Geoengineering: Using Technology to Cool the Planet

Geoengineering offers ways of using technology to cool the planet, which appear to be economically attractive but which are contentious

An LSE article, What is geoengineering and how could it help tackle climate change?, opens with this definition:

“Geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, describes a range of ways to intervene on a large scale in the Earth’s natural systems – the oceans, soils and atmosphere – to directly combat climate change. They mostly fall into two categories: those designed to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and those that try to limit the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface.”

Such ideas are tempting to some economists because they appear to be cheaper than trying to cut carbon emissions.  For example, one assessment of ways of reducing global warming, Copenhagen Consensus on Climate – Results, rated climate engineering options as offering the best value and cutting carbon emissions as the least cost-effective approach.

The LSE article referred to above sounded a note of caution about using unproven technologies with possible unintended consequences.  A Prospect article, Why geoengineering isn’t the solution to the climate crisis, argued that “Simply using technology to cool the planet, without simultaneously slashing greenhouse gas emissions, would set us on the road to catastrophe” and suggested that geoengineering presents a “moral quandary”.  At least one of the techniques for solar radiation management could contribute to cooling the planet, though, if used in limited areas:

“‘marine cloud brightening’, where the clouds that cover oceans could be made lighter in colour and more reflective by spraying tiny droplets of seawater into them, causing them to reflect more sunlight back out into space.”

It would be irresponsible to suggest that geoengineering could be the only solution needed, but it can supplement other attempts to mitigate climate change.  Growing trees is a straightforward way of extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and seaweed could be even more effective; as reported by the BBC, the remarkable power of Australian kelp, “Coastal marine systems can absorb carbon at rates up to 50 times greater than forests on land”.

A more expensive way of using technology to cool the planet is direct air capture.  The U.S. Government is leading: “The Biden administration is betting big on giant carbon-sucking vacuums as a climate solution, announcing that it will help jump-start two mammoth projects in Texas and Louisiana that will be a global testing ground for the new technology”.  It will be providing $1.2 billion in Energy Department funding.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/3577b.htm