The Engineers of Gaia: Treating the Earth as a System for Geoengineering Solutions

Nils Roenner and Dr Guillermo Rein Mechanical Engineering Department Imperial College London

With global concerns about the possible dangers resulting from climate change people are looking for a better understanding of the phenomena and ways to ward off a catastrophe. Among these, engineers are called to have a leading role in tackling the problem and are proposing a new discipline: geoengineering. The term has only recently gained traction in the public debate, and its definition still varies according to the source. We think this can be defined as the large-scale anthropogenic intervention into the system Earth in order to adjust planetary mass and heat transfer processes, such that global catastrophes can be mitigated. The realisation that man has an impact on Earth led to the idea of the Anthropocene which signifies the current geological epoch, ‘the recent age of man’. Now humans are viewed as a factor and intricate part of nature. This is in agreement with Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, introduced in 1979, a revolutionary view of the Earth not as a simple accumulation of systems but as one self-regulating system encompassing everything, including life. In this article, using the concept of Gaia and the anthropocene as starting points, we argue that the control system view of Earth is a vital part of geoengineering. It is not about one mechanism. It is about the system as a whole. But if geoengineering was to apply a forcing too large or at the wrong place, such that positive feedback loops overtake, the results could be drastic and unpredictable. Careful and robust control is required when engineering something as vital as the system Earth, and this argument is often invoked to stop geoengineering proposals. Paraphrasing Henry Petroski, for us, the premise would be that geoengineers welcome all the relevant science they can muster, but cannot wait for complete scientific understanding before acting to save life or create a new planet-saving technology. The article also maintains that up until the moment when adequate understanding and models of the system are found only reversible and well controlled geoengineering interventions should be applied on a large scale, in order to prevent uncontrollable feedbacks being set off or reaching tipping points by accident. Geoengineering opens up a broad range of measures with which global climate change can be tackled. This article briefly evaluates some promising applications of geoengineering (carbon capture and storage, algae iron fertilisation and cool roofs) using a set of criteria by which geoengineering proposals can be evaluated in term of feasibility, effectiveness, safety, geointervention, and costs.



Gaia and Earth as a System

In the more recent time there has been widespread concern about ongoing climate change. In their most recent 2013 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [1] estimated that without reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions temperatures are set to rise between 2◦ C and 5.7◦ C by the year 2100. This would be enough to cause problems such as rising sea levels, increased ocean acidity, drought, severe storms and loss of habitat. The idea of man made climate change isn’t new. However the first major assessment [2] of the problems resulting from CO2 emissions was the report ‘Restoring the Quality of our Enviroment’ in 1965 by the US President’s Advisory Committee [3]. The report analysed CO2 concentrations and anticipated the future development. From this it estimated temperature changes and effects due to the atmospheric composition change on nature and compared them to the recorded data. It concluded human intervention into the climate system as the only solution to the problem, disregarding a reduction in fossil fuel use. The realisation that man can have an impact on the climate and by extension earth as a whole lead to the idea of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a concept introduced in the year 2000 by Dr Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to signify a new geological epoch, ‘the recent age of man’ [4]. Deforestation, mining, damming of rivers, irrigation of farms, large cities and most importantly man-made climate change are altering the face and workings of earth so significantly that this intervention can no longer be ignored in a geological sense. The recognition, that man shaped Earth so significantly that an entire epoch should be named after it, signifies a very important step in thinking. It marks a shift in how we see the world. In conventional observation, nature was being analysed whilst trying to ignore the effects of human intervention. Now humans are viewed as a factor and intricate part of nature. Applying this new idea to our thinking is crucial when discussing the concept of geoengineering. As our influence can’t be ignored, the consequences of our actions can’t be ignored either. The way humans have altered the carbon cycle is having a big impact on the climate. Therefore, appropriate measures must be taken. A few possible measures in the form of geoengineering are evaluated in this article. In his book ‘Gaia’, James Lovelock offered in 1979 a new and revolutionary view of the World. He proposed to view Earth not as an accumulation of many systems but as one self-regulating system encompassing everything. He described the atmosphere as a “dynamic extension of the biosphere itself ” [5]. A simplified schematic is shown in figure 1. There, the main subsystems, atmosphere, inland ice, terrestrial vegetation, ocean are linked through the Soil Vegetation Atmosphere Transfer Scheme (SVAT). The interaction occurs through fluxes of energy, momentum (e.g. wind) , water (e.g. evaporation and precipitation) and carbon [6]. This interconnectivity is the reason for a lot of earth’s feedbacks and needs to be taken into account when trying to understand the climate. Through these dependencies, nonlinearity effects such as abrupt changes and multiple equilibria can exist [8]. These are based on feedback and threshold points present. Feedbacks, both positive and negative, are central to our climate system. Feedback is also the main cause of non-linearities in our climate. Negative feedbacks being larger than positive feedbacks is the reason for the very stable climate experienced on earth. However when positive feedbacks are on the verge of become dominant critical threshold points exist after which rapid amplifications occur [7]. Runaway global warming is one of those rapid amplifications which cause great concern. A good example of this tendency to unpredictability and a feedback driven system is the desertification of the Sahara. The abrupt process was summarised by Rial et al. [7]. Only


Figure 1: Simplistic model of earth as s system with interdependencies and feedbacks outlined. Adopted from J. Rial et al. [7]. 6000-9000 years ago the Sahara was much smaller and North Africa experienced much wetter climate. However, a slight change in earth’s spin led to a dry phase through which vegetation decreased. This caused an increase in surface albedo, which in turn reduced rainfall. By this a large positive desert-expanding positive biogeophysical feedback loop was started, leading to the current state. A further example of changes due to threshold points being crossed is Greenland, where sudden climate changes happened repeatedly [7]. This shows how easily a big impact can result from small changes due to tipping points caused by positive feedback loops taking over. Feedbacks and threshold points mean that when implementing and discussing geoengineering proposals great care needs to be taken as to not set off the feedbacks loops whose effects we don’t yet fully understand. An intellectual as well as physical framework for geoengineering is now set but definitions still vary between sources as it has only recently gained traction in the public debate. However recurring concepts can be found and these can be summarised in a concise definition, which will be the one used in this article to classify any proposed actions in this domain. An anthropogenic intervention into the earth’s system in order to adjust energy levels and composition of the atmosphere such that climate change can be mitigated.



Selected Case Studies of Geoengineering
Defining the Evaluation Criteria

There are many geoengineering projects being discussed. Four of the more important areas of research are evaluated in this article. To evaluate them in a structured manner a few criteria were established. These are feasibility, effectivity, cost, the level of geointervention and risks. Cost The costs of implementing and running the proposal is crucial as governments and especially private companies are not willing to spend large amounts which cannot be recuperated in the open market. Feasibility It will be taken into account, if the required technology is developed and ready for large scale use. Effectivity Evaluating how effective the proposal is in tackling climate change. Is it able to delay the onset, hold the climate at the current level or fully reverse all changes up to now and in the future.The scalability of the proposals will be assessed and role the proposal plays in the global climate control system. Geointervention This is the level by which the natural workings of earth are altered by the interventions. Also what effect this will have on local and global flora and fauna will be looked into. Risk The risks of geoengineering vary greatly between the different proposals. One important factor is the reversibility of the changes. Can, and in what timeframe, the modification be reversed to it’s pre geoengineering state and how much further intervention might this reversal require. What unintended consequences are likely to occur will also be discussed. This is very important with respect to the previously discussed feedbacks and threshold points.


Selected Case Studies
Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon capture and storage can mean various techniques but can be summarised and defined as the following. “Carbon capture and storage (CSS) covers a broad range of technologies that are being developed to allow carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions from fossil fuel use at large point sources to be transported to safe geological storage, rather than being emitted into the atmosphere.” [9] When considering cost, a very important main point is that the implementation of this technology will decrease efficiency by up to 10% as well as increase capital costs of plants by up to a factor of three [10]. To store the captured CO2 , geological sites are typically chosen. For this, the CO2 is injected into the earth 1km below the surface at pressures of 100 atmospheres. The UK storage capabilities in offshore sites are estimated at 20Gt of CO2 . This amount could sequester UK emissions for 40 years assuming current rates of emissions [11]. CCS has been used 3

since the 1970’s for enhanced oil recovery [9]. Thus, this is not untested speculation but tested technology, making the technology feasible for large scale introduction. Additionally after the initial set-up, carbon storage can be considered a long term solution as after 100 years a site can be considered safe and does not need further monitoring [12]. Due to it essentially removing large point sources, CCS is effective in tackling global warming at its roots. But it should be kept in mind that it can only be applied to some sources of CO2 emissions, harming the effectivity slightly. Geointervention is low as the power plants are in use already and the storage sites have been cleared out already as well. Additionally there are only a few risks associated with CCS such as leakages of the stored carbon. But experience with this technology goes back about 40 years, so that these risks can be minimised and together with carful monitoring well controlled. It should also be kept in Figure 2: Strength and weaknesses of Carbon Capture and Storage mind that it is a very reversible process as a re-emission of the stored carbon can be performed easily. 2.2.2 Biomass

There are several approaches in the area of utilising biomass as a way of tackling climate change. Increasing the storage capacities of peat being one and the storage in biochar being another. Peat Peat offers one of the highest natural carbon storage densities [13] and has the potential to store it for thousands of years [14]. It is therefore a good starting point when considering the sequestration of carbon. Currently peatlands store 33% of all soil organic carbon, the equivalent of 60% of the atmospheric carbon pool [15]. To understand how to utilise this potential to combat climate change, it has first to be understood what peat is and therefore peatlands are. “Peatlands are characteristic of waterlogged situations in which, owing to anoxic and cool conditions a few centimetres or decimetres beneath the surface, organic detritus accumulates, usually on relatively flat landscapes to depths >30-40cm and often up to several meters.” [16] Recently more accurate descriptions of the mechanisms controlling the slow decomposition rates have been discovered. Based on this manipulation of enzymes in peat offer strong control over the carbon stored. There are several ways of inhibiting enzymes from working effectively, thus reducing the decomposition further and enabling greater carbon storage volumes. This has been termed ‘enzymic latch’ and is seen as a promising tool in expanding peat storage [17].


Biochar Another biomass approach to tackle climate change is biochar. It can be defined as “Charcoal (biomass that has been pyrolysed in a zero or low oxygen environment) for which, [...] application to soil at a specific site is expected to sustainably sequester carbon and concurrently improve soil functions [...].” [18] Biochar has certain similarities to peat as a method of storing carbon. Both utilise already existing, natural ways of storing carbon whilst simply enhancing the scale of it. However, a main advantage of biochar is, that its conversion process can be designed so that heat is released which can in turn be used to satisfy or at least contribute to the energy needs of the world [19]. A lifecycle analysis of biochar is particularly interesting as the pyrolysis produces, apart from biochar, also gases, of which some are greenhouse gases such as methane [18]. Fortunately, net emission analysis reveals that depending on the type of biomass used between -800 and -900 kg CO2 t−1 are sequestered [20]. The global storage potential is also a key figure needed. Estimates using a 3% soil addition figure result in a storage potential of 600GtC worldwide. The stored carbon can be considered to be inert for thousands of years. [19]. A risk of biochar are forest fires due to its inherent flammability. [19]. Fortunately these risks can be controlled by decreasing the stockpile size, good ventilation, storing it under low O2 conditions, increasing its humidity or mixing it with non-flammable material [21]. Biomass can be regarded as a cheap and feasible option in tackling climate change. Neither approach needs much further technological development and represents a low tech approach to the problem. They have the possibility to be scaled to nearly any required size and the carbon sequestration response will follow linearly. Climate change is combatted at its roots rather than masking the effects aids in the effectiveness. The level of geointervention is also very low as it is just a way of expanding already existing mechanisms. Application of the concepts could even be beneficial as peatlands also have Figure 3: Strength and weaknesses of Biomass. some unique ecosystems based on it and biochar can improve the soil for the local flora. Risks are also very low as reducing or reversing the storage in biomass can be achieved quickly and cheaply by burning it and thereby releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere. For peat a significant problem is the release of methane. Currently peat is responsible for 20% of annual methane emissions [22]. However by altering the enzymic latch this problem can be solved. Biochar has the risk of fires but these can be minimised by careful management.



Iron fertilisation of Oceans

Iron fertilisation of oceans can be defined by the following: “Iron fertilization is the intentional introduction of iron to the upper ocean to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom. This is intended to enhance biological productivity, which can benefit the marine food chain and is under investigation with regards to being a successful means of facilitating increased carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.” [23] There have been several experiments with iron fertilisation in recent years such as EisenEx [24] . Analysis of the results proves difficult since many uncertainties are associated with the experiments. Monitoring the results is “nearly impossible” [25] mostly due to the scale of the experiments. The cost of is rather low compared to the other proposals. A 100t iron sulphate fertilisation can cost as little as $2.5 million [26]. It is also very feasible as shown by several experiments being conducted. The proposal is very low-tech and large scale deployment can be set up within a short period of time. However its effectivity is questioned, as the short term increase in carbon can be followed by a subsequent decrease in activity leading the opposite effect [25]. In addition to this concern, it is not yet proven that the carbon is transported reliably onto the see bed and is not re-released soon without leaving the Figure 4: Strength and weaknesses of Iron fertilisation of oceans. upper ocean level [24]. These are very significant concerns as it would render the proposal entirely useless in the aim of combatting climate change. Great concern lies in the area of the level of geointervention. Iron fertilisation is a very big intervention into the working cycles of nature. If this was to be run at a globally significant scale the implications would be unknown and very difficult to predict. The level of geointervention is very closely linked in this proposal to the risks. If unexpected changes were to happen or tipping points reached, the scale would be of one which humans can not reverse easily, if at all. This reversal then will likely require further drastic intervention resulting in the danger of causing more harm to the environment.



Cool Roofing of Buildings

The basic idea of the cool roof approach is fundamentally different to the previously discussed proposals. A brief definition will explain why. “Modifications that increase roof albedo [...] produce a climate benefit by creating a negative radiative forcing proportional to the amount of additional sunlight reflected back through the atmosphere to space, as compared to the preexisting surface.” [27] The cost of this proposal are low. Painting or modelling a new roof with a lighter colour instead of using a darker one does not add to costs. Some research into materials which keep high albedo properties might be needed but costs are comparably low. The feasibility of cool roofs can be said to not be a problem. It is not a technical problem to change the colour of a roof to a more reflective one, especially if the approach is taken that only roofs which are being remodelled have to be changed. Evaluating the effectivity is more difficult to estimate as it is likely to rather aid with temperature regulation than to tackle global warming at its roots such that some other problems such as ocean acidification remain. Also a surface area can only account for a set amount of negative forcing [28]. Despite this, the level of geointervention is not very high. Figure 5: Strength and weaknesses of cool roofing of The buildings and roads are there albuildings. ready and the scheme does not add to the size of urban developments. But risks are not to be underestimated in this case. The response time is very long compared to other proposals, as it takes a long time to remodel the roofs of a city if unexpected consequences were to occur. However, the size of the scheme can be accurately controlled and modelling of the response can be done to a good level.



Geoengineering opens up a broad range of measures with which global climate change can be tackled. It enables adjustments at lower level causes of climate change or direct energy levels adjustment. The control system view of earth is an important first step, as it forms the basis of geoengineering proposals. Modelling earth as a system is key to understanding the effects of alterations to it. If geoengineering was to apply a forcing too large or at the wrong point such that positive feedback loops overtake, the results could be drastic and unpredictable. As the key loops and mechanisms are not yet fully understood threshold points need to be found through further research. This way, they can be avoided or depending on their effect 7

aimed for. Earth’s climate system history can be a starting point for such analysis. Historic tipping points can still exist, or at least help with the understanding of what can trigger them. Furthermore small scale controlled experiments can be undertaken and compared to models to verify their reliability. Regions which are particularly susceptible to changes should be found so that they can avoided as far as possible by the experiments and projects. Up until adequate models are found only reversible and well controlled geoengineering interventions should be applied on a large scale, in order to prevent uncontrollable feedbacks being set off by accident. Even though these problems and risks exist, different methods for geoengineering are proposed. Having established the evaluation criteria the different proposals were able do be discussed based on their cost, feasibility, effectivity, level of geointervention and risks. Of the examined proposals not all can be applied everywhere. Choosing between the different proposals is not always straightforward because the applicability depends on several variables. These include geographical, financial, type of emissions as well as risks analyses. CCS is a good option for a rich country aiming at reducing its CO2 emissions from power plants or other large single emitters. Apart from cost this method is very feasible and effective with low levels of geointervention and risks. Biomass is a good option for countries that have suitable and extended unused land areas available. It is a lower cost approach and can be scaled up to have a large impact. Low cost, feasibility, effectiveness and low levels of geointervention speak in favour despite small risks which need to be carefully managed. Iron fertilisation of oceans is only an option for countries with suitable access to oceans. The low costs involved and the proven feasibility make this method very appealing. But concerns about effectivity, level of geointervention and high risks question the validity of this approach. Cool Roof is a good approach for densely populated areas or countries with high annual sunshine hours. The low cost, risks and level of geointervention of this feasible option are on the other hand weakened by lack of effectivity in the control of other effects such as the acidification of oceans.

Figure 6: Illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals 8

Geoengineering faces criticism as it might encourage people to reduce their efforts in lowering their greenhouse gas emissions but neither approach should be viewed as a single solution to all of the problems associated with climate change. Most likely a combination will yield long term success. It can be said for all geoengineering proposals, that due to our incomplete understanding of all feedbacks and threshold points in the global system of earth, the topic has to be approached with great caution. But its potential in helping to solve the great problem of climate change, make the efforts put into research and experiments worthwhile.

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