Considering “Soft Geoengineering”November 29, 2012 By Aaron Lovell
Even as the climate debate has been paralyzed by politics, the concept of geoengineering has been in the news lately, most notably in October when Russ George dumped 120 tons of iron particles into the Pacific Ocean in a scheme to try and score carbon credits. Earlier this month, the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program hosted an event taking a look at “soft geoengineering” – techniques that might have low or minimal environmental side effects but still address or reverse climate change.
The idea of humans engineering the Earth’s environment remains controversial but has increasingly drawn interest from policymakers. Last year alone, the concept of geoengineering garnered reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the Wilson Center, among others.
Looking to move forward from the spate of 2011 reports, Robert L. Olson of the Institute for Alternative Futures, in conjunction with the Wilson Center, explored the concept of soft geoengineering in an article in the September/October issue of Environment, which focused on technologies with a “gentler touch” than others associated with geoengineering.
Olson discussed the article at the event, including the seven criteria that could be used to evaluate any geoengineering technology that claimed to be environmentally benign. According to the criteria, soft technologies should:
- Be able to be applied locally;
- Be scalable;
- Have low or no negative impacts on the environment (besides climate change);
- Be rapidly reversible;
- Provide multiple benefits;
- Be analogous to natural processes; and
- Be worthwhile on the time/effect scale and cost effective.
The article further looks at five specific technologies and how they matched up against these criteria. At the Wilson Center, scientists behind two of these technologies discussed their work.
Leslie Field of Ice911 talked about her research on using inexpensive materials to slow loss of ice and snow and encourage the natural process of ice and snow formation. And Russell Seitz discussed the possibility of using “microbubbles” in the ocean in an effort to reflect “megawatts” of solar energy back into the atmosphere and space.
But despite the purported lower risk of these technologies, many still have serious concerns. At the panel, Jim Thomas of the ETC Group raised concerns with the idea of benign geoengineering at a fundamental level, calling it instead “soft-sell geoengineering.” Thomas pointed out that the idea remains fraught with risk. “We shouldn’t get too desensitized to that,” he said.
Further, Thomas raised concerns with what increased use of geoengineering could do to international talks on emissions reductions, particularly when some parties will argue against further emissions cuts because of geoengineering activities.
“Let’s play with the one that really matters,” he said. “That’s already hard enough.”
- Leslie Field’s Presentation
- Bob Olson’s Presentation
- Russell Seitz’s Presentation
- Jim Thomas’ Presentation
- Photo Gallery
Aaron Lovell is a writer/editor for the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program.
Sources: Environment Magazine.