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Rasha Rehman headshot

What's Missing in Climate Intervention Discussions: Risks, Cost and Inertia

Author Wake Smith suggests that a closer look at controversial climate intervention technologies is needed to help reach the world's climate action goals.
By Rasha Rehman
climate intervention

Though the pandemic helped the world reduce fossil fuel emissions in 2020, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to rise and reach record high levels in 2023. With the pandemic restrictions ending in many parts of the world, it’s critical to address this forthcoming challenge. How can we prevent emissions worldwide from increasing? And while bouncing back from the pandemic, how can we rebuild our institutions and systems to meet climate change goals and induce others to get on board? These climate intervention questions are just the beginning of an action-oriented discussion for meeting net zero goals. And as we're not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it’s time to become more deliberate.

"The science community is not prepared to say to the public 1.5°C is toast, stop talking about that. We're not going to achieve that at all,'" said Wake Smith, author of the bookPandora's Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention. “There's continuing optimism going back to Paris and the preparations for Paris."

In his book, Smith writes that net zero goals cannot be reached quickly through solely reducing emissions. Instead, we also need massive carbon removal and storage and may need to reduce incoming solar radiation to lower elevated temperatures. Smith writes about the pitfalls of emission reduction solutions which he argues have not been researched or experimented with thoroughly. In an interview with TriplePundit, Smith further discussed the technological economic and policy challenges associated with these solutions.

Net zero emissions via emissions reductions: challenging and expensive

"If doing the right thing remains expensive, it will be a tough sell,” said Smith. According to him, the challenges of greenhouse gas removal are economical and include inducing global partners to invest in this cause. And this method is a big investment as it can substantialize differently. For example, greenhouse gas removal can take in the form of direct air capture (DAC). In this method, chemicals are released in the atmosphere and after interacting with carbon dioxide, the reaction eliminates the toxicant. DAC, however, is costlier than other popular mitigation methods.

Smith proposed a few ways to tackle the excessive costs during his talk with 3p. The first being, a focus on expanding the recapture process. Smith explained that before eliminating carbon out of the general atmosphere, where it is diluted, we should focus on eliminating carbon from smokestacks. With this, carbon capture would be cheaper to remove. In addition, legislation that requires fuel gas capture would accelerate such impacts, too.

The next tool Smith advocates for is solar radiation management. In his book, Smith defines this tool as reducing the amount of energy absorbed by the earth. And for solar radiation management, Smith writes that its challenge is unintended physical consequences. To combat this, Smith explained to 3p that we need to begin researching and experimenting with stratospheric aerosol injections. This theoretical geoengineering tactic sprays quantities of small reflective particles in the stratosphere to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space.

"There remains a great deal of reluctance to begin outdoor experiments, I think it's just wrong-headed and back to the sort of naive optimism," said Smith. "People just can't imagine that we would ever need such a tool so why bother researching it. Well, I can imagine that we may need such a tool."

Innovation is a crucial step to reach global climate goals. And with that, forethought, too. For example, researching stratospheric aerosol injections is especially important as it has a wide range of consequences. Computer simulations suggest that this tool will likely cause droughts in Africa and Asia and have an impact on global ecosystems, rain patterns and ozone chemistry.

Before setting targets and publicizing climate change intervention tools, we clearly need to grasp a better understanding of their effects. And at the most basic level, we must assess if these tools are safe enough to pursue in the first place.

Why we must consider climate intervention strategies and step away from naïve optimism

Smith explained to 3p that there are numerous factors that prevent countries from reaching net zero goals. Besides the lack of research on climate intervention tools and its high costs, there is a lack of a general understanding of the current climate situation and a reluctance to make sacrificial changes.

What we need to do is "wake up and make a more sober assessment of where we are, which would be in service of trying to get the world to begin to be willing to make economic sacrifices," Smith said. He added, "People are by large willing to sacrifice a little on the altar of climate."

Such sacrifices, such as eliminating air travel, are difficult, as Smith made clear to 3p. Nevertheless, he explained that there are other areas on which we can focus. For example, the technology sector can do its part with innovations that could help drive down the cost of climate intervention tools.

Public conversations need to include far more assessments and information about the impact and risks of the climate intervention tools on which we are leaning to reach net zero goals. These are steps we cannot afford to skip or forget amidst optimism. And the best time to get underway with this is right now.

Image credit: Scott Webb via Pexels

Rasha Rehman headshot

Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.

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