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities’. Only a decade later, scientists and policy-makers are again looking for last-ditch solutions to buy some extra time. Geoengineering is again in the spotlight.
Potential impacts and developments
Geoengineering includes a number of techniques of varying complexity, risk, and cost. In policy-making, the debate revolves almost entirely around ‘solar geoengineering‘. This describes a set of methods aimed at cooling the planet by reflecting a portion of solar energy back into space, or increasing the amount of solar radiation that escapes the Earth.
Cirrus clouds are known to have a warming effect on Earth. Seeding the atmosphere with innocuous Sahara dust would prevent the formation of cirrus clouds, and reduce global temperatures. Stratospheric aerosol injection entails creating an artificial sunshade by injecting reflective particles in the stratosphere. Its working principle is based in nature. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 pumped around 15 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere; in the two years that followed, global temperatures decreased by about 1°C.
But there is no simple solution. For a start, solar geoengineering does not target the root of the problem; it only mitigates its effects. Solar geoengineering has never been tried before. If done incorrectly, it could cause even more global warming; and there could be other unintended consequences. The real challenge, however, may not be technological but rather one of governance. Climate politics is slow and complex; agreeing on using untested technology on a planetary scale could prove impossible. Who decides to use solar geoengineering? Who benefits from it? Who is affected?
Solar geoengineering is a geopolitical issue. The atmosphere has no borders, and the actions of some countries could affect the climate of others. To make matters worse, the science is not always conclusive. Some climate models suggest that almost every region in the world would benefit from solar geoengineering. Other scientists claim that since heat-trapping gases would still operate, temperatures would be more evenly distributed. This would reduce precipitation. Such a geoengineered world would be cooler, but also drier.
Many stakeholders see a moral hazard in solar geoengineering. All efforts are now focused on reducing emissions. With new tools in their climatic toolbox, governments could become complacent. Scientists insist that geoengineering is a supplement and not a substitute for mitigation. For example, solar geoengineering will not solve ocean acidification, and its impact on the water cycle is uncertain. Eventually, part or all the carbon released into the atmosphere will need to be recaptured, regardless of whether geoengineering is used or not.
To some citizens, meddling with the climate may sound like playing god. But across the world, about 40 % of the population live within 100 kilometres of the coast. Rising sea levels will threaten these coastal communities. Many regions will see more intense and frequent summer droughts, extreme weather events, and heavy rainfall. This could strain the fragile agricultural systems in the global South, sparking an exodus of climate refugees. As the consequences of climate change accumulate, the public’s opinion on solar geoengineering could shift rapidly.
Perceptions could be as important as the science. In 1962, the US started a programme to weaken hurricanes through seeding. In 1963, Hurricane Flora caused thousands of deaths in Cuba. The Cuban government accused the US of waging weather warfare. Similarly, any country suffering from extreme weather could blame geoengineers. In addition, geoengineering would be deployed progressively. Its effects would be initially difficult to decouple from natural fluctuations and climate change. Detractors would be quick to discard it as a failed idea.
There is a bigger problem, however. Once started, solar geoengineering cannot be stopped. Assuming that carbon emissions continued, the artificial sunshade would mask increasing amounts of extra warming. If geoengineering ceased abruptly – due to sabotage, technical, or political reasons – temperatures would shoot up rapidly. This termination shock would be catastrophic for humans and ecosystems.
Solar geoengineering should only be considered as a last-resort solution. There is ample consensus that cutting emissions is the safest, most economical route to tackling climate change. The world needs a climate champion to accelerate these efforts, and the EU could lead the way.
Ultimately, the debate surrounding solar geoengineering could come down to balancing the risks and benefits. Solar geoengineering is not without risks. However, failing to mitigate climate change will also bring major new risks, disrupt ecosystems across the world, and hit the most vulnerable regions particularly hard.
Ironically, one reason that solar geoengineering may become necessary is the slow pace of international climate negotiations. Yet discussions on geoengineering are following the same path. Should solar geoengineering become necessary, governments need to be ready. The EU could help advance preparedness in this area; for example, by throwing its diplomatic weight behind multilateral initiatives moving in this direction.
The EU and its partners could promote an international governance framework for solar geoengineering. However, all parties must be on board. There are real risks that some of the countries worst affected by climate change could act unilaterally. Even if well-intentioned, this could create geopolitical tension. An international regulation system would ensure that no country ‘goes rogue’, and that geoengineering is not done for some at the expense of others.
The EU could also support research on solar geoengineering. Studies and trials may have been hampered by fears of promoting a quick ‘technofix’. But if geoengineering became necessary to avert disaster, its full effects must be known. Current techniques are criticised for posing a risk to biodiversity, precipitation patterns, and the ozone layer. A better understanding of these problems is the first step towards tackling them. Research could also help governance. For example, counter-geoengineering tools could serve as a deterrent against unilateral action.
A report commissioned by international union coalition Industrial examines the geopolitics of fossil fuel producing countries (mainly, the United States, China, Europe and Russia) and the investments and performance of the Oil Majors (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, as well as nationally-owned PetroChina, Gazprom and Equinor). Energy transition, national strategies, and oil companies: what are the impacts for workers? was published in November 2020, with the research updated to reflect the impacts of Covid-19.
In addition to a thorough examination of state and corporate actions, the report asked union representatives from four oil companies about how workers understand the energy transformation and its impact on their own jobs, and whether the concept of Just Transition has become part of their union’s agenda.
Some highlights of the responses:
“the union members interviewed showed little knowledge about either the risks that the current transition process can generate for the industrial employee, or about the union discussion that seeks to equate the concern with the decarbonisation of the economy with the notions of equity and social justice. In some cases, even the term “Just Transition” was not known to respondents.”
Their lack of knowledge regarding the Just Transition can be justified by the fact that they do not believe that there will be any significant change in the energy mix of these companies.
Regarding information about energy transitions within the companies, “Managers are included, but the bottom of the work chain is not”
Lacking corporate policies or support, some employees feel compelled to take responsibility for their own re-training
The researchers conclude that: “Far from being just a statement of how disconnected workers are from environmental issues, these researches reveal a window of opportunity for union movements to act in a better communication strategy with their union members, drawing their attention to the climate issue and transforming their hopes for job stability and better working conditions into an ecologically sustainable political agenda.”
The report was commissioned by Industrial and conducted by the Institute of Strategic Studies of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (Ineep), a research organization created by Brazil’s United Federation of Oil and Gas Workers (FUP).
More than three billion people live in agricultural areas with high levels of water shortages and scarcity, the UN agriculture agency said in a new report launched on Wednesday.
The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) flagship report, noted that available freshwater resources have declined globally by more than 20 per cent per person over the past two decades, underscoring the importance of producing more with less, especially in the agriculture sector – the world’s largest user of water.
“With this report, FAO is sending a strong message: Water shortages and scarcity in agriculture must be addressed immediately and boldly if our pledge to achieve the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] is to be taken seriously”, emphasized FAO Director-General QU Dongyu in the foreword of the report.
Paths for action
From investing in water-harvesting and conservation in rainfed areas to rehabilitating and modernizing sustainable irrigation systems in irrigated areas, actions must be combined with best agronomic practices, the report stressed.
These could involve adopting drought-tolerant crop varieties and improving water management tools – including effective water pricing and allocation, such as water rights and quotas – to ensure equitable and sustainable access.
However, effective management strategy must start with water accounting and auditing.
Mapping the SDG target
Achieving the internationally agreed SDG pledges, including the zero hunger, “is still achievable”, maintains the SOFA report, but only by ensuring more productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 per cent of global water withdrawals.
Against the backdrop that FAO oversees the SDG indicator that measures human activities on natural freshwater resources, the report offers the first spatially disaggregated representation of how things stand today. Meshed with historical drought frequency data, this provides a more holistic assessment of water constraints in food production.
SOFA reveals that some 11 per cent of the world’s rainfed cropland faces frequent drought, as does about 14 per cent of pastureland.
Meanwhile, more than 60 per cent of irrigated cropland is water-stressed and 11 countries, all in Northern Africa and Asia, need to urgently adopt sound water accounting, clear allocation, modern technologies and to shift to less thirsty crops.
Did you know?
Total water withdrawals per capita are highest in Central Asia.
In least developed countries, 74 per cent of rural people do not have access to safe drinking water.
While 91 countries have national rural drinking water plans, only nine have implementation funds.
Around 41 per cent of global irrigation impacts the environmental flow requirements that are essential for life-supporting ecosystems.
Biofuels require 70 to 400 times more water than do the fossil fuels they replace.
As important sources of water vapor for downwind areas, forests such as in the Amazon, Congo and Yangtze river basins are crucial to rainfed agriculture.
Although “the inherent characteristics of water make it difficult to manage”, the SOFA report upholds that it “be recognized as an economic good that has a value and a price”.
“At the same time, policy and governance support to ensure efficient, equitable and sustainable access for all is essential”.
Noting that the rural poor can benefit substantially from irrigation, the report recommends that water management plans be “problem-focused and dynamic”.
Despite that water markets selling water rights are relatively rare, SOFA says that when water accounting is well performed, rights well established and beneficiaries and managing institutions participating, regulated water markets can provide equitable allotments while promoting conservation.
Regreening the Desert would be the ultimate call for action from John D. Liu. Could it be addressed to the MENA region leaders, as part of seeming to be a universal appeal to try and redress the planet’s sad situation?
Can we in the meantime think of a “reforestation campaign” amid a coronavirus crisis? Yes, we can think of everything, since life carries on despite all that is going on. It would be the height of giving up life on the pretext that we are fighting death! Isn’t the tree life? Is there a relationship between reforestation and Covid-19? Certainly not, otherwise, it could be felt like a high contortion. But there is undoubtedly a relationship between the tree and life. It’s even excellent that one. There is oxygen, and there is wood, there is chlorophyll, there is shade, there is the fruit, there are colours and certainly other things that ordinary people cannot know. But do we have the heart to plant plane trees, carob trees and Aleppo pines when the “atmosphere” is to the maddening figures of contamination, the disturbing ambient nonchalance and the not very reassuring news that come to us from the hospitals? Yes, you can plant trees all the time, anywhere. Anyway here is John’s .
“Deserts are advancing and water is becoming scarce. It all seems hopeless… But one man has discovered how to make deserts green and our planet healthy again.”
“It is possible to rehabilitate large scale damaged ecosystems… Why don’t we do that?”
– John D. Liu
John D. Liu filmed Hope in a Changing Climate, following the Loess-plateau in China where local people redeveloped the land from a terribly damaged area into a functioning ecosystem. This documentary follows Liu explain what he’s learned and what he thinks we should do to revitalize ecosystems.
The process looks something like this:
Setting aside land for natural vegetation to return
Exclude grazing in the first 3 years.
Wait for native plants to return to the land.
Allow the microbial communities to grow within the habitat.
Encourage more organic matter, more biomass and more biodiversity.
“We need to redefine and revalue our belief systems. Money is a belief system. There’s nothing wrong with money, as it turns out. The problem is – what is money based on? If money is based on functional ecosystems, then the future will be beautiful. If money continues to be based on the production and consumption of goods and services we’ll turn everything into a desert.”
Reuters’ Factbox: Fossil fuel-based vehicle bans across the world is a snapshot of what will happen in the major economies of the world by the near future. Could the same be decided upon in the MENA region countries, hence the feature picture above, that is of typical daily road congestion in Cairo. It is for illustrative purposes.
Britain last year became the first G7 country to set in law a net-zero emission target by 2050, which will require wholesale changes in the way Britons travel, use energy and eat.
Other countries or regions that have pitched the idea of banning fossil-fuel based vehicles include:
California will ban the sale of new gasoline-powered passenger cars and trucks starting in 2035, Governor Gavin Newsom said in September.
The Canadian province of Quebec said this week it would ban the sale of new gasoline-powered passenger cars from 2035.
EU environment ministers struck a deal on Oct 23 to make the bloc’s 2050 net zero emissions target legally binding, but left a decision on a 2030 emissions-cutting target for leaders to discuss in December.
German cities started to introduce bans on older diesel vehicles that emit higher amounts of pollutants than from late 2018. (reut.rs/38UFw6L)
Norway, which relies heavily on oil and gas revenues, aims to become the world’s first country to end the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars, setting a 2025 deadline. Fully electric vehicles now make up about 60% of monthly sales in Norway.
In 2017 China begun studying when to ban the production and sale of cars using traditional fuels but did not specify when it might be introduced.
Sales of new energy vehicles (NEV) will make up 50% of overall new car sales in China, the world’s biggest auto market, by 2035, an industry official said last month.
Last year, India’s central think-tank asked scooter and motorbike manufacturers to draw up a plan to switch to electric vehicles. The think-tank also recommended that only electric models of scooters and motorbikes with engine capacity of more than 150cc must be sold from 2025, sources told Reuters.
Reporting by Aakash Jagadeesh Babu and Samantha Machado in Bengaluru; Editing by Gareth Jones
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