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Geoengineering: a possible tool for CO2 emission reduction?

While the lockdown measures that have been imposed as a result of Covid-19 had devastating effects on most aspects of life, the reduction of CO2 emissions was noticeable when the world suddenly came to a halt. Thinking about the post-pandemic phase, governments, business and individuals have a joined responsibility to continue their emission reductions, but could potentially be assisted by geoengineering technology that directly intervenes into the climate system.

Among the few positive aspects of Covid-19 was the realization a few months ago that many of the targets that had been set to reduce CO2 emissions were suddenly met when the world came to a halt. According to estimates by the International Energy Agency, 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, about 8% of the estimated total for the year, will never be emitted into the atmosphere.

As the lockdown measures have had devastating effects on many aspects of life, Bloomberg has noted that the strategies used to contain the virus cannot remain in place for long. Titanic efforts are therefore needed to commit to a reduction of CO2 emissions, from businesses that will have to keep their green promises, individuals who have to rethink their daily behaviours, and governments that will need to include emission reduction as a criterion in their stimulus packages.

The Council on Foreign Relations, however, has recently pointed at the idea of geoengineering to help prevent the effects of climate change. As noted by Terrance Mullan, both scholars and policymakers are looking to geoengineering techniques as a possible last resort. Geoengineering refers to deliberate large-scale interventions into the climate system and is seriously considered because emissions reductions alone are unlikely to prevent the severe climate change impacts that are predicted. Injecting particulate matter into the lower stratosphere, for instance, could help cool the planet by reflecting sunlight into space. This is referred to as Solar Radiation Management (SRM). The many ethical, practical and geopolitical questions that are raised by geoengineering are addressed in a paper by Oliver Geden and Susanne Dröge entitled The Anticipatory Governance of Solar Radiation Management. Its focus is on how state and private actors can create legitimate and effective governance around geoengineering efforts.

While SRM is still at an early stage of research and development, Geden and Dröge feel that it is urgent to think about a proper framework to discuss its possibilities. For example, a small coalition of powerful countries could potentially perform SRM and thereby alter the global mean temperature much faster than any other climate policy measure. The effects, however, may not be predictable and may affect some regions more than others. Geophysical and geopolitical challenges and possibly even international conflict may arise if it is believed that countries deploying SRM cause extreme weather events. Moreover, SRM obviously does not address the root cause of global warming, so that climate policy advocates and scientists fear that normalizing SRM could lead to the misleading perception that SRM is a substitute for reducing emissions.

In any case, the fact that CIA director John O. Brennan already extensively talked about geoengineering during a 2016 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations hints at the fact that geoengineering has entered the world of politics. After mentioning the potential benefits, Brennan was also acutely aware of the risks, stating that “the technology’s potential to alter weather patterns and benefit certain regions of the world at the expense of other regions could trigger sharp opposition by some nations”.

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