A Possible Solution to Global Warming: Geoengineering

Source: Kiel Earth Institute / Geomar. Wikimedia Commons.

In a world that is being severely affected by climate change, caused by global warming, large-scale solutions have been proposed. One of these solutions is called geoengineering. Geoengineering (also known as climate engineering) is about manipulating the Earth’s processes to counter global warming. These are also very expensive. You can almost consider these to be last resort. There are many techniques that have been put forward, which lie in two categories of geoengineering: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal.

Solar radiation management involves reflection of solar radiation (Sun’s energy) away from the Earth and back into space. Of course, this would only reflect a small proportion of the solar radiation as reflecting all would first of all be virtually impossible and we would not be able to survive! The main reason for doing this would be to help try and stabilise temperatures on Earth. This would mean greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would absorb less and hence this would reduce the rate at which global warming takes place. It is important to note that this method would not reduce the amount of greenhouse gases found in the atmosphere.

There are only a few techniques proposed. The first one involves increasing the albedo (percentage of the Sun’s energy reflected at the surface of the Earth). This is done by increasing the reflectiveness of clouds, or even the land, so that more of the solar radiation is reflected away from the earth. The second technique involves the actual blocking of the sunlight from reaching the earth using specially constructed mirrors. The third method involves putting special reflective particles into the atmosphere to reflect the solar radiation from reaching the earth.

Carbon dioxide removal is somewhat self explanatory, but is about removing the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This would mean that it would counter any increases of the green house effect and ocean acidification. For this to make any kind of significant difference, it would have to be implemented on a global scale. There are many methods to do this with some being rather straightforward and others far more complex.

A very simple technique is afforestation. By planting more trees, they will take in more carbon dioxide, meaning less will reach the atmosphere. A complex technique is ocean fertilisation. This involves adding nutrients to the oceans to encourage greater marine life and production. A good example is depositing iron, where the ocean is iron deficient, which in theory should boost production. It should be noted that there is legislation to stop anyone from just putting nutrients in the ocean. Another method involves exposing very large amounts of minerals that are known to chemically react with the carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere and this will result in a compound forming. This will be stored in soils or the ocean, etc.

It is possible to actually capture the carbon dioxide in the air through large machines, which can then be stored in the ground, for industry use etc. The use of carbon capture and storage is another technique in particular when creating bio-energy. This means that when you burn biomass (organic matter), you simply capture the carbon dioxide released and store it in the ground normally. It can also be done so that the carbon mixes with the soil and this would ‘lock’ it up. The final method involves putting normally calcium-silicate rocks into the ocean, which will over time increase the amount of carbon that can be stored in the ocean and try to decrease ocean acidification.

Geoengineering could potentially play a part in our future. But getting a significant number of nations involved in such large scale projects would be no easy task especially when it requires large investments and when these methods have issues. Some of the main issues are that some are still in the research stage and even when some of these methods have been tested (ocean fertilisation of iron), they did not provide the results hoped for. In theory, we should not have to go to such drastic lengths to combat global warming. My opinion on the matter is that we live in a world where we are very reluctant to change our ways for the sake of global warming, so such extreme techniques could very well be used in the future. Then again, some already argue that we are too late to stop this.




Should we be using fossils fuels?


Fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal as they are more commonly known) are formed by organic matter deposits buried in the ground, normally hundreds of millions of years ago, that over time in the Earth’s crust experience different pressures and temperatures that eventually lead to the formation of such fossil fuels. The UK alone has been burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760) and has not stopped since. Furthermore, in 2013, over 84% of our energy production came from fossil fuels. This begs the question: should we be using fossil fuels?

If you ask anyone about the use of fossil fuels, one of the first points they are likely to make is about the environmental impacts. Of course it is true that burning these fuels leads to large amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. We know stories of worldwide changes to environments from these increased levels of carbon dioxide etc., such as the melting of the ice caps, destruction of coral reefs and so on, which in the future look to have unimaginably destructive consequences.

Leading on, an easy answer would be to just use another type of energy instead. If only it was that easy. The fact that, in 2013, they accounted for over 84% of the UK’s energy shows just how reliant we truly are on fossil fuels. Although this percentage has decreased since then, it is still a high amount. But is there a new source to replace it? At the moment it appears not, even though renewable usage is increasing every year. Countries such as Iceland use very little fossil fuels (only oil for their cars to my knowledge) so it could be said, why can the UK not do the same? Iceland has a different geological environment, where they have both glaciers and very active tectonics, which allow for mass amounts of geothermal energy, hydroelectric power and so on. The UK does not have the same environment.

There are however ‘bailout solutions’, as I call them, where you continue using fossil fuels but use technology to clean up afterwards. An example of this is Carbon Capture Storage. This is where you take carbon from burning fossil fuels and store it in the ground in the locations where the oil and gas were extracted. This way the carbon is not released into the atmosphere. It is in theory a good idea (provided the carbon never reaches the atmosphere), but it almost justifies using fossil fuels which is not the point we should be getting across.

Fossil fuels are of course a finite resource. Hence they are only a temporary solution to our energy needs. Of the same token, fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract each year. This is because the reserves that are the easiest to extract have, for the most part, been taken and those that remain are complex and hence costly. These points alone should suggest to us that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

When you look at the geopolitics involved with fossil fuels, you see that a lot of the countries that have large reserves are considered to have lower political stability. This makes trade a lot harder for imports and they could at any point just cut you off. This gives them power. In effect, it is better to create energy within your own resources.

An option that the UK is currently pursuing involves using gas where possible. This is because gas produces around half the emissions of coal. If we have no option at this moment in time but to use fossil fuels, we may as well use the one that will release the least amount of harmful gases into the atmosphere.

Finally, to answer my question: should we be using fossils fuels? I believe in my honest opinion we have no option with our high energy demands but to use fossil fuels. I consider myself to be an environmentalist and it would make me very happy to not use them but I believe we all have to be realistic and say that there is no energy source that can replace fossil fuels at this time. Renewables will over time become more significant and fossil fuels will slowly phase out especially when they become economically unviable. Unfortunately, this will not be for a while. This of course needs to change in the future as fossil fuels are only a temporary solution, but there are ways to reduce its environmental impacts with Carbon Capture Storage and using more gas.

If you have anything to say on the topic, please feel free to comment below!