Solar Geoengineering and Climate Change

The Earth is getting warmer and greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise. With carbon dioxide levels at their highest in 650,000 years, scientists across the global are grappling with the question of how to stop global warming.

For many, alternative energy sources are the answer. While the implementation of this technology is crucial for the development of a carbon-free society, flipping the grid is easier said than done. The U.S. alone is highly dependent on fossil fuels, which emit high level of greenhouse gases. Additionally, transitioning the grid to 100 percent renewables would not fully solve the issue. Emissions will still exist in the atmosphere, with warming happening right now.

“When people emerge from poverty and move toward prosperity, they consume more energy,” said Adam Heller in a recent plenary lecture.

The Need for a Solution

Currently, 13 percent of carbon dioxide emissions stem from two industries: steel and cement. According to Heller, these industry are directly correlated to global wealth—what he deems the driving force of acceleration in climate change. To put that in perspective, the solar energy technology that is currently in place in the U.S. saves only 0.3 percent through the use of solar energy, according to Heller. With carbon dioxide emissions constantly accelerating, increasing by 2 percent every year, scientists are looking for solutions to this pressing issue.

“This will lead to a catastrophe,” Heller said. “The question is, what do we do about this catastrophe?”

For Heller and other scientists, part of the answer lies in solar geoengineering (SGE).

“We need to learn something about geoengineering,” Heller said. “We need to learn something about reflecting light from the sun through aerosols in the atmosphere.”

Mirrors in Space

SGE has the ability to block a small percentage of income sun rays to offset the warming caused by greenhouse gases. With less warmth entering the earth’s atmosphere, there would be less of an opportunity for the greenhouse gas blanket to trap it. Essentially, scientists could produce a type of mirror in space that reflect sunlight out of the atmosphere.

Further, this technology is cheap and almost instantaneous.

Though SGE has been highly contested over the years. For one, the concentrations that are already in the atmosphere and oceans are not addressed, thus allowing ocean acidification to run rampant. Plus, a potential side effect of SGE is tropical monsoons. That all aside from the moral argument of controlling the environment.

Recently, a pair of papers were published to see if SGE is indeed the way to go to address climate change.

(MORE: Read “Solar Geoengineering, Uncertainty, and the Price of Carbon.”)

Keeping Climate from a Tipping Point

The result? The scientist found that while SGE could help buy time in the battle against climate change, it cannot be the sole answer. Instead, the researchers state that it is a good way to keep climate from reaching its tipping point.

More importantly, the study provided numerical proof to ideas that had only been theoretical. Now, researchers can point to the reduced cost, suppressed temperature increases, and lower tipping point risks that SGE could provide.

(MORE: Read “Climate Tipping Points and Solar Geoengineering.”)

While the long-term plan is still focused on moving the grid toward renewable energy and the overall conversation of energy, SGE could be a way to start the relief effort now.

“The question is whether we can do this in a responsible, environmentally friendly, and controllable ways,” said Heller.


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