According to the IPCC, the world has just twelve years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would achieve the Paris Agreement target of less than 1.5oC of global warming. With net global emissions still on the rise and big players like the United States turning their backs on climate action, for many this goal seems increasingly out of reach. Even if governments stick to their 2015 commitments, current predictions show that we’re headed toward at least 2.5oC of warming by the end of the century.
Enter geoengineering: the radical idea that, should emissions reduction fail, technology might allow us to intervene in the earth’s natural systems to counteract the effects of a warming planet. Potential strategies include carbon capture and sequestration, artificial enhancement of the ocean’s alkalinity, and most controversially, the deployment of aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect part of the sun’s energy back into space.
To be sure, we’re a long way from pulling the trigger on any such proposals, and rightly so: they’re untested, ungoverned and highly controversial. Opponents argue that geoengineering is a distraction from dealing with the root cause of climate change and an excuse for powerful actors to postpone emissions reduction. Many fear the potential side-effects of manipulating natural processes, as well as the potential for such technologies to be weaponised by rogue states.
These are all legitimate concerns, and thus far, they’ve prevented geoengineering from being considered at the highest levels of climate governance. In March, a push to launch an intergovernmental study into geoengineering’s potential was rejected at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi.
But with the clock ticking toward global climate catastrophe, refusing to discuss geoengineering is no longer an option. Without a doubt, there are major risks, and emissions reduction must remain the ultimate goal. But if geoengineering did prove feasible—something that can only be ascertained through dialogue, funding, and research—it could be humanity’s saving grace, or at least buy us some time. The real moral failure would be to ignore it altogether.