Cheap, short-cut ideas to cool the planet fail to win support at the UN

Scott Sutherland
GeekquinoxDecember 3, 2012

Geoengineering — the process of using technology to alter the environment — has had a cool reception at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) this past week.

With global temperatures still on an upward trend and efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions falling behind, there have been many ideas put forward on how we could use technology to alleviate some of the problem, to give us a bit more time to put emission reductions into effect.

Some of the ideas proposed adding sulphur aerosols to the stratosphere, lifting salt water into the upper atmosphere to generate brighter, more reflective clouds over the oceans, both of which are designed to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface of the planet.

[ Related: Can radical 'cloud-brightening' proposal help curb global warming? ]

Others involve the same principle, but move outside our atmosphere. One such proposal is to blast dust off of an asteroid that has been placed at Lagrange Point 1 (LP1) — a point of stable gravity between the Earth and the Sun. This would act as a shade, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth. Another involves placing a mirror, or a swarm of tiny mirrors, at LP1, which would reflect some of the sunlight away, and yet another puts a giant 'Fresnel lens' there, which would spread the light from the sun out over a larger area, thus causing it to be dimmer at the Earth.

However, as innovative as some of these ideas are, some are impractical, some would be expensive, and others may cause unforeseen consequences on the environment, some of which may be worse than the problem the method sought to solve. It is thought that adding sulphate aerosols to the stratosphere could actually strip away the entire ozone layer, leaving the surface exposed to harmful UV rays from the Sun.

"Let's first use what we know," said UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres at the conference this week.

[ Related: Rules lacking for geoengineering projects for global warming ]

"There are so many proven technologies we know exist that are tried and true that have not been used to their maximum potential," said Figueres, according to Scientific American. "To begin with, the simplest is energy efficiency."

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is running from November 26 to December 7, and is being held in Doha, Qatar. Delegates will be discussing all aspects of climate change and proposing methods for the nations of the world to meet their commitments towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing man-made climate change.