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The Emerging Politics of Geoengineering

29 1 15

As droughts, forest fires and centennial floods become more commonplace, people around the world are feeling the consequences of climate change. As a result, some scientists are putting forth ideas to engineer the climate, collectively summarized as ‘Geoengineering’. But no matter whether one thinks of massive attempts to filter greenhouse gases from the air or planetary sheets of reflective material, geoengineering will have significant political effects. This piece gives an oversight of what geoengineering means, how it came to be a part of the political discussion, and its contemporary status in climate politics.

Introducing Geoengineering

Running under different terminologies, geoengineering quintessentially describes large-scale, technological approaches aimed at stabilizing global temperatures. Importantly, these are all approaches that do not rely on the change of human behavior or energy consumption. Geoengineering differs from mitigation or adaptation measures which aim to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and adapt to the effects of climate change, respectively. By contrast, geoengineering takes an end-of-pipe approach: once the emissions are there, how can we neutralize their effect?

As early as 1992, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) suggested that unprecedented, large-scale solutions might be needed to deal with climate change. Arguing that a phase-out of fossil fuels would be extremely difficult, Robert A. Frosch, vice-president of General Motors Research Laboratories at the time, convinced his co-authors in the NAS report panel to include a section on ‘geoengineering’: human-driven attempts to manipulate natural, planetary scale processes to their own advantage. Suggested strategies to counter-act the greenhouse gas effect included large-scale afforestation, ocean biomass stimulation, and sunlight screening through stratospheric dust or cloud stimulation. While highlighting the uncertainties of geoengineering technologies, the NAS report argued that they might be the only possibility to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change.

More than twenty years later, geoengineering started entering the awareness of mainstream audiences. In 2014, the world-renowned Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) introduced the idea of ‘negative emissions technologies’ into the climate change conversation. The modelers contributing to the expert assessment relied heavily on a technology called ‘BECCS’ (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) to calculate a scenario in which the world would stay below 2° average warming. Similar to the large-scale afforestation or ocean biomass stimulation suggested in the NAS report, BECCS aims to remove atmospheric CO2 at large scales and store it in liquid or solid form outside of the atmosphere.

This move was significant because it changed the fundamental assumptions of climate change politics. Climate models essentially rely on the idea of a ‘carbon budget’ – the total amount of CO2 we can emit before reaching a given global average temperature. This is estimated to be about 600 to 1,200 billion metric tons of CO2, provided that we want to stay below 2° average global warming (the maximum amount of warming considered acceptable). At current emission rates........

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