Solar geoengineering study could offer a quick fix for climate change

Harvard scientists are launching the biggest research programme on solar geoengineering yet. The technology could potentially quickly reduce global average temperatures.

Scientists from Harvard University in the United States are launching the biggest solar geoengineering programme to date, with a view to study the effects of this technology as a potential fix for global warming. The project due to take off in a few weeks consists of spraying sulphate aerosols about 20 kilometres in height into the Earth’s stratosphere. These tests are aimed at establishing if solar geoengineering can mimic what happens in a volcanic eruption, in which the reflective particles that are released deflect sunlight away from the Earth and reduce average global temperatures.

Advocates of this technology suggest that if tests are successful solar geoengineering could help fight the effects of global warming, cooling the atmosphere and returning us to preindustrial temperatures.

Read more: 2016 was the hottest year on record, according to NASA and NOAA

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2016 was the hottest year since global temperatures began to be recorded in the 19th century © Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The risks involved

Harvard scientists don’t envisage this tool as a substitute for cutting emissions but as a supplement to ongoing efforts. However, peers warn that solar geoengineering may lead to an even more sluggish attitude to climate action and risk redirecting funds from proven mitigation technologies like solar or wind energy to finance a quick fix that could have significant drawbacks.

In fact, lowering the planet’s temperature with this technology would be relatively cheap, costing less than 10 billion dollars per year, but issues of governance and ethics may arise “when every country and/or adventurous billionaire gains access to the world’s thermostat,” writes Andrew Snyder-Beattie, director of research at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute on the Guardian.

Aiming to simply reflect sunlight without reducing or removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, solar geoengineering doesn’t address the root causes of climate change nor does it halt other problems related to carbon emissions such as ocean acidification.

Furthermore, scientists warn of other unforeseen and potentially disastrous effects. “Cutting incoming solar radiation affects the weather and hydrological cycle. It promotes drought. It destabilises things and could cause wars,” says Kevin Trenberth at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The case for geoengineering

Whilst acknowledging the risks and advocating caution due to lack of evidence currently available on the effects of this technology the scholars behind the project argue that neglecting research may in the future prove fatal should a time come when an extreme measure is the only remaining option to avoid climate change from changing the world as we know it, forever and for the worse.

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