Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.Easy, right? Just plant vast tracts of trees, as Ethiopia claims it recently did, placing a dizzying 350 million trees in the ground in one day? Well, it’s not so easy as all that. “You cannot go blindly into nature-based solutions as if they were the best thing since apple pie and Coke, because they also have their challenges,” says Pasztor.
One issue with afforestation, or planting trees where previously there were none, is that it can leave less land for farming. If not done strategically, that might lead to a bump in food prices. Reforesting logged lands is great, but if you don’t work out how those trees are going to get water, or if you end up taking water away from agriculture, you’ll either have a wasted effort or a very unhappy populace. There are tradeoffs, and there are roadblocks. “And if they're not addressed,” says Pasztor, “then we're going to do the usual that humanity does, is that we solve one problem and we create three others.”That applies to individual countries too—a geoengineering project in one nation could end up becoming a menace to the neighbors. Let’s say a country does something drastic, like unilaterally spraying aerosols in its airspace, which would bounce solar energy back into space and cool its climate. This is still a theoretical approach, known as solar geoengineering , and researchers are only beginning to explore how it would work, if it would work, and what the repercussions might be. “As a global community, we do not know nearly enough about the impacts of solar geoengineering to evaluate who would benefit, who would be harmed, and by how much,” says UC Berkeley agricultural economist Jonathan Proctor, who studies the potential effects of the technique.
The WIRED Guide to Climate ChangeGeoengineering’s unintended consequences could also end up hitting agriculture, even when on the surface you’d think the intervention might help. In a study published last year in the journal Nature, Proctor and his colleagues used the analog of previous volcanic eruptions, which pumped their own aerosols into the atmosphere, to show that while the lower temperatures in a geoengineered world would help crops cope, the solar shading would negatively affect them at the same time . And once you start geoengineering on a large scale, you can’t just stop. “Suddenly stopping solar geoengineering could cause the climate to change very rapidly, allowing ecosystems and economies less time to adapt to new conditions,” says Proctor. There's also evidence this shock would kill off animal species in droves .A smaller-scale technique might be cloud brightening, where you spray saltwater into marine clouds to reflect more sunlight. Australia is exploring such a method to cool the waters of the Great Barrier Reef to help corals deal with a warming world. Like wide-scale solar geoengineering, though, the technique is still in its infancy.Back on land, researchers are developing carbon removal technologies , machines that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Problem is, there isn’t a good business model yet for such a thing, because the whole point would be to capture CO2 and stash it away. It’s like buying a new car and sealing it in a cave . You’d need a government to subsidize your efforts, and indeed the US government is doing this, however minimally, with a tax credit of $50 per ton of captured and sequestered CO2. One study has suggested, though, that the operating costs for this technology are around $600 per ton.
And all of these techniques come with the dreaded moral hazard, that if we figure out a way to geoengineer the stratosphere to lower temperatures, or develop a scalable technology to suck CO2 out of the air, that we’ll get even lazier about cutting emissions. Why give up fossil fuels when we can just hack our way out of the mess?
Because cutting emissions, and cutting them rapidly, is the root goal for the human species. Ecosystems and economies and people are already suffering greatly under the weight of climate change. No amount of engineering alone will save us, or the world at large.
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