Africa’s climate negotiators are being pressured to shield their countries from a looming global heating endgame by utilizing interventions like solar geoengineering , a process that either shields sun rays or redirects sunlight away from the planet. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Chukwumerije Okereke, director of the Center for Climate Change and Development at Alex Ekwueme Federal University in Nigeria, announces My Continent Is Not Your Giant Climate Laboratory.
As a climate expert, I consider these environmental manipulation techniques extremely risky. And as an African climate expert, I strongly object to the idea that Africa should be turned into a testing ground for their use. Even if solar geoengineering can help deflect heat and improve weather conditions on the ground — a prospect that is unproven on any relevant scale — it’s not a long-term solution to climate change. It sends a message to the world that we can carry on over-consuming and polluting because we will be able to engineer our way out of the problem.
Africa is already suffering the effects of climate change, such as drought, floods and erratic weather. And while geoengineering advocates see these technologies as a solution to such problems, the technologies run the danger of upsetting local and regional weather patterns — intensifying drought or flooding, for example, or disrupting monsoon cycles. And the long-term impact on regional climate and seasons is still largely unknown. Millions, perhaps billions, of people’s livelihoods could be undermined.
Solar geoengineering refers to proposed approaches to cool the Earth by reflecting solar radiation back to space. The two main approaches being researched are stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) and marine cloud brightening (MCB), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Union of Concerned Scientists opposes the deployment of solar geoengineering because it poses unacceptably high environmental, social, and geopolitical risks.
So why research it?
Because even as we take critical steps to slow climate change, they may not be enough to limit warming to the levels needed to avoid catastrophic consequences. Limiting global temperature increase to the Paris Agreement’s target of “well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” requires that the United States and other nations bring net global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to zero by no later than mid-century, alongside deep cuts in emissions of other heat-trapping gases.
Solar radiation management is receiving a great deal of attention. It is a process that darkens the sun by distributing small particles via balloons or aircraft. SRM also employs more natural methods, such as white roofs or reflective crops, which direct heat and sunlight away from the earth, but this methodology cannot be implemented broadly enough to adequately address the challenge.
Dr. Okereke argues that is no way of knowing if geoengineering might worsen the weather patterns which are already wreaking havoc on Africa.
Additionally, these technologies would have to be employed indefinitely to keep temperatures lower or risk a spike from suppressed CO2 warming called “termination shock.” In one study researchers determined that ceasing the management of solar radiation could result in a temperature rise “up to four times as large as what’s being caused by climate change itself.”
Concerns about what would happen if geoengineering becomes a widespread practice are geopolitical, too — it would, as sustainability expert Frank Biermann of the Netherlands Utrecht University told CNN, require “countries have to collaborate forever,” even in spite of wars. Given that we can barely keep NATO afloat and that the accords determined by the Paris environmental agreement are viewed more as suggestions than rules, the concept of perpetual geoengineering cooperation seems almost comical Link.
In a difference in opinion from that of Dr. Okereke, MIT Technology Review reports countries that are more dramatically feeling the impacts of climate change tend to have a more favorable opinion about employing geoengineering and carbon removal. Carbon removal differs from Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which prevents emissions from plants from entering the atmosphere. Carbon removal is a type of carbon reduction.
Carbon dioxide removal (or simply “carbon removal”) aims to help mitigate climate change by removing carbon dioxide pollution directly from the atmosphere. Carbon removal strategies include familiar approaches like growing trees as well as more novel technologies like direct air capture, which scrubs CO2 from the air and sequesters it underground. Link
Reuters reports that the United States has $3.5 billion in grant money for companies to develop Direct Air Capture (DAC) projects and is hoping to open a plant capable of removing a million tons of CO2 annually. This is quite a jump from the current biggest DAC plant, Climeworks Iceland Orca plant, which annually removes only 4,000 tons. DAC is extravagantly expensive, with costs in the high triple digits per ton of removed CO2. Trees and forest management, on the other hand, run up a price tag of $50 per ton; but experts say the amount of land needed is not available.