The Economist: David Keith on why carbon removal won’t save big oil but may help the climate

Occidental, an American oil major, recently agreed to buy Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company, for $1.6bn. The deal underlines big oil’s growing interest in carbon-capture technologies, which suck carbon dioxide from the air. What does it mean for the climate?

Suppose a trucker dumped a load of manure on your front lawn and then demanded a fee to haul it away. Big oil made the fuel that is cooking our planet, so the idea that it might profit from cleaning it up strikes many people as obscene.

Critics argue that big oil is using carbon removal as a tool to protect its core business. As Occidental’s chief executive, Vicki Hollub, sees it, carbon removal means “we don’t need to ever stop oil.” Defenders argue that big oil can help meet social demands for decarbonisation by pivoting to carbon neutrality while bringing technical expertise to new low-carbon markets.

Greenwash or swords-to-ploughshares? My guess—informed by my experience as a climate-focused academic and as the founder of Carbon Engineering (on whose board I still sit)—is that the oil majors will be unsuccessful at both. Greenwashing will not protect them; nor will they smoothly pivot from being oil suppliers to carbon removers. Yet big oil’s carbon-removal play may nevertheless yield substantial climate benefits, in part because it is unlikely to play out as well as the companies hope.

Big oil will trumpet its green achievements, both real and imaginary. This will dampen public disapproval and help recruit talent, but it is hard to see how it reduces the threat to the core business, which is driven by accelerating climate policies and the decreasing cost of electric vehicles.

A world with large-scale carbon removal is a world with carbon prices high enough and decarbonisation policies strong enough to drive oil demand down sharply. Permanent carbon removal is likely to cost over $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide for at least a decade or two. That is equivalent to a penalty of almost $70 per barrel of oil. Though it may provide a green aura, an oil company’s carbon-removal business, however successful, will not protect its legacy oil business from strong carbon prices and policies. Neither greenwashing nor green reality changes the fundamentals.

The feasibility of a swords-to-ploughshares pivot rests on the premise that expertise transfers from oil and gas to carbon removal—or even beyond to solar power and other clean technologies. Although engineering skills are transferable, the business pivot is less plausible. A management culture built to succeed at making risky bets on big hydrocarbon plays such as ultra-deep offshore oil is different from the management culture needed to succeed in clean energy or carbon removal.

Occidental, an American oil major, recently agreed to buy Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company, for $1.6bn. The deal underlines big oil’s growing interest in carbon-capture technologies, which suck carbon dioxide from the air. What does it mean for the climate?

Suppose a trucker dumped a load of manure on your front lawn and then demanded a fee to haul it away. Big oil made the fuel that is cooking our planet, so the idea that it might profit from cleaning it up strikes many people as obscene.

Critics argue that big oil is using carbon removal as a tool to protect its core business. As Occidental’s chief executive, Vicki Hollub, sees it, carbon removal means “we don’t need to ever stop oil.” Defenders argue that big oil can help meet social demands for decarbonisation by pivoting to carbon neutrality while bringing technical expertise to new low-carbon markets.

Greenwash or swords-to-ploughshares? My guess—informed by my experience as a climate-focused academic and as the founder of Carbon Engineering (on whose board I still sit)—is that the oil majors will be unsuccessful at both. Greenwashing will not protect them; nor will they smoothly pivot from being oil suppliers to carbon removers. Yet big oil’s carbon-removal play may nevertheless yield substantial climate benefits, in part because it is unlikely to play out as well as the companies hope.

Big oil will trumpet its green achievements, both real and imaginary. This will dampen public disapproval and help recruit talent, but it is hard to see how it reduces the threat to the core business, which is driven by accelerating climate policies and the decreasing cost of electric vehicles.

A world with large-scale carbon removal is a world with carbon prices high enough and decarbonisation policies strong enough to drive oil demand down sharply. Permanent carbon removal is likely to cost over $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide for at least a decade or two. That is equivalent to a penalty of almost $70 per barrel of oil. Though it may provide a green aura, an oil company’s carbon-removal business, however successful, will not protect its legacy oil business from strong carbon prices and policies. Neither greenwashing nor green reality changes the fundamentals.

The feasibility of a swords-to-ploughshares pivot rests on the premise that expertise transfers from oil and gas to carbon removal—or even beyond to solar power and other clean technologies. Although engineering skills are transferable, the business pivot is less plausible. A management culture built to succeed at making risky bets on big hydrocarbon plays such as ultra-deep offshore oil is different from the management culture needed to succeed in clean energy or carbon removal.

When oil companies build thriving carbon-removal businesses, the interests of these business units will be misaligned with the legacy oil business. Legacy oil wants low carbon prices and high energy prices. Carbon removal wants the opposite. Big institutional investors such as pension funds prefer pure plays, so they will push to cleave carbon removal from legacy oil. History suggests that incumbents rarely survive fundamental shifts in the underlying business. ibm was an exception, but it is now dwarfed by Apple and Microsoft. The benefits of synergy are usually outweighed by the costs and conflicts of maintaining the legacy business.

So even when big oil succeeds in carbon removal the most likely outcome is freestanding cleantech companies alongside legacy oil rather than successfully integrated conglomerates. Environmentalists can thus welcome big oil’s move into carbon removal for the skills it brings with guarded optimism that the swords-to-ploughshares pivot will do little to protect the legacy oil business.

And the skills are desperately needed. Building billion-dollar battery factories, hydrogen infrastructure or plants to extract carbon from the air requires engineering and management skills that are concentrated in industries like oil and commodity chemicals. Occidental, for example, plans to build plants that can remove and store up to 30m tonnes of carbon per year at King Ranch in Texas. That is the equivalent of decarbonising 30m-60m transatlantic passenger flights per year. Although Occidental has never built a direct-air-capture plant, Carbon Engineering’s technology knits together existing industrial processes to achieve the new goal of carbon removal, and Occidental has experience with almost all the components required for direct air capture, including potassium hydroxide, a chemical used in the process, and CO2 sequestration. A startup cannot build plants with tens of millions of tonnes of capacity without the skills of a company that has built industrial plants at scale.

Big oil’s pivot to clean should be celebrated as a marker of the power of environmental advocacy, not a sign of its weakness. These investments did not happen simply because big oil woke up feeling woke. The driving force is policy. Today’s most important driver is Joe Biden’s clean-energy incentives. But these incentives did not just happen because the American president woke up green. They are the fruit of decades of environmental advocacy.

Greenwashing is a risk. Environmentalists are right to worry. Big oil will try to use carbon removal to defend the status quo. But there is a political upside. In a decarbonising world in which big oil only does oil and gas, its only future is extinction and it will fight progress with its back to the wall. If, however, the industry is also in the decarbonisation business, its interests—and the interests of the communities that depend on it—are split, with the low-carbon business units fighting for strong climate policy even as the legacy businesses oppose it. My hope is that this blurring of interests will lubricate the political bargains needed to accelerate climate progress.

Original post on The Economist

The New York Times: What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet?

How to cool the planet?

The energy infrastructure that powers our civilization must be rebuilt, replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free sources such as solar or nuclear. But even then, zeroing out emissions will not cool the planet. This is a direct consequence of the single most important fact about climate change: Warming is proportional to the cumulative emissions over the industrial era.

Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but achievable goal. Suppose it is met. Average temperatures will stop increasing when emissions stop, but cooling will take thousands of years as greenhouse gases slowly dissipate from the atmosphere. Because the world will be a lot hotter by the time emissions reach zero, heat waves and storms will be worse than they are today. And while the heat will stop getting worse, sea level will continue to rise for centuries as polar ice melts in a warmer world. This July was the hottest month ever recorded, but it is likely to be one of the coolest Julys for centuries after emissions reach zero.

Stopping emissions stops making the climate worse. But repairing the damage, insofar as repair is possible, will require more than emissions cuts.

To cool the planet in this century, humans must either remove carbon from the air or use solar geoengineering, a temporary measure that may reduce peak temperatures, extreme storms and other climatic changes. Humans might make the planet Earth more reflective by adding tiny sulfuric acid droplets to the stratosphere from aircraft, whitening low-level clouds over the ocean by spraying sea salt into the air or by other interventions.

Yes, this is what it comes down to: carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both. At least one of them is required to cool the planet this century. There are no other options.

Carbon removal would no doubt trounce geoengineering in a straw poll of climate experts. Removal is riding a wave of support among centrist environmental groups, governments and industry. Solar geoengineering is seen as such a desperate gamble that it was dropped from the important “summary for policymakers” in the United Nations’ latest climate report.

Yet if I were asked which method could cut midcentury temperatures with the least environmental risk, I would say geoengineering.

Lest you dismiss me, I founded Carbon Engineering, one of the most visible companies developing technology to capture carbon directly from the air and then pump it underground or use it to make products that contain carbon dioxide. The company’s interests could be hurt if geoengineering were seen as an acceptable option. I was also an early proponent for burning biofuels like wood waste, capturing the resulting carbon at the smokestack and storing it underground. I am proud to be a part of the community developing carbon removal. These approaches can help manage hard-to-abate emissions, and they are the only way to reduce the long-term climate risks that will remain when net emissions reach zero.

But the problem with these carbon removal technologies is that they are inherently slow because the carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution must be removed ton by ton. Still, the technology provides a long-term cure.

Geoengineering, on the other hand, is cheap and acts fast, but it cannot deflate the carbon bubble. It is a Band-Aid, not a cure.

The trade-off between geoengineering and carbon removal depends on one’s time horizon. The sooner cooling is pursued, the greater the environmental and social impacts of carbon removal.

Suppose emissions were under control and you wanted to cool the planet an additional degree by midcentury. How would removal and geoengineering compare?

Carbon removal could work. But it will require an enormous industry. Trees are touted as a natural climate solution, and there are some opportunities to protect natural systems while capturing carbon by allowing deforested landscapes to regrow and pull in carbon dioxide as they do. But cooling this fast cannot be achieved by letting nature run free. Ecosystems would need to be manipulated using irrigation, fire suppression or genetically modified plants whose roots are resistant to rot. This helps to increase the buildup of carbon in soils. To cool a degree by midcentury, this ecological engineering would need to happen at a scale comparable to that of global agriculture or forestry, causing profound disruption of natural ecosystems and the too-often-marginalized people who depend on them.

Industrial removal methods have a much smaller land footprint; a single carbon capture facility occupying a square mile of land could remove a million tons of carbon from the air a year. But building and running this equipment would require energy, steel and cement from a global supply chain. And removing the few hundred billion tons required to cool a degree by midcentury requires a supply chain that might be smaller than what feeds the construction industry but larger than what supports the global mining industry.

The challenge is that a carbon removal operation — industrial or biological — achieves nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year. So, the faster one seeks that one degree of cooling, the faster one must build the removal industry, and the higher the social costs and environmental impacts per degree of cooling.

Geoengineering could also work. The physical scale of intervention is — in some respects — small. Less than two million tons of sulfur per year injected into the stratosphere from a fleet of about a hundred high-flying aircraft would reflect away sunlight and cool the planet by a degree. The sulfur falls out of the stratosphere in about two years, so cooling is inherently short term and could be adjusted based on political decisions about risk and benefit.

Adding two million tons of sulfur to the atmosphere sounds reckless, yet this is only about one-twentieth of the annual sulfur pollution from today’s fossil fuels. Geoengineering might worsen air pollution or damage the global ozone layer, and it will certainly exacerbate some climate changes, making some regions wetter or drier even as it cools the world. While limited, the science so far suggests that the harms that would result from shaving a degree off global temperatures would be small compared with the benefits. Air pollution deaths from the added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by declines in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times larger.

Geoengineering’s grand challenge is geopolitical: Which country or countries get to decide to inject aerosols into the atmosphere, on what scale and for how long? There is no easy path to a stable and legitimate governance process for a cheap, high-leverage technology in an unstable world.

Which is better? Carbon removal is doubtless the safest path to permanent cooling, but solar geoengineering may well be able to cool the world this century with fewer environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption. Yet no one knows, because the question is not being asked. Geoengineering research budgets are minuscule, and much of the work is accomplished after hours by scientists acting outside their institutions’ priorities.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumes enormous use of carbon removal to meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), but not because scientists carefully compared removal and geoengineering. This was a glaring omission in the I.P.C.C. report, given that one of the very few areas of agreement about geoengineering is that it could lower global temperatures.

Research is minimal because geoengineering has influential opponents. The strongest opposition to geoengineering research stems from fear that the technology will be exploited by the powerful to maintain the status quo. Why cut emissions if we can seed the atmosphere with sulfur and keep the planet cool? This is geoengineering’s moral hazard.

This threat is real, but I don’t find it a convincing basis to forgo research, particularly given evidence that support for geoengineering research is stronger in regions that are poorer and more vulnerable to climate change, regions that would benefit most from cooling.

Some will no doubt exaggerate the benefits of solar geoengineering to protect the fossil fuel industry. But this threat is not unique to geoengineering. Carbon removal may pose a stronger moral hazard today. Activists like Al Gore once opposed adaptive measures such as flood protection, out of fear it would distract from emission cuts. They now embrace such measures, yet support for emissions cuts has never been higher, proving that support for one method of limiting climate risks need not reduce support for others.

Emissions cuts are necessary. But pretending that climate change can be solved with emissions cuts alone is a dangerous fantasy. If you want to reduce risks from the emissions already in the atmosphere — whether that’s to prevent forest fires in Algeria, heat waves in British Columbia or floods in Germany — you must look to carbon removal, solar geoengineering and local adaptation.

Emissions monomania is not an ethical climate policy because those three approaches together do what emissions cuts cannot: They reduce the future harms caused by historical emissions and provide a reason to hope that collective action can begin repairing Earth’s climate within a human lifetime.

Perhaps the best reason to take cooling seriously is that benefits seem likely to go to the poorest countries. Heat reduces intellectual and physical productivity with economywide consequences. Hotter regions are more sensitive to extra degrees of warming, while some cool regions may even benefit. A year that’s a degree warmer than normal will see economic growth in India reduced by about 17 percent, while Sweden will see growth increased by about 22 percent.

Poor people tend to live in hot places. This, combined with the fact that an added degree causes more harm in warmer climates, explains why the costs of climate change fall heaviest on the poor — and why the benefits of cooling will be felt the most in the hottest regions.

This dynamic explains why the one study to quantitatively examine the consequences of geoengineering for global inequality found that it might reduce economic inequality by about 25 percent, similar to the impressive reduction the United States achieved in the four decades following the New Deal.

Cooling the planet to reduce human suffering in this century will require carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both. The trade-offs between them are uncertain because little comparative research has been done. The fact that one or both are taboo in some green circles is a dreadful misstep of contemporary environmentalism. Climate justice demands fast action to cut emissions and serious exploration of pathways to a cooler future.

Original post on New York Times

Council on Foreign Relations: Can Solar Geoengineering Be Used as a Weapon?

The following is a guest post by Joshua Horton, research director, geoengineering, at the Harvard Kennedy School; and David Keith, former professor of public policy and professor of engineering at Harvard University.

Solar geoengineering—the idea of using technology to reflect a small fraction of incoming sunlight away from Earth to partially offset climate change—poses many problems, including its potential to discourage emissions cuts, its uncertain distributive consequences, and the possibility that suddenly stopping implementation might result in dangerously rapid warming. And yet available evidence shows that moderate use of solar geoengineering may offer an opportunity to mitigate climate hazards beyond what is possible even if all emissions could be eliminated tomorrow. In our view, the prospect that solar geoengineering could significantly reduce risks for the world’s poorest, reducing income inequality, is a strong basis for pursuing research and international governance.

Debate on solar geoengineering, however, is haunted by a concern that such technology might be weaponized. This concern stems from longstanding military interest in weather modification technologies, most notably the U.S. use of cloud-seeding during the Vietnam War, which led to adoption of the 1976 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) restricting hostile use of environmental modification techniques. It also stems from suggestions that governance of nuclear weapons may serve as a useful analog for governance of solar geoengineering.

Fears about the dual-use nature of solar geoengineering are sometimes stated explicitly (e.g., at 51:30 in this recent Rolling Stone debate), but more often implied in terms of vaguely defined security threats or speculation about “predatory geoengineering.” In a recent guest blog for the Internationalist, for example, Elizabeth Chalecki argues that “Just as nuclear fission can produce both weapons and energy, so too can geoengineering provide benefits if applied judiciously;” unsaid but insinuated is that solar geoengineering might also be used to wage war, which justifies placing it under international control in the same way the Baruch Plan of 1946 sought to internationalize atomic energy. (For other recent examples see here and here.)

The premise that solar geoengineering is weaponizable, however, is either false or grossly overstated and inapplicable to those technologies that might plausibly be deployed. Precision is a defining attribute of weaponry; indeed, the so-called revolution in military affairs has made it the most prized attribute for many strategists, as exemplified by the dominant role now played by precision-guided munitions. One hallmark of solar geoengineering, however, would be its imprecision.

Take stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which would disperse aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and reduce some harmful aspects of climate change. SAI is the most prominent type of solar geoengineering and the one most associated with fears about weaponization. Yet injected materials cannot be contained along lines of latitude and would quickly encircle the globe. Some north-south control is possible, but only at a very crude level using just a few knobs like dispersing in equatorial versus polar regions or in northern versus southern hemispheres. Only climate effects—changes in average temperature and precipitation—could plausibly be induced; weather control at the level of individual storms or heat waves would be impossible to engineer. Moreover, there would be several steps between any induced climate change and the types of climate impacts—like changes in water availability or crop yields—that might affect states and societies in a somewhat predictable manner. There is simply no physical basis for believing that significant—large compared to natural variability—impacts could be targeted at the level of the nation-state.

Thus, SAI would be much too imprecise to function as a useful weapon. To take just one scenario, suppose the United States wished to attack Venezuela. The most predictable damage the United States could inflict using SAI would be a reduction in precipitation caused by dispersing aerosols solely in the southern hemisphere; doing so would shift the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), an equatorial band of tropical rainfall northward, leading to decreased rainfall over Caribbean South America. But since the ITCZ circles the globe, this action would disrupt (sub)tropical precipitation worldwide. Indiscriminate climate modification of this nature would surely not be welcomed by China (America’s principal rival), India (the linchpin of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy), or Mexico (America’s southern neighbor and third largest trading partner).

Furthermore, the effect would be slow-moving within Venezuela, requiring perhaps years to determine whether reduced rainfall was responsible for observed impacts like droughts or food shortages. And it would be even harder to link this intervention to combat readiness, battlefield conditions, and other operational variables with clear implications for warfighting. Whatever strategic or tactical benefits might accrue to the United States, they would be dwarfed by the costs, risks, and uncertainties produced by worldwide rainfall disruptions affecting friends and enemies alike. SAI lacks the minimum level of precision—in space, time, and effect—implicit in the concept of a weapon.

The other two solar geoengineering technologies regularly discussed—low-level marine cloud brightening (MCB) using seawater spray to block incoming sunlight, and high-altitude cirrus cloud thinning (CCT) via dissipative seeding to enable more outgoing heat to escape the atmosphere—could be deployed with far more precision in space and time, yet it would still be extraordinarily difficult to use them to produce strong local effects, and such effects would inevitably cause significant distant consequences. It is conceivable that if MCB or CCT were deployed at global scale then they could be fine-tuned using meteorological data to enable limited weather control. But this is unproven, and even if possible, the physical consequences might be too diffuse or easily countered to have significant military value.

This is not to say that weaponization is utterly impossible. If solar geoengineering was implemented using low-Earth orbiting sunshades adjustable in real time, then some more precise military applications are imaginable. Yet this form of solar geoengineering is so far from practical reality as to be science fiction.

Weaponization might therefore be at least theoretically possible in a few exceptional cases, but in terms of real world policy relevance, the kinds of solar geoengineering that might plausibly be deployed in the next half-century—including SAI—would simply not be weaponizable. This conclusion does not depend on any assumption of goodwill, but instead follows directly from an understanding of the physical limits of practical technologies. For this reason, serious assessments of solar geoengineering—like the recently released National Academies of Sciences report—ignore the issue altogether.

This is encouraging, and yet the persistence of hints and suggestions that solar geoengineering might be weaponizable has the cumulative effect of helping shift attention away from hard, unavoidable problems toward more fantastical concerns regarding nebulous threats to national and global security. As discussions about solar geoengineering start to move from academic forums to policy circles, it is time to leave such distractions behind and focus more squarely on those aspects of this otherwise promising technology with real potential to cause harm and destabilize world politics.

Original post on Council on Foreign Relations

Boston Globe: The world needs to explore solar geoengineering as a tool to fight climate change

By David Keith

Solar geoengineering, also called solar climate intervention, is the idea that humans could make the planet a bit more reflective to reduce temperatures and other climate changes caused by accumulating carbon emissions. But at what cost?

A casual observer will read that geoengineering causes droughts, makes weather less predictable, dims the blue sky, and threatens the food supply of billions who depend on monsoon rains. And that’s the short list. But is it fair?

A technology’s risks depend on how it’s used. Antibiotics save lives, but if overused to make cheap beef in feedlots they breed deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As with other technologies, the risks of geoengineering cannot be evaluated without a scenario for goals and governance. Like antibiotics, geoengineering could be deadly if overused.

A worthy goal for solar geoengineering is to slow climate change without making any region worse off. Plausible methods include spraying sea salt into the air to brighten marine clouds or injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to reflect some sunlight back to space. A fairly uniform application of geoengineering across the globe is less prone to make some regions worse off because atmospheric teleconnections mean that a strong localized application may cause unwanted climate changes elsewhere. While there will certainly be harmful impacts of geoengineering under such a scenario, evidence suggests that it would reduce heat waves, extreme storms, and rising seas, and the benefits would greatly outweigh direct physical risks, such as added air pollution. Studies suggest that such geoengineering would increase crop yields, and it would not perceptibly dim the blue sky. And because the benefits of reduced climate change are felt most strongly in the hottest and poorest parts of the world, it would reduce global income inequality.

An Internet search for “geoengineering and drought” turns up thousands of hits, most prominently a Guardian article titled “Geoengineering could bring severe drought to the tropics, research shows.” But despite widespread reporting, not a single scientific article demonstrates that geoengineering increases droughts. This disconnect is not confined to the popular press. The only article on geoengineering to make the cover of Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, did so under the headline “Veiled threat.” Yet the research article simply showed that geoengineering might not have an effect on crop yields, in contrast to previous research that suggested geoengineering would increase yields.

Why the sharp divergence between media and science? It’s driven, in part, by a well-intentioned sense of caution that solar geoengineering will weaken efforts to cut carbon emissions. This is geoengineering’s addiction problem, often called its moral hazard. If it encourages more fossil emissions by masking the climate pain they cause, then it is addictive because every ton of extra fossil carbon emissions increases climate risks, thereby increasing the demand for geoengineering to mask the pain.

It’s a reasonable fear. Heat waves, storms, and other climate changes grow in proportion to cumulative emissions of carbon. That is to the cumulative amount of coal, gas, and oil that humanity has used since the Industrial Revolution. Solar geoengineering acts quickly and temporarily, but it can only partially reduce climate risk, and it brings risks of its own. Suppose geoengineering were used to stop the rise in global temperatures while fossil fuel burning continued unabated. One would then need to keep increasing the geoengineering dose just to hold temperatures constant against the rising tide of carbon. This path leads to disaster.

Addiction is an apt analogy. Used wisely, morphine is a wonder drug, but using morphine to mask the pain while avoiding the exercise needed to cure it puts one on a path to disaster.

My guess is that many environmental scientists highlight the risks of geoengineering and downplay its benefits out of a well-founded concern of the potential for addiction. Many journalists share these instincts and further amplify this tendency, thus explaining the sharp divergence between media and geoengineering science.

The intentions are good, but the consequences are not. Decision-makers and the public they serve need balanced information about the effectiveness and risks of geoengineering. They are ill-served if the geoengineering’s real physical risks are conflated with the equally real political threat that geoengineering will be exploited by fossil fuel interest groups to block the transformation of our energy infrastructure away from carbon.

How to address the political risk of geoengineering addiction? First, the research community working on geoengineering must speak unequivocally about the dangers of the continued reliance on fossil fuels and confront attempts by fossil fuel interests to exploit geoengineering research by falsely arguing that it justifies inaction. More important, policy makers can build governance that links decisions about the implementation of geoengineering to accelerated efforts to cut emissions.

Climate advocates, including the big environmental groups, have generally avoided talk of geoengineering out of concern that it will divert attention from the urgent goal of cutting emissions. With a few exceptions, their strategy has generally been to wish the geoengineering issue away. There are three things wrong with this.

First, it’s not likely to go away. Some crude methods of geoengineering could be implemented cheaply with technologies accessible to all but the smallest countries. The likelihood that a coalition of countries facing extreme climate damages will move toward ill-considered deployment of geoengineering grows with the increase in climate risks and the gradual accumulation of knowledge and technological capability. Second, the wish-it-away strategy blocks development of a serious research effort that could reduce uncertainty. Less than 1 percent of climate science funds are focused on geoengineering. Finally, there is the prospect that geoengineering could substantially reduce climate risks for most humans and reduce the net human impact on the natural world.

We must be wary of errors of both commission and omission. The obvious nightmare is that the future possibility of geoengineering slows efforts to stop emissions but that the technology turns out to be infeasible. People are right to fear over-reliance on technofixes. But there’s another nightmare: It’s that after bringing emissions to zero, we realize in hindsight that early use of geoengineering could have saved millions of lives lost in heat waves and helped preserve some of the natural world. The rise of the antivax movement sadly demonstrates the dangers of prejudice against life-saving technologies.

There are no easy answers. Both errors are possible. But societies have the best chance to make good decisions if they distinguish the very real political risks of geoengineering addiction from the equally real physical risks and benefits of solar geoengineering. It would be crazy to start deploying solar geoengineering today. It’s perhaps equally crazy to keep ignoring it. Our children will be better served by a serious international open-access research effort coupled with stronger action to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Original post on Boston Globe

The oil sands fundamentals are dire and stark – and Canada shouldn’t spend to revive a dying dream

​​​​​​​In her first press conference as Canada’s Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland told Canadians she wants us to “build back better.” Albertans are all in on that idea; we want a better Alberta. This week’s announcement that the province is enduring the largest deficit in its history “by a country mile” shows we have our work cut out for us.

Given her former unofficial role as the federal minister in charge of defusing Western alienation, many expect Ms. Freeland to make moves to build a greener industry with a major public investment in decarbonizing oil production. There is widespread support for this approach. After all, many of Alberta’s oil producers are in the high-cost, high-carbon quadrant, and for them to follow the world in moving to low-carbon energy, the public needs to help with the Herculean adjustment effort. Many see this as critical to the economic future of Alberta.

But this would be a case of building backward, not back better. Peak oil is near – not because of oil scarcity, but because demand is slowing. Electric cars are getting cheaper and better, climate polices are getting stronger, and now COVID-19 has accelerated workplace changes that have and will continue to reduce commuting and business travel.

On the supply side, technological change is also making oil extraction cheaper and more competitive. Fracking of tight oil is a relatively inexpensive option that can be ramped up quickly and inexpensively compared with projects in the oil sands, which require significant capital and time investment.

One need not be an economic Einstein to see that the combination of flattening demand and increased supply means downward pressure on prices. While geopolitical shocks and business cycles will occasionally spike prices, the oil-patch fantasy of a return to long-run triple-digit prices has melted away faster than our glaciers, a fact increasingly acknowledged by the oil majors themselves; even they have begun to muse whether it’s time to stop looking for new oil. This is also why some leaders in Alberta’s oil patch no longer project a hockey stick-like production growth curve, as they did just a few years ago.

But it gets worse. While the growth of global climate policy is unsteady, humanity can’t dodge climate reality, and policies will have to grow stronger. Youth will win the Greta vs. Trump battle. Perhaps quickly. And while our oil is more ethical than Saudi Arabia’s or Russia’s, global markets have not figured out how to price human rights into the cost of a barrel, and it is hard to imagine they ever will.

All of this adds up to a not-too-distant future when Alberta producers will chase a diminishing market with declining prices, using a product that will likely face carbon penalties. We run the real risk of getting priced out of the market for new production in spite of our best efforts. In a carbon-constrained world trending toward cheap oil, the future for Alberta’s industry is bleak, as evidenced by the huge challenge companies now face to secure capital.

Not even the most heroic engineering achievements can change oil-market fundamentals. It’s clear that emissions-reduction moonshots won’t save the industry. Continuing to invest significant funds into maintaining sales in a shrinking market is a bad business proposition and a bad use of public funds. We should let carbon pricing and regulation drive the cost-competitive emission reductions that should be pursued by the companies themselves.

So what’s a new Finance Minister to do?

Building Alberta back better means using public money to develop and deploy new technologies and industries, and to enhance the province’s other industries. It means focusing on how Alberta can win by leveraging the skills and resources we have within our oil industry to develop new energy pathways, such as low-carbon hydrogen for transportation. It means capturing as much wealth as possible from the parts of the oil sector that remain competitive and putting it toward the profit drivers of the future.

It also means applying key guiding questions to any consideration of public investment. Does the investment support a technology or market that can grow and generate economic value to power the Alberta economy? Can the technology demonstrate a credible path to driving the economy in a world beyond oil? Does the investment help to build a bridge to the future or result in a dead end?

We won’t know the exact path up front – whether it will be toward metals, chemicals, manufacturing, transport futures or the new and emerging sectors referenced in Alberta’s recovery plan – but we can build it on what Alberta has in abundance: a high-skilled young workforce and great education.

There is another role for government in managing the dislocation that workers that will face. Transition is a scary word for many working in the oil industry, because it can come across as “transitioning me into not having a job.” But it is less scary than facing market forces with no plan. Instead, we need a transition plan for workers that draws on policy tools such as income replacement, retraining and early retirement. Public money, which is increasingly scarce in these post-COVID-19 days, should be focused in those areas; governments must not succumb to the pressure to fund corporate welfare for investors.

This is what building back better means for Albertans, and for the many fellow citizens we talk to on a daily basis. We hope Ms. Freeland agrees.

Original post on The Globe and Mail

Project Syndicate: Let’s Talk About Geoengineering

By David Keith

Negotiations on geoengineering technologies ended in deadlock at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, last week, when a Swiss-backed proposal to commission an expert UN panel on the subject was withdrawn amid disagreements over language. This is a shame, because the world needs open debate about novel ways to reduce climate risks.

Specifics aside, the impasse stemmed from a dispute within the environmental community about growing scientific interest in solar geoengineering – the possibility of deliberately reflecting a small amount of sunlight back into space to help combat climate change. Some environmental and civil-society groups, convinced that solar geoengineering will be harmful or misused, oppose further research, policy analysis, and debate about the issue. Others, including some large environmental groups, support cautious research.

By reflecting sunlight away from the Earth – perhaps by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere – solar geoengineering could partly offset the energy imbalance caused by accumulating greenhouse gases. Research using most major climate models suggests that solar geoengineering might reduce important climate risks such as changes in water availability, extreme precipitation, sea level, and temperature. But any version of this technology carries risks of its own, including air pollution, damage to the ozone layer, and unanticipated climate changes.

Yet research on solar geoengineering is highly controversial. This has limited research funding to a few tiny programs around the world, although a larger number of climate scientists are beginning to work on this topic using existing funds for climate research.

Why the controversy? Many fear, with good reason, that fossil-fuel interests will exploit solar geoengineering to oppose emissions cuts. But most researchers are not driven by such interests. The vast majority of those researching solar geoengineering or advocating for its inclusion in climate-policy debates also support much stronger action to reduce emissions. Still, it’s very likely that Big Fossil – from multinational energy companies to coal-dependent regions – will eventually use discussion of geoengineering to fight emissions restrictions.

But that risk is not a sufficient reason to abandon or suppress research on solar geoengineering. Environmentalists have spent decades fighting Big Fossil’s opposition to climate protection. And although progress to date has been insufficient, there have been some successes. The world now spends over $300 billion per year on low-carbon energy, and young people are bringing new political energy to the fight for a safer climate.

Open discussion of solar geoengineering would not weaken the commitment of environmental advocates, because they know emissions must be cut to zero to achieve a stable climate. At worst, such a debate could make some in the broad, disengaged middle of the climate battle less interested in near-term emissions cuts. But even this is not certain; there is empirical evidence that public awareness of geoengineering increases interest in cutting emissions.

It is sensible to focus on cutting emissions, and reasonable to worry that discussing solar geoengineering could distract from that fight. But it’s wrong to indulge a monomania whereby emissions cuts become the sole objective of climate policy.

Vital as it is, eliminating emissions simply stops adding to the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The CO2 from the fossil-fuel era, and the resulting climate changes, will persist. We need adaptation that increases resilience to climate threats. But adaptation by itself is no solution. Neither is solar geoengineering. And nor is removing CO2 from the atmosphere – another emerging set of technologies that were considered in the Swiss-backed proposal in Nairobi.

As the American writer H.L. Mencken put it, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” Complex problems like climate change rarely have a single solution.

My hope is that emissions cuts, solar geoengineering, and carbon removal can work together to reduce the human and environmental effects of climate change beyond what is possible with emissions cuts alone.

Are these hopes justified? The geoengineering research community is small and dominated by a narrow group of members, most of whom are (like me) white, male, and based in Europe or America. Groupthink is a distinct possibility. We may simply be wrong. It would be reckless to deploy solar geoengineering based only on hope and early research.

Instead, an international, open-access research program could, within a decade, dramatically improve understanding of the risks and efficacy of solar geoengineering. Such a program would cost a small share of the sum currently spent on climate science, and far less than 0.1% of outlays to cut emissions. A wise program would reduce groupthink by increasing the diversity of researchers, and by establishing a deliberate tension between research teams developing specific scenarios for deployment and others tasked with critically examining how these scenarios could go wrong.

Governance is the toughest challenge for geoengineering. A global research program should therefore be coupled with greatly expanded international discussion about these technologies and their governance. Such a debate was unfortunately cut short in Nairobi last week.

Although my generation will not use solar geoengineering, it seems plausible that before the middle of this century, a dramatic climate catastrophe will prompt some governments to consider doing so. By foregoing debate and research on geoengineering now, political leaders may be hoping to eliminate the risks of its future misuse. But their stance may actually increase this danger.

Humans rarely make good decisions by choosing ignorance over knowledge, or by preferring closed-door politics to open debate. Rather than keeping future generations in the dark on solar geoengineering, we should shed as much light on it as we can.

Original post on Project Syndicate

The Globe and Mail: Solar geoengineering – Science fiction – or saviour?

At the time of this post, David Keith was a professor in Harvard’s Schools of Engineering and of Public Policy, and founder at Carbon Engineering.

Edward Parson is professor and co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA, and senior research associate at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria.

People’s initial reactions when they learn about the prospect of solar geoengineering typically involve some mix of horror and relief: horror at the prospect of a dangerous and uncontrolled technical fix, and relief that new technologies may offer the prospect of additional reductions in this century’s severe climate risks.

But wherever your views fall on this spectrum, the case for serious research on solar geoengineering, and serious examination of its governance challenges, is compelling. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly likely that some form of climate engineering will be necessary to achieve the Paris target of limiting planetary heating to well below 2 C.

Solar geoengineering – one type of climate engineering – would involve reflecting a small amount of incoming sunlight back to space. The most plausible method is to use aircraft to make a fine mist of reflective material in the stratosphere, where it would act like a thin cloud reflecting a little sunlight back to space. Neither science fiction nor saviour, the goal of such intentional climate intervention would be to offset some of the climate changes caused by elevated greenhouse gases.

Most climate models agree that carefully managed solar geoengineering can reduce projected changes in both temperature and precipitation over nearly all the Earth’s land surface. It can slow and likely reverse sea level rise, and provide some reduction to rapidly mounting threats to coral reefs, by slowing both rising temperatures and ocean acidification. It appears particularly effective at slowing current and projected increases in the strength of tropical hurricanes.

How should the world consider climate engineering? As a taboo, pushed aside from the centre of climate policy? Or, as a risky solution embraced all too quickly by opponents of emissions cuts? Between these polar extremes lies a wide range of opportunities for responsible exploration – and a great opportunity for Canada to exercise effective international leadership.

Solar geoengineering should be considered along with another form of climate engineering – removing previously emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, often called “negative emissions.”

Geoengineering approaches are, at best, supplements to emissions cuts, not substitutes for them. Emission must still be cut. But early evidence suggests that a combination of emissions cuts, carbon removal and solar geoengineering could provide better protection against climate risks, perhaps substantially better, than emissions cuts alone. Such strategies could stop and even reverse the progression of climate change.

Solar geoengineering – our focus here – offers both the high-stakes prospects of large potential benefits and serious grounds for concern. The most basic concerns pertain to how well it could work and its environmental impacts and risks. Early research has shown surprisingly promising results, quite at odds with a few widely circulated, overconfident claims of harms: e.g., that it would destroy the South Asian monsoon or distribute large regional gains and losses. Yet there is plenty of uncertainty, and additional limits and risks, not presently identified, will surely be found.

The strongest grounds for concern pertain to how solar geoengineering would be used and governed. Ensuring that it is used (if used at all) in ways that bring global benefits, fairly distributed, with any attendant harms minimized and justly compensated, presents novel challenges to global governance. The politics will be hard and may be ugly. Forces opposing emissions cuts – mainly fossil-fuel interests – may exaggerate claims of solar geoengineering’s effectiveness, or use the new uncertainties it introduces to argue for further delay in cutting emissions. The reasonable fear that solar geoengineering may be exploited to obstruct needed emissions cuts underlies much of the resistance bringing this topic out of the shadows.

Uncertainty about the effectiveness and risks of solar geoengineering should be addressed with a serious research program. Such research would include both modelling and small field experiments. Some have expressed concerns that doing this research would inevitably lead to the technology’s deployment. But these claims are belied by abundant historical experience, and – if true to any degree – are easy to mitigate by careful design and management of research programs.

Longer-term questions about how to govern future proposals to use solar geoengineering need serious critical examination, and the sooner, the better. But this is not a reason against pursuing scientific and technical research, particularly when the risks of solar geoengineering are weighed against the increasingly severe and intractable risks of climate change itself. Yet on both the research and governance fronts, progress has stalled. The United States saw promising steps toward developing a federal research program in the past two years of the Obama administration, including recommendations to that effect from both a National Academy of Sciences committee and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

But, as in so many areas, the Trump administration has changed the game, and not for the better. Considering its retreats from responsible climate-change policy, from international co-operation, and from science, many parties now fear that this administration’s embrace of these technologies would do more harm than good.

A Trump tweet such as “Geoengineering is GREAT, no need to cut emissions” might be the worst case, but promotion of solar geoengineering research by agency officials or Congressional leaders who deny the severity of climate change, pursue expansion of fossil fuels, and demean scientific research when they don’t like the results would not be much better.

Research is needed, but it must take place under conditions that make it more likely to help than hurt. The first condition is that expanded scientific and technical research must proceed in parallel, and be linked, with deliberation and development of international governance. A substantial research effort without governance would be reckless, yet effective governance cannot be developed without understanding the technologies that need to be governed – knowledge that can only be developed through research. Achieving linked progress in research and governance will be a delicate, iterative process, which will succeed or fail based on careful institutional design and trust in the leadership of both endeavours.

That need for trust is the second condition. The institutions leading these endeavours – whatever combination of governments, scientific bodies and other non-governmental organizations – must inspire and earn trust through a track record and commitment to international consultation and co-operation, to serious action on climate change that prioritizes strong emissions cuts and adaptation efforts, and to the constructive and impartial use of scientific knowledge and evidence in public policy.

Does this sound like Canada? We think so. While Canada’s record on these matters is not perfect – indeed, Canada has at times exhibited an unfortunate gap between climate rhetoric and action – its quiet virtues and present commitments shine brighter in view of the chaos enveloping our southern neighbour. Canada has other advantages, too, that can help it play a leading role in developing responsible research and governance for climate engineering: its status as a middle power in international affairs; its exposure, as an Arctic nation, to some of the most rapid and extreme manifestations of global climate change; its strong record of effective science-based environmental assessment and advisory processes; and its strong base of scientific expertise in relevant areas such as climate modelling, stratospheric dynamics, remote sensing, ecological system studies and Arctic ecosystems, and the cryosphere.

A serious Canadian initiative to lead global efforts on climate engineering research and governance might include the following elements. First, federal funding for relevant investigator-driven academic work. Second, directed federal funding for applied research and development at agencies such as the Canadian Climate Centre, the Canadian Space Agency, and NRC. Third, establishment of a senior advisory committee on climate engineering governance, jointly convened by the Ministries of Environment and Climate Change, and Global Affairs, with substantial participation from scientific, environmental and other relevant civil-society groups. Finally, last but not least, a broad effort to foster public consultation and deliberation.

In pursuing such an initiative, Canada would not be acting entirely alone. Tiny tentative research efforts are developing in Europe, China and elsewhere. But a crucial leadership void exists, in developing a vigorous research agenda and in the linked development of governance. Canada is uniquely well positioned to provide that leadership. Canadian engagement could steer international debate on how, and whether, these technologies can be developed and used, prudently and justly, in addressing the grave threat that climate change poses to this divided planet.

Original post on The Globe and Mail

The Guardian: Fear of solar geoengineering is healthy – but don’t distort our research

By David W Keith and Gernot Wagner

Even if the world were to cut emissions to zero tomorrow, global temperatures and sea levels would rise for decades. If our roll of the climate dice is unlucky, they could rise for centuries. It is in this context that some climate researchers have begun to reluctantly take seriously ideas first proposed in the 1960s: the possibility of using solar geoengineering to help restore the world’s climate, alongside aggressive actions to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions to zero and below.

Fear of solar geoengineering is entirely healthy. Its mere prospect might be hyped by fossil fuel interests to thwart emissions cuts. It could be used by one or a few nations in a way that’s harmful to many. There might be some yet undiscovered risk making the technology much less effective in reality than the largely positive story told by computer models.

Yet that healthy fear can distort discussion in unhealthy ways. A reader glancing at recent coverage in the Guardian, especially a piece by Martin Lukacs, might assume we were capitalistic tools of Donald Trump, eager to geoengineer the planet, democracy and justice be damned.

A ring around the sun, is seen over Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Friday, May 17, 2002. The halo is a rare effect on the sun caused by a layer of ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting light from the sun.
Trump presidency ‘opens door’ to planet-hacking geoengineer experiments

That reader might miss the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, “Models consistently suggest that [solar geoengineering] would generally reduce climate differences compared to a world with elevated GHG concentrations and no [solar geoengineering]”, or that many scientists, including the UK Royal Society and US National Academy, support research. So do many environmentalists, including the Environmental Defence Fund and the Natural Resources Defence Council.

With all that in mind, we have begun to study solar geoengineering more closely. The emphasis here is on study. It would be reckless to deploy solar geoengineering based on today’s limited research.

What makes Harvard’s effort different is that we are planning on doing so in an integrated, multi-disciplinary programme spanning many faculties and points of view. That integrated programme is the context for a proposed outdoor experiment.

Prof Frank Keutsch and one of us (Keith) are proposing to fly a balloon about 20km into the air. Its objective is to quantify the microphysics of introducing tiny particles into the stratosphere to improve estimates of the risks and benefits of solar geoengineering in large atmospheric models. It is not a “test” of planetary cooling. The amount of material we would release is tiny compared to everyday activities. For example, if we tested sulphates, we would put less material into the stratosphere than a typical commercial aircraft does in one minute of flight. Our material of choice for the first flight? Frozen water. Later flights might include tiny amounts of calcium carbonate or indeed sulphates.

That said, we do not ask anyone to take our word about the safety or legal compliance of the experiment. Risk must be independently assessed, and legal compliance assured, or we will not fly.

Governance of experiments is currently inadequate. To that end, we are seeking advice from Janos Pasztor’s Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, major environmental NGOs, and various other civil society organisations to develop an independent advisory process for the experiment. It’s a bootstrap process with the goal of fostering international governance for future experiments. Crucially, we will only proceed with the experiment if doing so does not imperil the long-term ability to develop a solar geoengineering research programme with broad public and stakeholder support.

The sun from space
US scientists launch world’s biggest solar geoengineering study

Facts matter, or at least they should. Friday’s Guardian article implied that the experiment is funded by Bill Gates, but it is not. Gates will in future likely fund the interdisciplinary solar geoengineering research program at Harvard, but his funding will amount to less than 40% of the total, and this experiment is not funded by him. Other funders already include the Hewlett foundation, itself among the largest funders of climate research and advocacy. (Our public forum this past Friday, in turn, was funded by the Sloan foundation.) It is possible that the broader programme will end up supporting the experiment in later years, but at least through the first flights, the experiment is funded by internal Harvard research funds given to new professors.

Martin Lukacs’s analysis piece is in an entirely different league. It comes after a similarly biased piece four years ago, which severely distorted our proposed experiment. The current piece hypes a link to Trump, but if Trump were to push solar geoengineering while gutting climate science, we believe the only appropriate response is active resistance.

Fear of solar geoengineering is justified. So is fear of the largely unaccounted-for tail risks of climate change, which make the problem much worse than most realise. Ending fossil fuels will not eliminate climate risks, it just stops the increase of atmospheric carbon. That carbon and its climate risk cannot be wished away.

There is a prudent case for an international, transparent, and sustainable solar geoengineering research programme that includes field experiments with appropriate governance. We welcome debate on the merits of such a research programme.

Original post on The Guardian

Cop22 After Trump: The Good and Bad News for Climate Change

On the Monday before the U.S. presidential election, climate negotiators gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, to begin the long, hard process of implementing the Paris Climate Agreement. But all eyes were on the United States, and when the news that Donald Trump had won the election hit Marrakesh early Wednesday morning, it was not well received.

Under U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States had forged an important alliance with China to put forth more ambitious climate policies and to move the world toward signing the momentous Paris Agreement last year. That comity was still on display in Marrakesh, but little else of consequence has happened so far, other than strategizing about how to respond to the U.S. election results.

The political uncertainty surrounding a Trump administration added confusion to a task that was already extraordinarily difficult. Global warming is a near-perfect example of the tragedy of the commons, as it is a problem that no individual action, no single country can resolve on its own. On the one hand, this suggests a great danger to a Trump presidency: his reversal of climate change policies could bring about a global knock-on effect, pushing the world toward harsh nationalism and reduced international cooperation. On the other hand, there is a veiled hope that the negative impacts of U.S. climate policy—or lack thereof—under Trump will be limited by the current momentum in technological advancement and other factors.

Original post on Foreign Affairs