10 / 2010
Geoengineering is playing an increasingly more prominent role in northern-led approaches to tackling climate change, writes Diana Bronson, with proponents dismissively oblivious to the social and environmental consequences for populations around the world.
While geoengineering – the intentional large-scale modification of the earth’s systems, including systems related to climate – may sound like science fiction, it is in fact an increasingly hot topic in climate change policy circles of industrialised countries. Less frequently discussed are the impacts this emerging policy orientation – and the technologies if they were ever deployed – will have on Africa.
With the publication of the UK Royal Society’s report last year, (1) meetings organised by the National Academy of Sciences, parliamentary and congressional hearings on the topic in the UK and the US, (2) millions of dollars flowing in research funds from both well-known billionaires (such as Bill Gates, formerly of Microsoft, and Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines) (3) and new programmes on their way, (4) it is time for civil society actors and governments in the rest of the world to take notice. In fact, an international, transparent, democratic debate on these strategies and technologies is long overdue.
Changing the climate, as is obvious by the unintentional damage already inflicted on this overstretched planet, is not something that will respect national borders. Geoengineers (scientists, entrepreneurs and policy advocates) have a number of technologies they propose to study, experiment and eventually use. They fall into three broad categories:
1. The first set of geoengineering strategies is known as solar radiation management (SRM). These proposals aim to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet by reflecting more of it back to space, therefore reducing atmospheric warming. This is known as increasing the Earth’s albedo. SRM proposals include shooting massive amounts of sulphur dioxide or aluminium aerosols or engineered nanoparticles into the stratosphere, making clouds whiter by spraying seawater at them, covering deserts with plastic, painting mountaintops white or creating a layer of foaming bubbles on the surface of the ocean.
2. The second set of technologies is composed of attempts to draw mega-tonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and lock them up either biologically or mechanically. Examples include dumping iron (or urea) into the sea in order to ‘fertilise’ areas that are poor in nutrients, thereby stimulating the growth of tiny phytoplankton, which will theoretically sequester C02 from the atmosphere in the bottom of the sea. This has never actually worked. Also in this camp are suggestions to change the chemistry of the ocean to improve C02 absorption (known as enhanced weathering), artificial trees or carbon-sucking machines and appropriating and burning forest and crop residues into a charcoal that is subsequently buried for carbon sequestration (called biochar).
3. A third set of geoengineering proposals dispense with controlling the climate and attempt instead to directly control weather – intervening to reduce or redirect hurricanes or seeding clouds for rainfall in drying regions. Such technologies are widely practiced (150 incidents in 40 countries according to one report) (5) and are often connected to military objectives and institutions, being used most famously by the US to impede enemy troop movements during the Vietnam war. Often discussions of geoengineering omit weather modification, but as historian James Fleming has convincingly shown in his book ‘Fixing the Sky’, the historical and philosophical roots of contemporary geoengineering proposals are found in much older attempts to control the weather.
All of these proposals will have social and environmental impacts that will be felt far away from where the decisions to deploy would be taken. In fact, as the scientific discussion gets more elaborate, and geoengineering gains credibility in Washington and London as climate ‘plan b’, the whole question of how such technologies could be internationally governed emerges. Increasingly, geoengineering advocates are dismissing the multilateral approach where all countries have a seat at the table and are speaking of ‘bottom-up’ or ‘soft-law’ or ‘voluntary guidelines’ as a stand-in for binding international law. (6) Seemingly oblivious to the fact that industrialised countries have sabotaged every sensible multilateral approach to climate change, they are now saying that more informal governance arrangements are required. Perhaps global governance by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the G20 or the Major Economies Forum? Or simply a coalition of the willing – anything but the United Nations, where all countries have a seat at the table.
STRATOSPHERIC AEROSOLS … AND IMPACTS ON THE GROUND
One of the most talked about ‘solar radiation management’ technologies involves shooting tiny particles of sulphur dioxide or aluminium into the upper layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere (up to about 50km from earth). This essentially imitates large and powerful volcanoes by spreading dust, so that more sun gets reflected back to space than would naturally be the case, thereby creating a cooling effect without in any way reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
This artificial cooling is treating the symptom rather than the cause of global warming and is liable to entail many negative side effects. No one really knows exactly what those effects will be because computer models are notoriously simplistic and cannot accurately predict how a complex climate system will react to attempts to engineer it. Nor do even the best scientists really understand how the climate system works. Nevertheless, one effect that does show up on several computer simulations as well as historical record (after Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991) is less precipitation and more disturbances in the African and Indian monsoons. Needless to say, this would cause a massive disruption in agricultural production, potentially threatening the food supplies of up to 2 billion people. (7) Other negative impacts of this technology could include whiter skies, damage to the ozone layer, less effective solar energy, obstruction of astronomy, continuing ocean acidification and a host of unknown other ecosystem disturbances. Finally, if the injections needed to be stopped, very quick and very dangerous warming would occur without any time for human or ecosystem adaptation. (8)
This is also one of the most centralised of the technologies, and is arguably very cheap to execute and quick to cause an impact. Military institutions and contractors would certainly be used to develop the hardware (Boeing, for instance, is already working on this). A single state, a small coalition of countries, a corporation, or even an individual could execute such a plan for a relatively modest sum. Furthermore, who would decide at what temperature the earth’s thermostat should be set? Who would control the size of the particles to be used? And who would have the power to cancel such an experiment should its effects be worse than anticipated? Wars are fought over much less.
Finally, there is no ‘field’ where the ‘stratospheric option’ can be tested – we have but one planet earth. While one very small-scale test has already been done in Russia, it could not actually prove anything about how aerosols would act if deployed at the massive scale that would be required in order to affect the climate. As Alan Robock and his colleagues have written: ‘… geoengineering cannot be tested without full-scale implementation. The initial production of aerosol droplets can be tested on a small scale, but how they will grow in size (which determines the injection rate needed to produce a particular cooling) can only be tested by injection into an existing aerosol cloud, which cannot be confined to one location. Furthermore, weather and climate variability preclude observation of the climate response without a large, decade-long forcing. Such full-scale implementation could disrupt food production on large scale.’ (10)
BIOCHAR OR CHARCOAL FOR THE EARTH
Biochar is without a doubt the geoengineering technology that already sees Africa as its preferred testing ground. Unused agricultural ‘waste’, or crops and wood from trees grown for this purpose, are burnt under low-oxygen conditions in a process known as pyrolisis (a type of gasification) and then added to the soil where they remain stored allegedly for ‘hundreds to thousands of years’. (11) In addition to supposedly safely sequestering carbon, the process delivers bioenergy as a by-product that can replace some fossil fuel uses. Already, biochar projects are underway in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. (12)
There is a huge amount of hype about biochar, and people who are desperate for solutions can be surprisingly credulous. Consider this interview with Laurens Rademaker from the Biochar Fund, a ‘social profit’ that is ‘cash-flow positive’ offering ‘investment opportunities’:
‘The benefits to these farmers are instant and very significant. With biochar, they can jump from being undernourished to well-fed, and from subsistence farmer to a peasant that can sell some surplus - after only one or two harvests.’ (13)
None of this has been scientifically proven and most of it is profoundly illogical. In fact, no reliable studies on the long-term impact of biochar on soils have been done. Sometimes parallels are drawn with the ancient Amazonian practice of terra preta, but they have more to do with public relations than science. We do not know for example how different feedstocks affect biochar’s chemical and physical properties; or about its long-term stability in the soil; and then the social and economic constraints and impacts have barely been thought about. (14) UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) advises that biochar plantations should be treated with great caution and that the impacts on long-term agricultural sustainability and biodiversity are unknown. (15) But this does not stop the carbon profiteers and charlatans from promoting it: in fact ConocoPhilipps Canada, which is involved in Alberta tar-sands production, is actively working to get biochar accredited in international carbon markets! (16) It is what Eduardo Galeano would call upside-down: dirty oil that digs up long-buried carbon as fossil fuels and then buys carbon credits by burning up living carbon in Africa using a technology that is highly contested, but that markets itself as a solution.
The other main problem with biochar is the huge amount of land that would be required for its industrial production – hundreds of millions of hectares. If every last stalk and twig is grabbed to be burnt and buried, biodiversity would be undermined, soil nutrients would be robbed and people (especially those with insecure land tenure) would be forced off their land. Diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems would be further disturbed and commercialised as every last bit of nature is subjected to carbon markets that work in favour of those who design the rules and control the capital – and allow the overproduction and overconsumption of the industrialised North to continue unabated. (17)
2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity and it is also a year of critical decisions on these planet-altering schemes. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will hold its biannual Conference of Parties (a meeting of environment ministers from 193 countries) in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2010. That meeting will take stock of the crisis of biodiversity with species extinction, deforestation, overfishing and the energy and climate crises fighting for space on its agenda. Some voices at that meeting will seek to protect biodiversity from the ravages of overconsumption, monocultures, fossil fuel addiction and rampant urbanisation. Others will promote growth, market mechanisms and techno-fixes above all other considerations, blindly commodifying every last bit of air, land and sea. This latter group are liable to see geoengineering the earth as an option to be considered, rather than a dangerous practice to be stopped.
At the meeting of the CBD’s Scientific Body on Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), which met in Nairobi in May 2010, a moratorium on geoengineering activities was proposed: ‘[N]o climate-related geo-engineering activities [are to] take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts.’ This resolution alone will not be enough to stop the scientific hubris and political arrogance behind geoengineering, but it would at least stop the most aggressive entrepreneurs from being able to conduct experiments while the majority of the world’s peoples and governments have only just begun to learn what these technologies are. It is vital that African countries and other members of the G77 and China stand firm on this moratorium and put the policy emphasis back where it belongs: on the responsibilities of the wealthy countries who caused the problem of climate change in the first place.
The CBD adopted a moratorium on ocean fertilisation back in 2008 and it has been largely successful, despite the Lohafex experiment which sailed off South African shores in early 2009. (18) Since then, the science on ocean fertilisation has overwhelmingly discredited the practice, with well-known oceanographers urging us all that ‘it is time to move on.’ (19) We must build on this precedent and ensure that no geoengineering experiments be allowed to take place on land, in the seas or in space. A civil society campaign calling for precisely such a moratorium on geoengineering experiments was launched earlier this year at the World Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, hosted by the Bolivian government. It is called Hands Off Mother Earth, or HOME.
You can join the movement by sending your photograph – with your hand up to signal your opposition – a message of support to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is also available in French.