Can geo-engineering rebuild the planet?

As global warming worsens, the idea of vast projects to alter the Earth’s environment is moving from fantasy to necessity.

The Telegraph By Sanjida O’Connell

In the 1960s, two Russian scientists set out ambitious plans to reshape the world around us: to reverse the flow of rivers, shoot tiny white particles into space to illuminate the night sky, and melt the Arctic to water fields of Soviet wheat. “If we want to improve our planet and make it more suitable for life,” wrote NP Rusin and L Flit, “we must alter its climate.”
Four decades later, we have done plenty to alter the climate, but not for the better. And as we grapple with the problems of global warming, the standard prescription – cutting greenhouse gas emissions – is proving problematic. “I cannot see that we will be able to keep carbon levels low enough to prevent catastrophe,” says Professor Brian Launder, of the University of Manchester. “Over the past five years, emissions have gone up, not down.”
Which means that “geo-engineering” – using technology on an almost unimaginable scale to tinker with the environment and correct our mistakes – could move from fantasy to necessity. Professor James Lovelock, who came up with the “Gaia” hypothesis, in which the Earth is thought to behave rather like a living, self-regulating organism, thinks we have exceeded the planet’s natural capacity to counteract the changes we have made, and are rapidly heading towards a situation that will be calamitous for our species.
“Whatever we do is likely to lead to death on a scale that makes all previous wars, famines and disasters small,” he says. “To continue business as usual will probably kill most of us during the century.”
Even those of a less alarmist bent are worried enough to be taking geo-engineering seriously. Last September, Prof Launder co-edited a special edition of a Royal Society journal which examined various proposals, such as injecting sulphur into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space.
Most of the schemes suggested, there and elsewhere, involve dramatic alterations to the Earth’s weather systems, whether by deflecting the Sun’s rays, removing carbon from the atmosphere or cooling the oceans. Prof Lovelock has come up with one of the most ambitious: he and Professor Chris Rapley, from the Science Museum, would like a system of pipes to be held vertically below the ocean’s surface. These tubes, each 100 metres long, would draw cold water from below; wave action would then mix four tons of cooler water per second into the ocean at the surface. Cooler oceans mean a cooler planet, while the nutrient-rich water brought up from the bottom could encourage algal blooms, which use carbon to grow and thereby remove it from the atmosphere.
Supporters of another approach, known as Oceanic Iron Fertilisation, believe that promoting the growth of algae should be our main objective, rather than just a side effect. According to Dr Victor Smetacek, of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, the theory is that adding iron to the oceans will encourage algal blooms. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, locking away their cargo of carbon.
There are plans to test this proposal off the island of South Georgia in the Atlantic. At the very least, Dr Smetacek hopes that large blooms of algae will act as food for krill, helping resurrect declining populations of squid and even some whales.
A third oceanic idea has been suggested by Professor Stephen Salter, from Edinburgh University’s School of Engineering: a wind-driven fleet of Flettner ships. Originally designed by German engineer Anton Flettner, these vessels have no sails and are powered by rotors; the first one sailed across the Atlantic in 1926.
The ships would drag propeller-like turbines behind them to generate electricity, and pump out a very fine spray of seawater into the air. These tiny drops would join low clouds, with the salt making them whiter and better at reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere, thus cooling the oceans. The beauty of this system is that it uses natural materials – seawater – and is powered by a renewable source of energy.
Finally, instead of reflecting sunlight using sea-level contraptions, some scientists have suggested shading the Earth from space. The most recent idea was put forward by Dr Roger Angel at the University of Arizona: to launch into space trillions of thin transparent discs, each about 60cm across. This cloud of 100,000 lenses would reflect sunlight back into space, shielding us from 1.8 per cent of the Sun’s radiation.
But as intoxicating as such ideas are – and as tempting as a “quick fix” to the climate would be – they are not the finished article. Not only would the costs be enormous, but in a recent paper in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, Dr Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia compared the possible effectiveness of 17 different geo-engineering techniques, and found severe problems with many of them. The Lovelock/Rapley plan to cool the oceans would, he says, be ineffective at reducing carbon on a global scale, and he is similarly sceptical about the algal blooms.
“There’s huge disagreement in the scientific community about ocean fertilisation,” agrees Prof Launder. “The ocean is very complex – elsewhere, perhaps thousands of miles away, you might be causing an adverse effect.” Scientists from Britain’s National Oceanography Centre, writing in the journal Nature, have demonstrated that adding iron to the ocean does boost algae growth rates by up to three times, and lock away carbon on the sea floor. But they added that geo-engineers overestimated the amount of carbon removed by between 15 and 50 times.
Prof Salter’s Flettner ships have also sailed into stormy waters. Dr Lenton has calculated that they could cope with half the projected carbon emissions during the coming century, but Professor Stephen Schneider, from Stanford University, says that oceanic currents and winds might distribute the cooling effect unevenly, resulting in even greater climatic change.
As for Dr Angel’s sun shield, Dr Lenton believes it would do the most to compensate for carbon emissions – but there is a downside, in that the sunshades would need to be launched in stacks of 800,000 units every five minutes for 10 years. “They might well work,” says Prof Launder, “but this system wouldn’t be ready soon enough.”
So instead of alleviating global warming by trying to cool the planet or creating giant algal blooms, why not simply remove the carbon? Trees are pretty good at doing this naturally – but according to Prof Lovelock, we do not have enough forested regions left and could not plant enough trees to save us.
Instead, Dr Klaus Lackner, of Columbia University in New York, has come up with the idea of an artificial tree that directly “scrubs” carbon from the sky. Each one would be around the size of a shipping container and would, he estimates, be able to capture a ton of carbon dioxide a day. Of course, the carbon dioxide still has to be disposed of; Dr Lackner suggests pumping it into greenhouses to be absorbed by crop plants.
“In a way, this sort of scheme is the most desirable,” says Prof Launder, “because it doesn’t just reflect sunlight, it grabs carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Sadly, I don’t think these ‘trees’ can sequester anything like the amount of carbon required.”
The grim conclusion is that while some of these schemes have potential, there is no magic answer. “Geo-engineering is not a solution,” says Prof Launder, “but it could give the world a chance to come to its senses. In 50 years we’ll have carbon-free energy schemes in place, but we need a solution that can be put into place shortly, and will gain us breathing space.”
Yet even if any of these schemes could be made to work, a global scheme requires global co-operation. Given how hard that has proved over the financial crisis, it is difficult to imagine world leaders reaching an agreement over a radical – and expensive – alteration to the environment.

Bush-era offshore drilling plan shelved

Obama team eyes renewables, seeks more input on Atlantic

Pacific coasts staff and news service reports

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Tuesday overturned another Bush-era energy policy, setting aside a draft plan to allow drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

“To establish an orderly process that allows us to make wise decisions based on sound information, we need to set aside” the plan “and create our own timeline,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in a statement.

Alleging that the Bush administration “had torpedoed” offshore renewable energy in favor of oil and natural gas, Salazar said he was extending the public comment period by 6 months.

“The additional time we are providing will give states, stakeholders, and affected communities the opportunity to provide input on the future of our offshore areas,” he said.

Salazar also ordered Interior Department experts to compile a report on the Outer Continental Shelf’s energy potential — not just oil and gas, but also renewables like wind and wave energy.

“In the biggest area that the Bush administration’s draft OCS plan proposes for oil and gas drilling — the Atlantic seaboard, from Maine to Florida — our data on available resources is very thin, and what little we have is twenty to thirty years old,” he said. “We shouldn’t make decisions to sell off taxpayer resources based on old information.”

The Interior Department oversees 1.75 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf, an area that’s about three fourths the size of the entire United States.

Environmentalists and some tourism-dependent coastal states oppose the drilling, citing the potential for spills and urging an emphasis on renewable energy instead. Energy companies counter that drilling has become safer over the years and that royalties from any finds would be in the billions of dollars.

“I intend to issue a final rulemaking … in the coming months, so that potential developers know the rules of the road,” Salazar said. “This rulemaking will allow us to move from the ‘oil and gas only’ approach of the previous administration to the comprehensive energy plan that we need.”

“We need a new, comprehensive energy plan that takes us to the new energy frontier and secures our energy independence,” he added. “We must embrace President Obama’s vision of energy independence for the sake of our national security, our economic security, and our environmental security.”

Moratorium ended last year
The Bush administration had authorized the Interior Department to open areas off both coasts to oil and gas drilling during a five-year period. That move came after a moratorium on drilling there expired last year. Offshore drilling is already allowed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Both Obama and Salazar have said that expanding offshore oil drilling should be worked out with Congress as part of a broad energy blueprint, and not independent action by the Interior Department.

The move comes a week after the Interior Department shelved energy leases on 130,000 acres near two national parks and other federally protected lands in Utah.

In Congress, Democrats have long wanted to rewrite the rules on royalties from offshore drilling, arguing that energy companies have been paying too little.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., praised the move as an end to “drill first and ask questions later”.

“The tide has turned back towards reason and a comprehensive energy plan for our country that sees promise in the winds and the tides, not just in drills and rigs,” added Markey, who chairs the select committee on energy independence and global warming.

But House Republicans last week urged Obama not to close areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines.

“We respectfully urge that you allow the five-year offshore drilling plan to continue because it is vital to our economy,” the lawmakers, led by House Republican leader John Boehner, said in a letter. “Our country needs to remain on the path to American energy independence, and we believe this is a critical and achievable goal.”

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the large oil companies, said Salazar’s announcement “means that development of our offshore resources could be stalled indefinitely.”

31 lease sales were proposed
The preliminary plan drawn up by the Bush administration would have authorized 31 energy exploration lease sales between 2010 and 2015 for tracts along the East Coast and off the coasts of Alaska and California.

The Republican lawmakers cited a study that concluded the untapped offshore oil and gas reserves would create more than 160,000 jobs by 2030 and provide the government with $1.7 trillion in royalties on the oil and gas drilled.

Congress last year failed to renew the long-standing moratorium on oil and gas exploration across 85 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf, leaving all waters potentially open to drilling.

Then, four days before leaving office, officials in the Bush administration issued the draft plan, which called for energy leases in areas that until recently had been off limits for a quarter century.

The Interior Department estimates — using 30-year-old studies — that the offshore waters lifted from drilling bans last year contain at least 18 billion barrels of oil, about half of it off California.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report..


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Bailing out the planet

‘Green paper gold’ could provide a much-needed fiscal stimulus while protecting the planet from climate change

Brendan Smith –

As the rag-tag army of social movement activists, NGO representatives and other advocates from global civil society wend their way home from the Amazonian city of Belem, Brazil, and the World Social Forum (WSF), they have reason to believe they have won the debate on globalisation. Global economic catastrophe and global climate catastrophe have demonstrated to people the world over – including the new president of the United States – that unfettered capitalism is leading to unfettered disaster.

Yet to many ears, the WSF’s rallying cry “Another world is possible” sounds like a hollow slogan. However compelling their critique, does this motley crew really have anything worthwhile to propose to address the ills of globalisation?

Perhaps. Consider one concrete proposal:

There is growing international support for fighting global economic stagnation and global warming simultaneously with a “green New Deal”. Investing to cut greenhouse gases can create “green jobs” and provide fiscal stimulus while protecting the planet. But how is it going to be paid for? The answer: green paper gold.

In 1969, national governments gave the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the right to create Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), often referred to as “paper gold”. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz says that SDRs are “a kind of global money, issued by the IMF, which countries agree to accept and exchange for dollars or other hard currencies”.

Stiglitz has proposed that paper gold be issued for investment in “global public goods” such as health initiatives and humanitarian assistance. Today, with trillions of dollars sloshing around the world bailing out the financial sector and ailing industries, it is time to direct a portion of this money to create “green gold” to help finance a global war on climate change.

Surely nothing could better qualify as a global public good than saving the planet from ruinous climate change. And at the same time, this green gold could provide some of the stimulus needed to move the global economy out of its deepening stagnation. It would help pay for energy conservation, mass transit, research, development and investment in sustainable energy, technology transfer to low-income countries and climate change adaptation.

Green gold should not be funnelled through the IMF but rather through some new entity with an appropriate overseer, such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). Its authoritative scientific committee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), should certainly play a major role in setting criteria and evaluating the results.

Countries would apply for funding to implement their national plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In order to qualify, each country would be required to meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. Complete transparency in allocating and contracting could be a further condition for receiving money.

How big should a green gold program be? Estimates are that $500bn – or less than half of the global stimulus package the IMF is currently calling for – would cover the annual cost of protecting the world’s climate.

In terms of job creation, economic stimulus and support for long-term growth – not to mention warding off climate disaster – nothing is likely to provide bigger benefits than investment in climate protection.

If the world can spend trillions of dollars to bail out the banks, why can’t we use green gold to create desperately needed green jobs – and bail out the planet?

Additional research and reporting by Tim Costello and Jeremy Brecher.

€ Tim Costello, Brendan Smith and Jeremy Brecher are the co-founders of Global Labor Strategies, a labour and social movement resource centre. They were in Belem as part of a team of “networked journalists” organised by the Transnational Institute and Networked Politics.