As global efforts to decrease dependence on fossil fuels continue, researchers are investigating the potential of atmospheric geoengineering as a tool for mitigating global warming and averting climate disaster. Solar radiation management (SRM), a possible approach, seeks to reflect sunlight back into space; the most prominent proposal to achieve this involves releasing sulphur dioxide, a cooling agent, into the upper atmosphere. Discussions on its effectiveness persist, with the United States, Europe, and various environmental organizations expressing both concerns and opportunities. Presently, the dialogue is mostly theoretical, with only a few projects in progress. One such project is the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), led by researchers at Harvard University, which aims to test the impact of releasing aerosols into the stratosphere. While these initial studies will provide valuable insights into the potential risks and benefits of SRM, it is crucial that a comprehensive understanding is gained before any large-scale implementation, as inadvertent consequences may arise from altering Earth’s delicate climate system.
History and potential of sulphur dioxide
The idea of introducing sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere has existed since at least 1992 when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences suggested the concept. Researchers have observed that volcanic eruptions, which emit enormous quantities of SO2, produce a cooling effect on the planet. However, the reduction of SO2 as an air contaminant in China and other nations over the past ten years has diminished this cooling impact and contributed to increasing global temperatures. Thus, scientists are now considering the potential benefits of artificially introducing SO2 into the atmosphere as a method of geoengineering to counterbalance global warming. While the concept may seem promising, it is crucial to carefully weigh the potential consequences and environmental implications of such an approach before implementing it on a large scale.
Current research and experimentation
A relatively small number of businesses operate in this sector, with U.S. start-up Make Sunsets performing a trial in Mexico last year before the Mexican government prohibited the activity in January. Outside of Make Sunsets, just a few tests have been conducted, such as launching a high-altitude weather balloon in southeast England in 2022 to evaluate the feasibility of aerosol injection equipment. Public opposition has led to the cancellation of some initiatives, including a collaboration between Harvard University and the Swedish Space Corporation in 2021. Despite these setbacks, research in this sector continues to explore alternative methods and technologies that could address the issue of climate change without causing harm to the environment. Some experts argue that a cautious and responsible approach to such projects, combined with proper regulatory oversight, may lead to the development of innovative solutions that are both safe and effective.
Alternatives and technological diversity
Other prospective SRM technologies, like marine cloud brightening, which sprays seawater from vessels to enhance cloud reflectivity, are still being researched. According to Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Earth and Environment at Boston University, these methods might be less invasive and harmful than stratospheric aerosol injections, but could be more costly and energy-intensive. In addition to the potential environmental impacts, the implementation and maintenance of such methods may also pose logistical challenges. Furthermore, assessing the long-term consequences of these technological interventions in terms of their effectiveness and potential risks requires extensive research and modeling before any viable strategy can be developed and deployed.
Risk assessment and scientific debate
Numerous scientists advocate for additional SRM research to better comprehend the potential risks and required regulations for broader implementation. Nonetheless, critics contend that the side effects of injecting sulfate aerosols could outweigh the cooling advantages. They argue that such interventions may result in unwanted environmental impacts, such as changes in rainfall patterns and potential damage to the ozone layer. Therefore, it is crucial for further studies to address these concerns and assess the potential trade-offs, ensuring that the benefits of SRM strategies are not overshadowed by their potential harm.
Scientists’ concerns and public campaigns
Last year, a group of 60 scientists launched a campaign urging governments to outlaw outdoor solar geoengineering experiments, citing potential consequences for weather patterns, agriculture, and essentials like food and water. Detractors also believe that SRM could interfere with monsoons, induce droughts in Africa and Asia, impede ozone layer restoration, and intensify acid rain. Despite these concerns, proponents of solar geoengineering argue that it may be a vital tool in combating the negative impacts of climate change, and that conducting further research is essential for a better understanding of its potential risks and benefits. They emphasize the importance of developing stringent regulations and guidelines for outdoor experiments to ensure minimal negative consequences for the environment and human well-being.
Geopolitical and security implications
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has also cautioned that the technology could be exploited by rogue nations or private enterprises, creating new geopolitical and security dangers. This raises concerns over the potential for malicious actors to use the technology in pursuit of their own interests, potentially causing significant harm to the global environment and stability. As a result, there is a growing need for international collaboration and regulation to ensure the responsible and ethical use of this technology while mitigating any potential threats to our ecological and security well-being.
Complementing greenhouse gas emission reduction
There are concerns that concentrating on SRM as a solution may detract from pursuing net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. It is crucial to note that even if SRM initiatives succeed in lowering global temperatures, they will not address the root causes of climate change or halt the alarming rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.Instead, SRM implementation should ideally be integrated into larger climate change mitigation strategies, working in conjunction with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As such, striking a balance between SRM research and emission reduction strategies is essential to holistically address the multifaceted challenges presented by climate change.
First Reported on: reuters.com
Frequently Asked Questions
What is solar radiation management (SRM)?
Solar radiation management (SRM) is a proposed method of atmospheric geoengineering that aims to reflect sunlight back into space in order to mitigate global warming and reduce the impacts of climate change. One prominent proposal involves releasing sulphur dioxide, a cooling agent, into the upper atmosphere.
What is the history of using sulphur dioxide for atmospheric cooling?
The idea of introducing sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere dates back to at least 1992 when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences suggested the concept. Researchers observed that volcanic eruptions, which emit large quantities of SO2, produce a cooling effect on the planet.
What current research and experimentation is being done on solar radiation management?
There are a few projects currently underway, including the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) by Harvard University researchers, as well as some trials conducted by businesses like U.S. start-up Make Sunsets. However, public opposition and regulatory constraints have resulted in the cancellation of some initiatives.
What are some alternatives to stratospheric aerosol injections?
Other prospective SRM technologies include marine cloud brightening, which involves spraying seawater from vessels to enhance cloud reflectivity. These alternative methods may be less invasive and harmful, but they could be more costly and energy-intensive.
What are the main concerns and risks associated with SRM?
Concerns around SRM include potential unintended environmental impacts, such as changes in rainfall patterns and potential damage to the ozone layer. Critics argue that the side effects of introducing sulfate aerosols could outweigh the cooling benefits. Additionally, geopolitical and security implications arise from the possibility of SRM technologies being exploited by rogue nations or private enterprises.
How should SRM fit into broader climate change mitigation strategies?
SRM should not be considered a standalone solution to climate change. Instead, it should be integrated into larger climate change mitigation strategies, working in conjunction with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Striking a balance between SRM research and emission reduction strategies is essential to effectively address the challenges presented by climate change.