By Harriet Le Bris, STEPS Centre member

When I first heard about geoengineering at last year’s STEPS Centre Symposium, my mouth dropped open as I stared in disbelief at the PowerPoint slides that flashed up like scenes from a sci-fi B-movie. So I was thrilled to see in the programme that the first session at the TWAS- ROCASA Conclave of Afro-Asia Young Scientists in Bangalore that I’m attending with my colleague Elisa Arond was to reveal the results of modelling studies carried out on some of these outlandish schemes.

Professor Bala Govindaswamy from the Indian Institute of Science has been researching these CO2 mitigation technologies for the last 10 years, and his presentation didn’t disappoint. I sat back in my seat and watched giant mirrors being suspended in space, aerosols being injected into the atmosphere and clouds being magically ‘whitened’. But I couldn’t really enjoy the show as I was simultaneously informed that these proposals for Solar Radiation Management (SRM) are being taken increasingly seriously by policy-makers who are becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that the human race will not succeed in reducing its global CO2 emission.

Suprisingly, some of these schemes are actually cost effective. According to Professor Govindaswamy, the value of carbon in the current market is approximately $30 per ton. Using this figure he calculated that society is willing to pay the total cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere: $180 billion per year for the next 100 years. But the requisite equivalent aerosol injection would only cost $5 billion per year. What a bargain! I wonder what we would do that extra $175 billion per year…

The good news is that Professor Govindaswamy’s modelling studies reveal that SRM and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies won’t solve all of the problems associated with global warming, and the terrestrial carbon cycle wouldn’t be affected uniformly if they were adopted. Although temperature variability would be reduced in some areas, there would be an associated reduction in rainfall and therefore increased food security concerns. Acidification would persist in oceans and the global hydrological cycle would be weakened. I was relieved to hear that scientific modelling studies can confirm what my instinct shouts loudly – that these schemes won’t save the planet and could make things worse. Modelling schemes are helpful, but nature will have her own unpredictable way of coping with our attempts to manipulate her.

I’m concerned that these awe-inspiring technologies will appeal to a powerful elite that believe it is their god-given right to consume as much energy as they choose to and that technology, in the guise of Bruce Willis, will ride in at the last minute to save the day. When I asked Professor Govindaswamy whether there were any regulations in place to prevent a multi-millionaire ego-maniac splashing some of his cash on suspending a branded space mirror he didn’t think so.

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