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MIT Technology Review · 2024

Solar geoengineering could start soon if it starts small

David W. Keith, Wake Smith

For half a century, climate researchers have considered the possibility of injecting small particles into the stratosphere to counteract some aspects of climate change. The idea is that by reflecting a small fraction of sunlight back to space, these particles could partially offset the energy imbalance caused by accumulating carbon dioxide, thereby reducing warming as well as extreme storms and many other climate risks.

Debates about this idea, a form of solar geoengineering called stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), commonly focus either on small-scale outdoor research that seeks to understand the physical processes involved or on deployment at a climate-altering scale. The gulf between these is gigantic: an experiment might use mere kilograms of aerosol material whereas deployment that could substantially slow or even reverse warming would involve millions of metric tons per year—a billionfold difference in scale. Appreciably cooling the planet via SAI would also require a purpose-built fleet of high-altitude aircraft, which could take one or two decades to assemble. This long lead time encourages policymakers to ignore the hard decisions about regulating deployment of SAI.

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