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Geoengineering: Carbon Removal and Reduction of Solar Radiation
A Summary of Current Research and Political Issues
Randy Kirk 11/19/2010
Geoengineering options to mitigate climate change are discussed. The two main branches of geoengineering according to the Royal Society are solar radiation reduction strategies and atmospheric carbon removal strategies. The technologies are assessed based on four variables, cost, environmental impact, environmental risk and main barriers to adoption. Geoengineering in terms of carbon removal is very difficult in terms of cost even for the most cost efficient methods, while two options (cloud albedo and stratospheric aerosol) appear initially promising as solar radiation reduction strategies. However, nearly all geoengineering strategies will likely not be adopted on a large scale, unless there is a major climatic crisis, due to environmental risks and political complications.
Contents................................................................................................................ 3 Introduction:.......................................................................................................... 4 Geoengineering Overview:....................................................................................6 Carbon Removal from Atmospheric Technologies:................................................7 Ocean Based Technologies Assessment:.............................................................10 Which Technologies Appear to be the Most Promising Carbon Removal Methods? ............................................................................................................................ 10 What are the Most Promising Solar Radiation Reduction Technologies?..............13 Brief Overview of the Political and Ethical Aspects of Geoengineering Options:..15 Conclusion:.......................................................................................................... 16 Works Cited......................................................................................................... 17
John Von Neumann, one of the greatest scientists of the middle 20 th century, forecasted global heating to become a serious concern for humanity in the 21st century, due to excess carbon production that would retain solar radiation. Von Neumann predicted that mitigating climate change by geoengineering would be considered, even if the technologies and externalities were not to be fully understood. Geoengineering, Von Neumann argued, would link all of the world’s countries together, in so far as actions by one country or a group of countries to change the world’s climate would impact all the others, and could potentially be used as a weapon of war. (Von Neumann, 1955). In late 2010, the predictions by John Von Neumann have come to pass. Interest in geoengineering by the academic community has exploded, with research papers published in 2010 at approximately 4x the number in 2007 (see Figure 1). Interest by the scientific community has been driven in part by Nobel prize winning scientist Paul Crutzen, who has recommended geoengineering as an emergency option to combat climate change in a 2006 paper. (Crutzen, 2006) Additionally, the renowned economist William Nordhaus has advised seriously researching geoengineering as an mitigating option for climate change (Nordhaus, 1994, Nordhaus, 2003). Geoengineering has also drawn interest from business and political groups. Bill Gates has reportedly donated $4M to research on geoengineering in 2009 and has been funding geoengineering since 2007 (Kintisch, 2010). Russian president Vladimir Putin has been advised by Russian scientist Yuri Izrael to pump Sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in order to prevent global warming (Phillips, 2010). China also been reportedly researching geoengineering concepts, (Geddes, 2010) and the US government’s chief scientific advisor John Holden has advised the US president to seriously consider advocating geoengineering. (Jha, 2009) Figure 1: The Number of Research Papers Published in Academic Journals on Geoengineering:
Source: (Economist, 2010) The late Steven Schneider of Stanford University, one of the world’s experts on climate change, once joked in a lecture he gave to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1972, “Mark Twain had it backwards. Nowadays, everyone is doing something about the weather, but nobody is talking about it.” (Economist , 2010) This quip could accurately be used to describe the state of affairs in 2010. The concept of geoengineering has met with significant resistance from groups within the scientific community, as well as environmental groups, and economists and lower income nations who would not have a significant say in the geoengineering projects but may be overly exposed to the side effects. Further resistance stems from those who advocate moving the world’s energy system to a more renewable one based on wind and solar. An example of the scientific community’s resistance to geoengineering is expressed by the venerable James Lovelock, who has stated that “Using geoengineering is like using 19th century medicine to combat 21st century diseases.” (Lovelock, 2009). Further, Lovelock has warned that geoengineering may cause irreversible damage. (Lovelock, 2009). Many of not most scientists agree that the world is too complex to be satisfactorily understood and therefore unintended consequences would likely result from the wide scale adoption of geoengineering projects. This essay will briefly review the existing potential geoengineering options, with options reviewed based on the Royal Academy of Science’s comprehensive report on geoengineering published September of 2009 (Royal Society, 2009). It
should be noted that the author is not an expert in the field of geoengineering. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to review the options listed by established experts as well as perform relatively straightforward calculations of potential energy and resources required by the mitigating options (note the author has covered oil and natural gas for an investment fund, and is familiar with calculations of conversion of energy, and also of scale). Secondly, the purpose of this paper is to move from “unconscious incompetence” of geoengineering, which is to say, “not knowing that one does not know” to “conscious incompetence,” which is, “knowing that one does not know.” This movement should be beneficial in so far that conscious incompetence has been shown in studies to produce a more accurate assessment of knowledge and capabilities than unconscious incompetence. (Chapman, 2008) Finally, this essay will provide a brief overview of the political obstacles towards the adoption of geoengineering, concluding that it is unlikely that geoengineering will be adopted as a solution to global warming, unless there is a significant climate crisis.
The Royal Society published their landmark study Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty, in September 2009. The study received input from over 200 scientists in the area of geoengineering, climate and earth sciences, and took over 12 months to research and complete. This study has split geoengineering techniques into two broad categories: 1. carbon removal methods, and 2. solar radiation management techniques. (Royal Society, 2009) The Royal Society’s geoengineering options can be further segmented into two options out of four to stabilize the world’s climate (Caldeira, 2008)(see Figure 2). Figure 2: Diagram of Methods to Stabilize the World’s Climate: (Note that Geoengineering involves the last two options)
Source: Caldeira, 2008 This report will focus on the last two options, but does not imply that these technologies are superior to energy utilization technologies. In fact, the first two options listed in Figure 2 above would very likely incur less risk for the environment than the geoengineering options. scientist at the Carneigie Department of As Ken Caldeira, a climate Global Ecology has stated,
geoengineering should be viewed as a “catastrophe avoiding” option, one that as a last chance would avoid global climate change if society utilization of the first two options failed (Calderia, 2008). It is possible that global climate change mitigation would likely need many options or “wedges” in order to stabilize the world’s climate – wedges defined as separate initiatives adopted which combine to reach a reduction in carbon and global warming – according to Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University (Socolow and Pacala, 2004). Therefore, it is possible that all the options listed in Figure 2 above could be considered in order to prevent damaging climate change in future years, but the risks may need to be fully considered.
Carbon Removal from Atmospheric Technologies:
The Royal Society has divided the carbon removal technologies into a two by three matrix, based on land and ocean technologies, and by biological and
physical and chemical means. See figure 3 below for the Royal Society’s listed carbon removal technologies based on either land or ocean based technologies. Figure 3: Atmospheric Carbon Removal Techniques: Land Biological: • Afforestation and land use • Biomass/fuels with carbon sequestration • • Fertilisation Enhanced upwelling Ocean • • Iron fertilisation Phosphorus/nitrogen
Physical Chemical (enhanced weathering’ techniques)
scrubbers (‘air capture’) • In-situ carbonation of silicates • Basic minerals (incl. olivine) on soil
circulation • Alkalinity enhancement (grinding, dispersing and dissolving limestone, silicates, or calcium hydroxide)
Source: Royal Society, 2009 Initially, in the author’s (uneducated) assessment, the most promising methods appeared to be ocean and biological based, due to the fact that the ocean holds approximately 50 times the carbon of the atmosphere and covers a significantly larger area than land for the earth as a whole. The biological basis would mean that costs could be lowered, as growing a biological medium would not require the constant addition of materials, in theory – this is to say, the cost would be relatively low, but the effectiveness would potentially be high, due to the large area. However, ocean based technologies did not fare too well in the Royal Society’s educated appraisal. The Royal Society published its assessment of the carbon sequestration technologies based across four main criteria: 1. Cost in terms of capital and resources, and hours of labour, 2. Probable Environmental Impact, 3. Environmental Risk, and 4. The Maximum Reduction in CO2. Comments were also made on the ultimate restraint on the technology. The land or ocean basis of the technology is indicated in blue (ocean) or green (land), and the biological
process is indicated by italics (no indication for chemical and physical processes). See figure Figure 4: Summary of the Royal Society’s Assessment of the Carbon Removal Technologies Across Cost, Environmental Impact, Environmental Risk and Maximum Reduction in CO2.
Deployed to remove 1 GtC/Yr Cos t pp Land use and afforestation (Land)(Biological) Biomass with Carbon Sequestration (Land)(Biological) Biomass and biochar (Land) (Biological) Enhanced Weathering on Land (Land) Enhanced weathering— increasing ocean alkalinity (Ocean) Chemical air capture and carbon sequestration (Land) Ocean Iron Fertilization (Ocean)(Biological) Ocean N and P fertilisation (Ocean)(Biological) Ocean upwelling, downwelling (Ocean)(Biological) Not Possible Med Med Low Med Hig h Hig h Dynamics of ocean carbon system Cost and availability of nutrients 1 to 5 5 to 20 Hig h Low Lo w Cost availability of sequestration sites No obvious limit 10 to 30 Aumont & Bopp (2006) Lenton & Vaughan (2009) Zhou & Flynn (2005) Keith et al. (2005) Med Med Med Med Med Med Me d Lo w Me d Med Med Me d m Low Env Imp ct Low En vRi sk Lo w Competition with other uses, especially agriculture Competition with other uses, especially agriculture Supply of Agricultural, Forestry Waste Extraction and Energy Costs Extraction and energy costs n/a 10 to 50 ppm n/a 50 to 150 ppm Read & Parshotam, 2007; Korbeinikov (2006) Gaunt & Lehmann (2008) Schuiling & Krijgsman (2006) Kheshgi (1995); Rau (2008) Ultimate constraint Max Reducti on in CO2 n/a Canadell; Raupach (2008) Reference
Source: Royal Society, 2009
Ocean Based Technologies Assessment:
As shown in figure 4, ocean based carbon sequestration technologies pose significant risk to the environment, according to the Royal Society. One of the most publicized ocean-based technologies for sequestering carbon is iron fertilization of the ocean to stimulate growth of phytoplankton, which, in turn, theoretically would utilize carbon from the atmosphere to produce sugars through photosynthesis. This technology can disrupt ocean food cycles (Abraham, 2004; Aumont, 2006; Royal Society, 2009), and iron fertilization has not been thoroughly tested (Coale, 1996; Aumont, 2006; Royal Society, 2009). Further, iron sequestration has been theorized to only sequester 10 to 30 ppm total of carbon from the atmosphere if utilized on a large scale, (Royal Society, 2009) which is far lower than some scientists and observers had projected. The technology therefore does not appear to be a significant solution to reducing carbon from the atmosphere based on the risks to the environment and the low potential for carbon sequestration in terms of reduction of ppm of carbon in the atmosphere.
Which Technologies Appear to be the Most Promising Carbon Removal Methods?
Land based afforestation and enhanced weathering on land appear to be the most promising methods to reduce carbon from the atmosphere, according to the Royal Society. Land afforestation is the planting of trees and bush that would remove carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Enhanced weathering processes include the conversion of carbon from the atmosphere to rocks and or substances through chemical means. Typically, some form of limestone, such as a proposal by the firm Cquestrate - -which is funded by Royal Dutch Shell -- to covert limestone into a carbon capturing chemical through the chemical process of Ca(OH)2 + 2CO2 A Ca2+ + 2HCO3 (Cquestrate, 2008). Land afforestation has not been estimated by the Royal Society in its ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, other sources cite the lack of nonfarmable land to grow enough forests in order to be able to sequester significant carbon from the. () It should be noted that it takes approximately 50 new trees planted per year in order to offset the carbon production per year of a typical
American citizen, () therefore the scale of large scale tree and bush planting can be begun to be imagined. The two main barriers to Cquestrate is the energy usage and limestone availability. A simple calculation of the energy required to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere will be presented here, to reduce atmospheric carbon by 50 ppm: (note the Royal Society estimates that up to 150 ppm of carbon could be reduced from the atmosphere by enhanced weathering processes such as Cquestrate’s methods) (note all calculations are performed by the author, as energy usage is not addressed in depth by Cquestrate): 1. CaCO 3 + 178 kJ/mol CaO + CO2 (1 atm, 25°C) (Kheshgi, 1995) 2. Weight of 391 ppm in KG of carbon in the atmosphere = 3.16*10^15 KG (Hydrogen Now Journal, 2009) 3. Weight of 50 ppm in KG of carbon in the atmosphere (as a percentage of 391 ppm)= 4.12*10^14 KG 4. Mols of Carbon of 50 ppm in the atmosphere = grams of CO2 in 1 mol = 44.0095 (Conversion Calculator, 2010) 4.12*10^17 grams / 44.0095 = 9.39*10^15 mols of CO2 in the atmosphere for 50 ppm 9.39*10^15 mols * 178 kJ = 1.67*10^18 KJ required/2 (because the process takes two atoms of carbon for every one atom of CaO produced = 8.33*10^17 KJ required 5. Number of KJ in 1 Sq meter of natural gas = 38,300 kJ (EIA, 2010) 6. Amount of natural gas in Sq meters to remove 50 ppm of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere = 8.33*10^17/38,300 = 2.18*10^13 sq meters of natural gas 7. Current world production of natural gas = 2.978*10^12 sq meters (BP, 2010) 8. Natural gas required as a percentage of current production to reduce 50 ppm = 2.18*10^13/2.978*10^12 = 732%. Unless there are errors in the calculation above, the amount of natural gas required to remove 50 ppm from the atmosphere is 732% or 7.32x current world production of natural gas. (It is little wonder that Cquestrate does not include this calculation on its website or its promotion materials!). Clearly, this option faces resource challenges, if this calculation is close to being accurate. Note that, in support of the above calculation, Ken Caldeira has stated that the
amount of excess energy trapped from carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere per year is over 1000 times that produced by all of mankind per year (Caldeira, 2008). Therefore the numbers to remove this carbon and trapped energy will be very large. Reduction of Solar Radiation Technologies: Solar reduction technologies fall into three main categories, first, albedo technologies, which involve increasing the reflective qualities of clouds, human settlement, the desert and/or the ocean generally by “whitening” these surfaces and mediums. (note however, the methodology of whiting the mediums and surfaces differs significantly depending on the medium). The second technology involves sending aerosols – sulphur is often mentioned as a possible aerosol -into the atmosphere into order to reflect some of the incoming sunlight. the high cost is likely prohibitive for this measure. Figure 5: Solar Radiation Reduction Assessment: SRM Techniqu e Maximum radiative forcing (W/m2) Cost per year Risk per unit of radiative forcing ($109/yr/W/ m2) Human Settleme nt Albedo Medium Grassland and Crop Albedo High Desert Surface Albedo -3 1000 High Regional Climate Change Ecosystem Impacts -1 n/a Low Regional Climate Change, Possible reduction in crop yields -0.2 2000 Low Regional Climate Change (at max likely level) Possible Side Effects The third possibility are space based reflectors, such as large mirrors in space, but
High Medium Low
Termination Impact (1) Regional Climate Change Changes in Strat. Chemistry Regional Climate Change
Stratosph eric Aerosols
High Low Spacebased Reflector s High Low Low Unlimited 5 Medium
Termination Impact (1) Reduction in Crop Yields Changes in Strat. Chemistry
-2 to -5
Termination Impact (1) Reduction in Crop Yields Reduction in Crop Yields
Methods Source: Royal Society, 2009 Notes: The three main methods, albedo, aerosols and space-based reflectors are colour coded for ease of reference. (1) Termination impact is defined as the impact if the method is discontinued. For example, if stratospheric aerosols are not continuously pumped into the atmosphere, the aerosols will dissipate from the atmosphere in a few years and solar radiation will impact the ground as before.
What are the Most Promising Solar Radiation Reduction Technologies?
The two solar radiation reduction technologies according to the Royal Society are cloud based albedo and stratospheric aerosols. These methods have relatively lower regional ecological and environmental risks compared to other albedo options (desert, urban, glass and cropland), and also are more cost effective per unit of solar radiation reduced than the other options. have proposed to spray seawater in the John Latham of the to increase the University of Colorado, Boulder and Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh atmosphere
reflectiveness of clouds (Latham, 2010, Salter, 2010)). The sprayers would use a fleet of around 1500 unmanned ships to spray water mist into the clouds to whiten them, an effect known as the Twomey Effect (Latham, 2010). According to the Royal Society, this would be one of the least expensive mitigation options, with low risk of changing the chemistry of the clouds and/or atmosphere. (Royal Society, 2009) Perhaps the solar radiation reduction strategy that has received the most attention is stratospheric aerosols. The economist Steven Lewitt of the University of Chicago has recommended this option in his best-selling book “SuperFreakonomics” (Levitt, 2009) (to considerable controversy). Further, Bill Gates has been believed to be funding the research of this option through the venture capital fund Intellectual Ventures, which is run by Nathan Myhrvold (also formerly of Microsoft) (Kintisch, 2010). Intellectual Ventures has hired the scientist Ken Caldeira as a research scientist to focus on this venture. The option would send a compound of sulphur into the atmosphere either through a hose suspended by helium balloons, or by adding sulphuric compounds to jet fuel. The cost is estimated by Ken Caldeira to be only a few billion US dollars to implement, in order to bring the earth’s temperature down by approximately 2 degrees. Caldeira has stated that Sulphurs would not stay in the atmosphere for more than a few years, and also do not significant impact plant growth and photosynthesis (Calderia 2008). The three main problems with sulphur is that, first, they do not solve the higher concentration problems of CO2, therefore would concentrations in the atmosphere and water. do nothing to assist in the saving of coral reefs and other ecosystems that are highly sensitive to carbon Secondly, sending sulphur into the atmosphere would have unanticipated effects on the climate, although note that Calderia states that this risk is partially mitigated by the fact that volcanoes have put sulphur into the atmosphere for 1000’s of years without lasting ill effects to the climate. (Calderia,2008) However, other scientists have noted that the project may give the sky a yellowish tinge, which could mean ill effects in terms of other problems. Third, the project would be highly reversible, meaning that if the project was not continued, then global warming would come back, probably in a more rapidly as carbon concentrations would have likely increased significantly during the period of the sulphuring atmospheric aerosols. As
Stanford scientist David Victor has stated, we haven’t done anything unabated for over 100 years, therefore it is not likely that we could continue to pump aerosols into the atmosphere without an interruption. (Victor, 2009)
Brief Overview of the Political and Ethical Aspects of Geoengineering Options:
A short note is warranted concerning the political aspects of geoengineering options. According to Ken Caldeira, it is unlikely that geoengineering will be deployed as a climate mitigation option unless there is a serious crisis. This is due to the fact that Caldeira expects first world countries will take the lead in the deployment of geoengineering, due to their superior resources. If there is a problem going forward that impacts poor countries, due to unforeseen consequences of geoengineering, then the poor countries will potentially go to war over this extremely sensitive issue. Further, if one country goes ahead with geoengineering without the consent of other countries, this could be considered a cause for serious political repercussions, even war. Note that the UN placed a moratorium on geoengineering in November, 2010 pending proof that geoengineering will not harm the environment. (McDermott, 2010) As this memorandum only came out in the last two weeks of the writing of this paper, the implications of this act has not been fully debated and discussed. Steve Rayner of the University of Oxford has recommended a series of ethical considerations in the deployment of geoengineering, including: (Rayner, 2010) • • • • • Regulation of geoengineering as a public good, similar to the regulation of a public utility or public schools Public Participation in geoengineering discussions and decision making Open publication of results of geoengineering research Independent assessment of the results of geoengineering results and research, and potential impacts Governance beyond deployment
Beginning discussion of ethical deployment and governance of geoengineering ensures that, according to Steve Rayner, if the option is needed in a crisis, then serious issues will have been potentially resolved ahead of this critical time.
Interest in geoengineering has been increasing, particularly over the last three years, as climate change has increasingly demanded the attention of scientists, politicians, economists, businessmen and citizens. In the two main areas of geoengineering, carbon removal and storage and reduction of solar radiation, the two most promising techniques for carbon removal are afforestation and chemical and physical weathering. The two most promising options for solar radiation reduction are cloud albedo and atmospheric aerosols. It is possible that carbon removal geoengineering techniques could form part of Princeton University’s Robert Socolow’s “wedges” – particularly the afforestation options. However it is unlikely that solar radiation reduction technologies will be implemented without a serious crisis. It should be noted that most scientists believe that the earth is too complex to be understood by scientists in their present state of knowledge, and therefore geoengineering the planet based on this incomplete knowledge could lead to unintended consequences and, possibly, irreversible damage. As Ken Caldeira stated (perhaps unintentionally) in a lecture, “If we do irreversible damage to the climate, there’s nothing you can do about it.” (Caldeira, 2008). It is possible that the earth may never be fully understood by humans even in the future, in so far, that as according to the great mathematician Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, in order for something to be fully understood (in mathematical language “proven”) then axioms at a higher level to the current problem must be utilized to prove the current problem. This is to say, paraphrasing, that in order to understand a system, a system that is higher in complexity, order or level must be utilized to understand the lower system. As we appears as merely tiny specks on the much larger and more complex Earth, according to Kurt Gödel perhaps we do not have the capability to understand the Earth’s climate. A lack of understanding would mean that our attempts to control and engineer the Earth’s climate will be fraught with unintended consequences.
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