We review the capabilities and costs of various lofting methods intended to deliver sulfates into the lower stratosphere. We lay out a future solar geoengineering deployment scenario of halving the increase in anthropogenic radiative forcing beginning 15 years hence, by deploying material to altitudes as high as ~20 km. After surveying an exhaustive list of potential deployment techniques, we settle upon an aircraft-based delivery system. Unlike the one prior comprehensive study on the topic (McClellan et al 2012 Environ. Res. Lett. 7 034019), we conclude that no existing aircraft design—even with extensive modifications—can reasonably fulfill this mission. However, we also conclude that developing a new, purpose-built high-altitude tanker with substantial payload capabilities would neither be technologically difficult nor prohibitively expensive. We calculate early-year costs of ~$1500 ton−1 of material deployed, resulting in average costs of ~$2.25 billion yr−1 over the first 15 years of deployment. We further calculate the number of flights at ~4000 in year one, linearly increasing by ~4000 yr−1. We conclude by arguing that, while cheap, such an aircraft-based program would unlikely be a secret, given the need for thousands of flights annually by airliner-sized aircraft operating from an international array of bases.
Stratospheric aerosol geoengineering, a form of solar geoengineering, is a proposal to add a reflective layer of aerosol to the stratosphere to reduce net radiative forcing and so to reduce the risks of climate change. The efficacy of solar geoengineering at reducing changes to the cryosphere is uncertain; solar geoengineering could reduce temperatures and so slow melt, but its ability to reverse ice sheet collapse once initiated may be limited. Here we review the literature on solar geoengineering and the cryosphere and identify the key uncertainties that research could address. Solar geoengineering may be more effective at reducing surface melt than a reduction in greenhouse forcing that produces the same global-average temperature response. Studies of natural analogues and model simulations support this conclusion. However, changes below the surfaces of the ocean and ice sheets may strongly limit the potential of solar geoengineering to reduce the retreat of marine glaciers. High-quality process model studies may illuminate these issues. Solar geoengineering is a contentious emerging issue in climate policy and it is critical that the potential, limits, and risks of these proposals are made clear for policy makers.
Some scientists suggest that it might be possible to reflect a portion of incoming sunlight back into space to reduce climate change and its impacts. Others argue that such solar radiation management (SRM) geoengineering is inherently incompatible with democracy. In this article, we reject this incompatibility argument. First, we counterargue that technologies such as SRM lack innate political characteristics and predetermined social effects, and that democracy need not be deliberative to serve as a standard for governance. We then rebut each of the argument’s core claims, countering that (1) democratic institutions are sufficiently resilient to manage SRM, (2) opting out of governance decisions is not a fundamental democratic right, (3) SRM may not require an undue degree of technocracy, and (4) its implementation may not concentrate power and promote authoritarianism. Although we reject the incompatibility argument, we do not argue that SRM is necessarily, or even likely to be, democratic in practice.
If solar geoengineering were to be deployed so as to mask a high level of global warming, and then stopped suddenly, there would be a rapid and damaging rise in temperatures. This effect is often referred to as termination shock, and it is an influential concept. Based on studies of its potential impacts, commentators often cite termination shock as one of the greatest risks of solar geoengineering. However, there has been little consideration of the likelihood of termination shock, so that conclusions about its risk are premature. This paper explores the physical characteristics of termination shock, then uses simple scenario analysis to plot out the pathways by which different driver events (such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or political action) could lead to termination. It then considers where timely policies could intervene to avert termination shock. We conclude that some relatively simple policies could protect a solar geoengineering system against most of the plausible drivers. If backup deployment hardware were maintained and if solar geoengineering were implemented by agreement among just a few powerful countries, then the system should be resilient against all but the most extreme catastrophes. If this analysis is correct, then termination shock should be much less likely, and therefore much less of a risk, than has previously been assumed. Much more sophisticated scenario analysis—going beyond simulations purely of worst‐case scenarios—will be needed to allow for more insightful policy conclusions.
Sulfate geoengineering is a proposed method to partially counteract the global radiative forcing from accumulated greenhouse gases, potentially mitigating some impacts of climate change. While likely to be effective in slowing increases in average temperatures and extreme precipitation, there are known side-effects and potential unintended consequences which have not been quantified. One such consequence is the direct human health impact. Given the significant uncertainties, we take a sensitivity approach to explore the mechanisms and range of potential impacts. Using a chemistry-transport model, we quantify the steady-state response of three public health risks to 1 °C global mean surface cooling. We separate impacts into those which are “radiative forcing-driven”, associated with climate change “reversal” through modification of global radiative forcing, and those “direct impacts” associated uniquely with using sulfate geoengineering to achieve this. We find that the direct (non-radiative forcing driven) impact is a decrease in global mortality of ∼13,000 annually. Here the benefits of reduced ozone exposure exceed increases in mortality due to UV and particulate matter, as each unit of injected sulfur incurs 1/25th the particulate matter exposure of a unit of sulfur emitted from surface sources. This reduction is exceeded by radiative forcing-driven health impacts resulting from using sulfate geoengineering to offset 1 °C of surface temperature rise. Increased particulate matter formation at these lower temperatures results in ∼39,000 mortalities which would have been avoided at higher temperatures. As such we estimate that sulfate geoengineering in 2040 would cause ∼26,000 (95% interval: −30,000 to +79,000) early deaths annually relative to the same year without geoengineering, largely due to the loss of health benefits associated with CO2-induced warming. These results account only for impacts due to changes in air quality and UV-B flux. They do not account for non-mortality impacts or changes in atmospheric dynamics, and must be considered in the wider context of other climate change impacts such as heatwave frequency and sea level rise.
Solar geoengineering, which seeks to cool the planet by reflecting a small fraction of sunlight back into space, has drawn the attention of scientists and policymakers as climate change remains unabated. Unlike mitigation, solar geoengineering could quickly and cheaply lower global temperatures. It is also imperfect. Its environmental impacts remain unpredictable, and its low cost and immediate effects may result in “moral hazard,” potentially crowding out costly mitigation efforts. There is little understanding about how the public will respond to such tradeoffs. To address this, a 1,000-subject nationally representative poll focused on solar geoengineering was conducted as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) of the US electorate in October-November 2016. The importance that individuals place on solar geoengineering’s speed and cost predicts their support for it, but there is little to no relationship between their concerns about its shortcomings and support for its research and use. Acquiescence bias appears to be an important factor for attitudes around solar geoengineering and moral hazard.
Counter-geoengineering is the idea that a country might seek or threaten to counteract the cooling effect of solar geoengineering through technical means. Although this concept has been mentioned with increasing frequency in commentary on geoengineering, it has received little scholarly attention. We offer a preliminary analysis. We begin by distinguishing two kinds of counter-geoengineering: countervailing with a warming agent, and neutralising with a physical disruption. Based on this distinction, we review prior suggestions and describe novel methods by which either method might be accomplished, within the constraints imposed by deep technical uncertainties and substantial technical challenges. We then reflect on the strategic requirements and motivations for developing counter geoengineering and use a simple game-theoretic framework to demonstrate how counter-geoengineering might interact with the free-driver dynamic of solar geoengineering to shape climate geopolitics. We find that any state that could credibly threaten counter-geoengineering would effectively have a veto over the use of solar geoengineering, which could reduce the prospects of unilateral deployment. Alternatively, the development of geoengineering and countergeoengineering capabilities could lead to dangerous brinkmanship. We conclude that the development of counter-geoengineering would face considerable practical obstacles and would signal continuing political failure to manage climate risks on a cooperative basis.
Injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, a form of solar geoengineering, has been proposed as a means to reduce some climatic changes by decreasing net anthropogenic radiative forcing. The cost and technical feasibility of forming aerosols with the appropriate size distribution are uncertain. We examine the possibility of producing the relevant sulfur species, SO2 or SO3, by in situ conversion fromelemental sulfur onboard an aircraft. We provide afirst-order engineering analysis of an open cycle chemicalplant for in situ sulfur to sulfate conversion using a Brayton cycle combustor and a catalytic converter. We find that such a plant could have sufficiently low mass that the overall requirement for mass transport to the lower stratosphere may be reduced by roughly a factor of 2. All else equal, this suggests that—for a given radiative forcing—the cost of delivering sulfate aerosols may be nearly halved. Beyond reducing cost, the use of elemental sulfur reduces operational health and safety risks and should therefore reduce environmental side effects associated with delivery. Reduction in cost is not necessarily beneficial as it reduces practical barriers to deployment, increasing the urgency of questions concerningthe efficacy, risks, and governance of solar geoengineering.
Solar geoengineering refers to deliberately reducing net radiative forcing by reflecting some sunlight back to space, in order to reduce anthropogenic climate changes; a possible such approach would be adding aerosols to the stratosphere. If future mitigation proves insufficient to limit the rise in global mean temperature to less than 1.5°C above preindustrial, it is plausible that some additional and limited deployment of solar geoengineering could reduce climate damages. That is, these approaches could eventually be considered as part of an overall strategy to manage the risks of climate change, combining emissions reduction, net-negative emissions technologies and solar geoengineering to meet climate goals. We first provide a physical science review of current research, research trends and some of the key gaps in knowledge that would need to be addressed to support informed decisions. Next, since few climate model simulations have considered these limited-deployment scenarios, we synthesize prior results to assess the projected response if solar geoengineering were used to limit global mean temperature to 1.5°C above preindustrial in an overshoot scenario that would otherwise peak near 3°C. While there are some important differences, the resulting climate is closer in many respects to a climate where the 1.5°C target is achieved through mitigation alone than either is to the 3◦C climate with no geoengineering. This holds for both regional temperature and precipitation changes; indeed, there are no regions where a majority of models project that this moderate level of geoengineering would produce a statistically significant shift in precipitation further away from preindustrial levels. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The Paris Agreement: understanding the physical and social challenges for a warming world of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.
We study the possibility of designing solar radiation management schemes to achieve a desired meridional radiative forcing (RF) profile using a two-dimensional chemistry-transport-aerosol model. Varying SO2 or H2SO4 injection latitude, altitude, and season, we compute RF response functions for a broad range of possible injection schemes, finding that linear combinations of these injection cases can roughly achieve RF profiles that have been proposed to accomplish various climate objectives. Globally averaged RF normalized by the sulfur injection rate (the radiative efficacy) is largest for injections at high altitudes, near the equator, and using emission of H2SO4 vapor into an aircraft wake to produce accumulation-mode particles. There is a trade-off between radiative efficacy and control as temporal and spatial control is best achieved with injections at lower altitudes and higher latitudes. These results may inform studies using more realistic models that couple aerosol microphysics, chemistry, and stratospheric dynamics.
Increasing interest in climate engineering in recent years has led to calls by the international research community for international research collaboration as well as global public engagement. But making such collaboration a reality is challenging. Here, we report the summary of a 2016 workshop on the significance and challenges of international collaboration on climate engineering research with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Because of the region’s interest in benefits and risks of climate engineering, there is a potential synergy between impact research on anthropogenic global warming and that on solar radiation management. Local researchers in the region can help make progress toward better understanding of impacts of solar radiation management. These activities can be guided by an ad hoc Asia-Pacific working group on climate engineering, a voluntary expert network. The working group can foster regional conversations in a sustained manner while contributing to capacity building. An important theme in the regional conversation is to develop effective practices of dialogues in light of local backgrounds such as cultural traditions and past experiences of large-scale technology development. Our recommendation merely portrays one of several possible ways forward, and it is our hope to stimulate the debate in the region.
Solar geoengineering is no substitute for cutting emissions, but could nevertheless help reduce the atmospheric carbon burden. In the extreme, if solar geoengineering were used to hold radiative forcing constant under RCP8.5, the carbon burden may be reduced by ~100 GTC, equivalent to 12–26% of twenty-first-century emissions at a cost of under US$0.5 per tCO2.
Discourse on social media of solar geoengineering has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, in line with increased attention by the scientific community and low but increasing awareness among the general public. The topic has also found increased attention online. But unlike scientific discourse, a majority of online discussion focuses on the so-called chemtrails conspiracy theory, the widely debunked idea that airplanes are spraying a toxic mix of chemicals through contrails, with supposed goals ranging from weather to mind control. This paper presents the results of a nationally representative 1000-subject poll part of the 36,000-subject 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), and an analysis of the universe of social media mentions of geoengineering. The former shows ~ 10% of Americans declaring the chemtrails conspiracy as “completely” and a further ~ 20–30% as “somewhat” true, with no apparent difference by party affiliation or strength of partisanship. Conspiratorial views have accounted for ~ 60% of geoengineering discourse on social media over the past decade. Of that, Twitter has accounted for >90%, compared to ~ 75% of total geoengineering mentions. Further affinity analysis reveals a broad online community of conspiracy. Anonymity of social media appears to help its spread, so does the general ease of spreading unverified or outright false information. Online behavior has important real-world reverberations, with implications for climate science communication and policy.