Why climate credits for solar geoengineering are a bad idea

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Buyer beware: there is a dubious new kind of climate credit for sale.

Traditional CO2 offset credits, for example for planting trees or protecting forests, have a reputation for not actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Now a startup is selling credits for its attempts to manipulate the planet’s ability to reflect sunlight, a controversial response to climate change called solar geoengineering.

A group of prominent scientists published a letter yesterday warning that this type of climate intervention is nowhere near ready for commercial deployment and probably never should be. A big name in the letter is James Hansen, a former NASA scientist now at Columbia University who is famous for sounding the alarm about climate change in a 1988 congressional testimony.

This kind of climate intervention is nowhere near ready to be deployed commercially and probably never should be

The letter calls for more research into the potential impact of solar geoengineering, which could minimize some of the dangers of climate change or perhaps create new problems. Given that uncertainty, the scientists are stopping to actually endorse solar geoengineering as a climate change mitigation tactic. They believe it should not be implemented without a “comprehensive, international assessment” of the potential impacts and “international decision-making” on the use of such technologies.

The statement comes after controversial solar geoengineering startup Make Sunsets attempted to release reflective particles into the atmosphere this month from Reno, Nevada, and last year from Baja California, Mexico. The idea is to mimic the way debris from volcanic eruptions reflects solar radiation, which temporarily cooled the planet in the past. What this actually looks like is that a few co-founders light a fungicide on a grill, use the resulting gas to fill weather balloons with reflective sulfur dioxide particles, and then release the balloons.

Make Sunsets sells “cooling credits” for $10 per gram of sulfur dioxide released. Each gram should compensate for “the warming effect of 1 ton of carbon dioxide over 1 year”. But the company has no measurable impact on the climate. For one thing, too little sulfur dioxide is released to make a difference against the billions of tons of pollution released each year from the burning of fossil fuels. And Make Sunsets hasn’t been able to collect concrete altitude data on the five balloons it’s launched so far, so it doesn’t know if the reflective particles it released have reached the stratosphere where they’re supposed to be doing their job.

The Make Sunsets balloon launches have mostly succeeded in angering people who actually want to see more legitimate geoengineering research. “There can be no room for snake oil sales,” says a Feb. 13 press release from the nonprofit SilverLining that supports geoengineering research. “SilverLining strongly condemns the rogue releases of material into the atmosphere by Make Sunsets and its attempts to market fraudulent cooling credits.”

“There can be no room for selling snake oil.”

Mexico said it would ban solar geoengineering experiments after the Make Sunsets balloon launch there. The move was intended to protect nearby communities and the environment, according to Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources. The release of high levels of sulfur dioxide can cause acid rain, irritate people’s lungs and even exacerbate Antarctica’s ozone hole. There are still too many unknowns when it comes to possible side effects.

Even if scientists get a better understanding of the impact of solar geoengineering and decide that the benefits outweigh the risks, it’s still too risky to make money from it. “It will probably never be a suitable candidate for an open market system of credit and independent actors,” says the letter published yesterday, because it “does not address the root cause of climate change.”

What causes climate change, of course, is the greenhouse gas pollution from all of our fossil fuel-fired power plants, factories, and gas-guzzling vehicles. Humanity’s failure to reduce that pollution has left us puzzled that some scientists are now considering such a drastic step as geoengineering. Carbon credits, whether they come from solar geoengineering or more traditional tree-planting programs, do nothing to prevent that pollution.

Sure, trees can absorb and store carbon dioxide that warms the planet. But when they die, burn, or get cut down, they release it again. It’s not a permanent solution. Nor is the kind of solar geoengineering that Make Sunsets is attempting. Sulfur dioxide doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for very long, which is why the startup’s $10 credit would only represent a year’s worth of cooling.

So if you want to make an impact in this way, you have to develop a habit. If it is ever effective on a large scale, this kind of climate intervention will become addictive. As soon as you stop injecting reflective particles into the atmosphere, the world quickly starts to warm up again. Even volcanic eruptions that spew out enough sulfur dioxide to affect global temperatures have had a short-lived impact. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo cooled the Earth’s surface for about two years.

The world is already struggling to kick the habit of using fossil fuels. Credit can also be addictive. And if we’re not careful, we could waste what little time we have left taking real action on the climate crisis before it gets much worse.

“I wholeheartedly agree with most of this letter: More research is desperately needed,” Luke Iseman, founder of Make Sunsets, said in an email to The edge. “The question for me is what we do in times of uncertainty. Do we take action that we know will cool things down and save lives, or do we wait for an international consensus that may never come?”

There is no evidence for Iseman’s claims that geoengineering saves lives. But there is plenty of evidence that switching to clean energy can be done.

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