Technology and Earth Hacking

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Hacking the Sky

Low, angry gray clouds, seemingly non-stop light rain and damp breathing air were hometown weather traits that most bothered me when I was growing up. Like most other children, I had a fascination with airplanes and could spend hours watching them. Going to the airport was one of the coolest things – nowadays not anymore. Planes, however, almost always managed to beat antagonistic weather. The opposite was my case. Bad weather automatically meant no outdoor play, parents reinforcing such terrible predicament. How could we change this, I started wondering.

My solution was simple. Equip a few small planes with some magical powder and get them to spray the menacing and sempiternal clouds. Viola! I could not understand why adults had not come up with such a brilliant idea. Maybe because playing outdoors was not a priority? In my book, this was a no-brainer, especially at a time when climate change was nowhere to be found in the radar screen. Once I heard my parents saying something about the pitfalls of the short but intense local dry season, a very dear friend. Well, I thought to myself, let us use the same idea, but this time around we get the planes to create clouds with another version of the magic powder to make rain when really needed.

This figment of my imagination suddenly came back to life when I started reading the book After Geoengineering by Holly Jean Buck. Already on page two, we encounter the idea of solar geoengineering that, in a nutshell, calls for spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to block natural sunlight. That particular technology is actually called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). I cannot say I am celebrating imagination and reality are starting to converge. Having worked on international development for most of my career, I am familiar with the Montreal Protocol global agenda targeting the emission of human-made chemicals depleting the Ozone layer. The central idea was to remove the bad stuff from the atmosphere, not to add more, magical or not.

While still in its infancy, Buck tells us, solar geoengineering is being touted as a viable alternative, thus attracting funding. I recently run into a Harvard supported project called Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), whose aim is to explore ways to make the technology viable. As the author emphasizes, the core issue is not the actual atmosphere spraying but the aftermath, especially in the medium and long terms. Blocking sunlight could go very wrong and thus have a devastating impact not only on humans but also on nature itself, the patient we are trying to get healthy.

Many other climate technologies are also emerging. So what is geoengineering then? This one is not a no-brainer.

Technology and Climate

Buck’s approach to casting light on the issue centers on the overall production process used to handle carbon imbalances. It is covered in the first two sections under the headings of Cultivation and Burial.

Cultivation includes both energy and marine cultivation, as well as repurposing or strengthening natural carbon sinks. Energy cultivation uses the various types of biofuels that have been developed in the last 20 years. It is usually associated with the idea of the bio-economy or circular economy. The most pampered technology here is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS – yes, this field is also full of weird acronyms) that generates bioenergy while separating and storing CO2 underground. While seemingly promising, Buck agrees with other observers that BECCS is still in its infancy, faces scalability issues and might never be economically sustainable, given other more competitive alternatives.

Marine cultivation exploits ocean-based natural carbon sinks such as seaweeds that, in principle, could store millions of tons of CO2. While some solutions might require a modified BECCS platform, issues of scalability and cost also seem to be limiting deployment. Regeneration includes afforestation and reforestation, improved wetlands management, biochar and carbon farming. Also known as natural climate solutions, regeneration is primarily about mitigation and will not be sufficient to sort out the climate change puzzle. However, that does not mean that they should be dropped or ignored.

Under the burial rubric, we find two options, carbon capturing and weathering. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology,  component of BECSS, is the shining star of the former. As its name suggests, the idea is to capture C02, move it to another location and store it underground. Capturing can take place either at the source (fossil fuel production, electrical plants, industrial production, etc.) or in the air. The latter is known as Direct Air Capture (DAC), yet another emerging technology actively promoted by some parties.

Moreover, captured carbon can be used to produce merchandise, thus avoiding underground storage  – in this case, CCS  becomes CCUS, U for usage. While CCS/CCUS seems to have been appropriated by the fossil fuel industry as it allows for the continuation of the status quo while capturing carbon in the process, the author makes the case that while this is undoubtedly the case, that does not disqualify CSS as a promising technology. The real issue is its limitations when scale, cost and potential social impact are put on the table.

Weathering is a natural process part of the Earth’s Carbon Cycle. In nature, rain breaks down and eventually dissolves certain types of stones or rocks. Enhanced weathering comprises the set of technologies that accelerates this natural process. Various solutions are at work here, some showing real potential but others demanding large scale mining, thus reminiscing coal production. The book ponders if we really need to create yet another large scale industry to tackle the current climate conundrum.

The author backs her argument with comprehensive academic research complemented by interviews with leading scientists experimenting with some of these emerging technologies.  Possible implementation aftermaths are also explored in selected chapter codas via short fictionalized accounts.

One of Buck’s main contribution is the suggestion that “…rather than simply being emerging technologies, both solar geoengineering and carbon removal would be practices that have aspects of infrastructure and social interventions. They must be wrested from the realm of technology … and seen through the prism of projects, programs and practices if civil society is going to attempt to shape them in a meaningfully democratic way.” (pg. 47). I am in full agreement here. The same can surely be said about Artificial Intelligence and most other digital technologies. That suggestion has been part and parcel of well-known philosophy of technology discussions where consensus has yet to emerge.

Regardless, the possible success of geoengineering is only feasible if “systemic change” (pg. 39) is also part of the equation. In this light, rejecting the new climate technologies right off the bat is not the best way forward as it only empowers more those already in power positions. Shifting the agenda from technology to people is a crucial step in this process, the author concludes.

Earth Hacking

It is not entirely clear to me if Buck considers carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies as part of the geoengineering team. Many of the CDR technologies discussed in detail – excluding natural climate solutions, are defined as geoengineering by other authors and experts. Moreover, solar geoengineering (SAI) is one of several different technologies, not mentioned in the book being pushed under the rubric of Solar Radiation Management. Genetically modifying (albedo) crops or cutting trees in snow-covered areas to increase solar radiation reflection are examples here. Apparently, many others are being developed alongside Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB), which only makes its appearance at the end of the text.

When it comes to technologies,  the IPPC distinguishes between natural climate solutions and those based on chemical engineering. The latter comprises both CDR and SRM (MCB included here). Buck pushes back against this widely accepted distinction between natural (or biological, as called in the book) and chemically engineered solutions. Such a “binary” approach fails, she tells us, as it has overtaken CDR discussions at the policy level (pg.40), thus creating a cognitive gap between implementation(how) and outcome. Most green groups and activists target the outcome but yet to find the path to get there. Those pushing new climate technologies are laser-focused on implementation and are not thinking about long-term impact and outcome.

As I see it, bypassing such “binary” obfuscates the issue by amplifying the gap between technology, geoengineering and CDR included here and the fantastic Carbon Cycle. Understanding how the cycle functions in detail can, in principle, can shed light on how technologies could help address the climate challenge within a given or new social structure.

In a nutshell, the Cabon Cycle has three core subcomponents: land, solid earth and the ocean. Solar radiation is the trigger mechanism of the cycle and sets the whole thing in motion. The solid earth cycle s where natural weathering takes places and it is slow-moving. It can take hundreds of years to move carbon through this cycle. The land cycle, where plants, animals, and humans are active, is faster but is still no match to the speed of light. Carbon processing can take close to 100 years. Both deep earth and land cycles are carbon sinks. That is, they are capable of storing CO2 in the long term. The ocean cycle is similar to the land in terms of carbon speed, but it sends CO2 to the atmosphere to counterbalance the other two. However, increased CO2 emissions have now changed this natural pattern. Nowadays, oceans are net takers of CO2, thus increasing both ocean acidification and water temperatures.

IPCC scientists have concluded that, given the high levels of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, reducing the flows of carbon dioxide will not be sufficient to reach the goals set by the Panel. Natural climate solutions are thus only part of the solution but alone are not enough as time is not on our side. We cannot wait for 100 or 1,000 years. We need action now to reduce the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere. Calls for a climate technology revolution much along the lines the “digital revolution” are thus emerging. In other words, addressing the climate crisis effectively demands the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The question then is not if but rather how we can best achieve such a goal.

In principle, that could be accomplished in four ways, bearing in mind that natural climate solutions must still be in the picture at all times. We can focus on each of the carbon cycles (land, deep earth and oceans), or we can aim higher and go after solar radiation. The latter, which comprises many different technologies, is the one Buck seems to be most concerned and rightly so. If solar radiation is the trigger of the complex Carbon Cycle dynamics, then changing it via chemical sprays in the atmosphere might have unexpected long-term consequences. SRM is undoubtedly the riskiest option.

Land and deep earth carbon cycles are natural sinks. So how can technology help here? By increasing the sink capacity. That could be done by augmenting the efficiency of the natural sink in terms of volume or speed. Weathering is the best example here as the goal is to use technologies to accelerate the natural process, weathering on steroids. That is, by hacking a natural process. Here, technology and natural climate solutions start to converge as the former must be brought into the latter to change a natural process. For example, one could think of a new technology where a human-created tree (using a genetic technology similar to CRISPR) could do the carbon work of a whole forest and at a faster speed. But then again, would this change the overall Carbon Cycle in unexpected ways? We do not know for sure. While hacking all the three cycles is feasible, complex risk analysis is also necessary to move this agenda forward securely and safely.

Geoengineering comprises both CDR and SRM technologies. The latter is the riskiest. The former includes quite a few that demand earth hacking, which also brings in lots of big unknowns. Other CDRs directly attempt to extract CO2 from the current stock in the atmosphere. But are they scaleable? Are they safe? And more importantly, who is going to make such decisions?  I fully agree with Buch that civil society needs to be at the table and have a loud and binding voice when this happens.

And it is happening now.

Cheers, Raúl