The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World

More than 190 world leaders and representatives gathered this week in Paris to address the issue of climate change and to re-affirm their commitment to tackle climate change. The United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), the last, best chance to curb greenhouse gas emissions for many, aims to agree on a global legally binding climate treaty to cut out carbon emissions, halt deforestation and keep fossil fuel in the ground.

The surface of the Earth is warming with unpredictable consequences. Scientists, NGOs, and some of the biggest humanitarian organisations warn about the dire effects of climate change. IMF has warmed that human “fortunes will melt with the ice, evaporate like water under a relentless sun, and wither away like sand in a desert storm. And the planet’s poorest and most vulnerable people will be the first to feel the pain.”

the planet remadeHumans are faced with a choice between two options.  We can continue pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, tinkering with the climate, and hoping that both humans and earth systems will adapt to a warming climate, or we can drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions and move towards a clean energy future by expanding renewable energy, investing in improvements to our electricity systems, and making smart policy decisions.

In his fascinating book ‘The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, Oliver Morton, science writer at The Economist, argues that a quick transition away from fossil fuels would be impossible. It is a fundamental mistake, he says, to think that we can replace the current global-energy infrastructure within a single generation. Over 80 percent of the world’s energy today comes from fossil fuels.  This already enormous use of fossil fuels worldwide is not shrinking, but growing, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which projects that the amount of fossil fuels consumed will increase about 50% by 2035.

Geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change, could be a key element in avoiding or at least postpone, the displacement and destruction that a warmer world will bring, and cool our planet until we are able to stop burning fossil fuels.

The purpose of this book, says Morton, “is to spread the tools with which to imagine a re-engineered earthsystem a little more broadly. In doing so, it looks at the scientific possibilities under discussion. It also looks at the history of that discussion, at the beliefs people have held about the proper relationship between climate and humanity, at the political contexts that have grown up and around those beliefs.”

We have entered the Anthropocene era, an era in which humans can alter the planet, deliberately or not, he says. It is not the first time that humans deliberately changing an earth system. Taking nitrogen from the air to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizers has increased food production and feeds a third to half of the present world population.

The most widely discussed technique to cool the planet is to seed the stratosphere with sulphate aerosols to increase the planetary albedo and cool the planet by reflecting sunlight away. But there are several geoengineering technologies that might have regional or even global applications, the most notable of them is the marine cloud brightening. Clouds reflect solar radiation (sunlight) back to space, producing cooling effects globally and locally. By adding tiny particles to the clouds you can increase their reflectivity and therefore cool the planet.

We live in “a world in which the impact of the human is greater than it used to be, says Morton, a world in which the global economy has become something akin to a force of nature, in which the legacies of past generations and the aspirations of generations to come dwarf the impacts of hurricanes and volcanoes.”  The implications of this change “need to be opened, appreciated. Only then will it be possible to make the necessary judgements and choices.”

Oliver Morton has written a great book about geoengineering and the possibilities that it holds, but rapidly reducing carbon dioxide emissions is still the most prudent and cost-effective way to address climate change. Many estimate that clean energy technologies can meet all of the world’s power demands by 2050 and if countries agree to a revenue-neutral carbon tax, we could see a “transition to clean energy that has a 15- to 20-year timeframe”, Elon Musk said recently.

Uruguay has managed to slash its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, in less than 10 years, said this week in Paris, Ramón Méndez, the country’s national director of energy. Renewables now provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity.

If Uruguay can do it, so can we.