Solar radiation management

Proposed solar radiation management using a tethered balloon to inject sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.

Solar radiation management (SRM), or solar geoengineering, is a type of climate engineering in which sunlight (solar radiation) is reflected to limit or reverse global warming. Proposed methods include increasing the planetary albedo, for example with stratospheric sulfate aerosol injection. Restorative methods have also been proposed regarding the protection of natural heat reflectors including sea ice, snow, and glaciers.[1][2][3] Their principal advantages as an approach to climate engineering is the speed with which they can be deployed and become fully active, their low financial cost, and the reversibility of their direct climatic effects.

Solar radiation management could serve as a temporary response while levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are reduced through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide removal. SRM would not reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and thus does not address problems such as ocean acidification caused by excess carbon dioxide (CO2). However, SRM has been shown in climate models to be capable of reducing global average temperatures to pre-industrial levels, therefore SRM can prevent the climate change caused by global warming.[4]

Averaged over the year and the day, the Earth's atmosphere receives 340 W/m2 of solar irradiance from the sun.[5] Due to elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the net-difference between the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth and the amount radiated back to space has risen from 1.7 W/m2 in 1980, to 3.1 W/m2 in 2019.[6] This net-imbalance - called radiative forcing - means that the Earth absorbs more energy than it lets off, causing global average temperatures to rise.[7] The goal of SRM is to reduce radiative forcing by increasing Earth's reflectance (albedo). An increase in reflectance of around 1% would be sufficient to eliminate radiative forcing and thereby global warming, as 3.1 W/m2 is around 1% of 340 W/m2.

As early as 1974, Russian expert Mikhail Budyko suggested that if global warming ever became a serious threat, it could be countered with airplane flights in the stratosphere, burning sulphur to make aerosols that would reflect sunlight away.[8] In recent years, US presidential candidate Andrew Yang included funding for SRM research in his climate policy and suggested its potential use as an emergency option.[9] The annual cost of delivering a sufficient amount of sulfur to counteract expected greenhouse warming is estimated at $8 billion US dollars, which is around $1 per person in the world.[10]

One of the most prominently considered methods of SRM is to scatter reflective aerosols - such as sulfur dioxide - in the stratosphere to reduce or eliminate elevated global temperatures caused by the greenhouse gas effect. This phenomenon occurs naturally by the eruption of volcanoes. In 1991, the massive eruption of Mt Pinatubo emitted large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which caused a recorded drop in global average temperatures of about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) over the following few years.[11]

SRM is widely viewed as a complement, not a substitute, to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. The Royal Society concluded in its 2009 report: "Geoengineering methods are not a substitute for climate change mitigation, and should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change."[12] Harvard University launched its Solar Geoengineering Research Program under the broad statement that "Solar geoengineering in particular could not be a replacement for reducing emissions (mitigation) or coping with a changing climate (adaptation); yet, it could supplement these efforts".[13]

The National Academy of Sciences stated in a 2015 report: "Modeling studies have shown that large amounts of cooling, equivalent in scale to the predicted warming due to doubling the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, can be produced by the introduction of tens of millions of tons of aerosols into the stratosphere. ... Preliminary modeling results suggest that albedo modification may be able to counter many of the damaging effects of elevated greenhouse gas concentrations on temperature and the hydrological cycle and reduce some impacts to sea ice."[14]

It has been suggested that a 2% albedo increase would roughly halve the effect of doubling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.[15] SRM has been suggested as a means of stabilizing regional climates - such as limiting heat waves,[16] but precise control over the geographical boundaries of the effect is not reasonable to assume. Even if the effects in computer simulation models or of small-scale interventions are known, there may be cumulative problems such as ozone depletion, which become apparent only from large-scale experiments.[17][18]

Solar radiation management has certain advantages relative to emissions cuts, adaptation, and carbon dioxide removal. Its effect of counteracting climate change could be experienced very rapidly, on the order of months after implementation,[19] whereas the effects of emissions cuts and carbon dioxide removal are delayed because the climate change that they prevent is itself delayed. Some proposed solar radiation management techniques are expected to have very low direct financial costs of implementation,[20] relative to the expected costs of both unabated climate change and aggressive mitigation. This creates a different problem structure.[21][22] Whereas the provision of emissions reduction and carbon dioxide removal present collective action problems (because ensuring a lower atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is a public good), a single country or a handful of countries could implement solar radiation management. Finally, the direct climatic effects of solar radiation management are reversible on short timescales.[19]

As well as the imperfect cancellation of the climatic effect of greenhouse gases,[23] there are other significant problems with solar radiation management as a form of climate engineering. SRM is temporary in its effect, and thus any long-term restoration of the climate would rely on long-term SRM, unless carbon dioxide removal was subsequently used. However, short-term SRM programs are potentially beneficial.[24]

Solar radiation management does not remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and thus does not reduce other effects from these gases, such as ocean acidification.[25] While not an argument against solar radiation management per se, this is an argument against reliance on climate engineering to the exclusion of greenhouse gas reduction.

Most of the information on solar radiation management is from models and computer simulations. The actual results may differ from the predicted effect. The full effects of various solar radiation management proposals are not yet well understood.[26] It may be difficult to predict the ultimate effects of projects,[27] with models presently giving varying results.[28] In the cases of systems which involve tipping points, effects may be irreversible.[clarification needed] Furthermore, most modeling to date consider the effects of using solar radiation management to fully counteract the increase in global average surface temperature arising from a doubling or a quadrupling of the preindustrial carbon dioxide concentration. Under these assumptions, it overcompensates for the changes in precipitation from climate change.[citation needed] Solar radiation management is more likely to be optimized in a way that balances counteracting changes to temperature and precipitation, to compensate for some portion of climate change, and/or to slow down the rate of climate change.

There may be unintended climatic consequences of solar radiation management, such as significant changes to the hydrological cycle[29] that might not be predicted by the models used to plan them.[27] Such effects may be cumulative or chaotic in nature.[30] Ozone depletion is a risk of techniques involving sulfur delivery into the stratosphere.[31] Not all side effects are negative, and an increase in agricultural productivity has been predicted by some studies due to the combination of more diffuse light and elevated carbon dioxide concentration.[32] A recent (2019) study published in Nature Climate Change[33] computer modeling tested results when solar geoengineering reduced by half the warming produced by doubling CO2 (half SG). The study concluded ". . . neither temperature, water availability, extreme temperature nor extreme precipitation are exacerbated under half-SG when averaged over any Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Extremes (SREX) region."[34] One study author, David Keith of Harvard University explains, "Big uncertainties remain, but climate models suggest that geoengineering could enable surprisingly uniform benefits."[35]

If solar radiation management were masking a significant amount of warming and then were to abruptly stop, the climate would rapidly warm.[36] This would cause a sudden rise in global temperatures towards levels which would have existed without the use of the climate engineering technique. The rapid rise in temperature may lead to more severe consequences than a gradual rise of the same magnitude.

The , which generally prohibits weaponising climate engineering techniques, came into force in 1978.[37] But leaders of countries and other actors may disagree as to whether, how, and to what degree solar radiation management be used, which could exacerbate international tensions.[38]

Managing solar radiation using aerosols or cloud cover would involve changing the ratio between direct and indirect solar radiation. This would affect plant life[39] and solar energy.[40] It is believed that there would be a significant effect on the appearance of the sky from stratospheric aerosol injection projects, notably a hazing of blue skies and a change in the appearance of sunsets.[41] Aerosols affect the formation of clouds, especially cirrus clouds.[42]

These projects seek to modify the atmosphere, either by enhancing naturally occurring stratospheric aerosols, or by using artificial techniques such as reflective balloons.

Injecting reflective aerosols into the stratosphere is the proposed solar radiation management method that has received the most sustained attention. This technique could give much more than 3.7 W/m2 of globally averaged negative forcing,[43] which is sufficient to entirely offset the warming caused by a doubling of CO2, which is a common benchmark for assessing future climate scenarios. Sulfates are the most commonly proposed aerosols for climate engineering, since there is a good natural analogue with (and evidence from) volcanic eruptions. Explosive volcanic eruptions inject large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere, which form sulfate aerosol and cool the planet. Alternative materials such as using photophoretic particles, titanium dioxide, and diamond have been proposed.[44][45][46] Delivery could be achieved using artillery, aircraft (such as the high-flying F15-C) or balloons.[47][48][49] Broadly speaking, stratospheric aerosol injection is seen as a relatively more credible climate engineering technique[by whom?], although one with potential major risks and challenges for its implementation. Risks include changes in precipitation and, in the case of sulfur, possible ozone depletion.

Various cloud reflectivity methods have been suggested, such as that proposed by John Latham and Stephen Salter, which works by spraying seawater in the atmosphere to increase the reflectivity of clouds.[50] The extra condensation nuclei created by the spray would change the size distribution of the drops in existing clouds to make them whiter.[51] The sprayers would use fleets of unmanned rotor ships known as Flettner vessels to spray mist created from seawater into the air to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from the Earth.[52] The whitening effect is created by using very small cloud condensation nuclei, which whiten the clouds due to the Twomey effect.

This technique can give more than 3.7 W/m2 of globally averaged negative forcing,[43] which is sufficient to reverse the warming effect of a doubling of CO2.

Enhancing the natural marine sulfur cycle by fertilizing a small portion with iron—typically considered to be a greenhouse gas remediation method—may also increase the reflection of sunlight.[53][54] Such fertilization, especially in the Southern Ocean, would enhance dimethyl sulfide production and consequently cloud reflectivity. This could potentially be used as regional solar radiation management, to slow Antarctic ice from melting.[citation needed] Such techniques also tend to sequester carbon, but the enhancement of cloud albedo also appears to be a likely effect.

Painting roof materials in white or pale colours to reflect solar radiation, known as 'cool roof' technology, is encouraged by legislation in some areas (notably California).[55] This technique is limited in its ultimate effectiveness by the constrained surface area available for treatment. This technique can give between 0.01–0.19 W/m2 of globally averaged negative forcing, depending on whether cities or all settlements are so treated.[43] This is small relative to the 3.7 W/m2 of positive forcing from a doubling of CO2. Moreover, while in small cases it can be achieved at little or no cost by simply selecting different materials, it can be costly if implemented on a larger scale. A 2009 Royal Society report states that, "the overall cost of a 'white roof method' covering an area of 1% of the land surface (about 1012 m2) would be about $300 billion/yr, making this one of the least effective and most expensive methods considered."[56] However, it can reduce the need for air conditioning, which emits CO2 and contributes to global warming.

Oceanic foams have also been suggested, using microscopic bubbles suspended in the upper layers of the photic zone. A less costly proposal is to simply lengthen and brighten existing ship wakes.[57]

Arctic sea ice formation could be increased by pumping deep cooler water to the surface.[1] Sea ice (and terrestrial) ice can be thickened by increasing albedo with silica spheres.[2] Glaciers flowing into the sea may be stabilized by blocking the flow of warm water to the glacier.[3] Salt water could be pumped out of the ocean and snowed onto the West Antarctic ice sheet.[58][59]

Changes to grassland have been proposed to increase albedo.[60] This technique can give 0.64 W/m2 of globally averaged negative forcing,[43] which is insufficient to offset the 3.7 W/m2 of positive forcing from a doubling of CO2, but could make a minor contribution.

Selecting or genetically modifying commercial crops with high albedo has been suggested.[61] This has the advantage of being relatively simple to implement, with farmers simply switching from one variety to another. Temperate areas may experience a 1 °C cooling as a result of this technique.[62] This technique is an example of bio-geoengineering. This technique can give 0.44 W/m2 of globally averaged negative forcing,[43] which is insufficient to offset the 3.7 W/m2 of positive forcing from a doubling of CO2, but could make a minor contribution.

The basic function of a space lens to mitigate global warming. In reality, a 1000 kilometre diameter lens is enough, much smaller than what is shown in the simplified image. In addition, as a Fresnel lens it would only be a few millimeters thick.

Space-based climate engineering projects are seen by many commentators and scientists as being very expensive and technically difficult, with the Royal Society suggesting that "the costs of setting in place such a space-based armada for the relatively short period that SRM geoengineering may be considered applicable (decades rather than centuries) would likely make it uncompetitive with other SRM approaches."[63]

Proposed by Roger Angel with the purpose to deflect a percentage of solar sunlight into space, using mirrors orbiting around the Earth.[50][64]

Mining moon dust to create a shielding cloud was proposed by Curtis Struck at Iowa State University in Ames.[65][66][67]

Several authors have proposed dispersing light before it reaches the Earth by putting a very large diffraction grating (thin wire mesh) or lens in space, perhaps at the L1 point between the Earth and the Sun. Using a Fresnel lens in this manner was proposed in 1989 by J. T. Early.[68] Using a diffraction grating was proposed in 1997 by Edward Teller, Lowell Wood, and Roderick Hyde.[69] In 2004, physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford calculated that a concave rotating Fresnel lens 1000 kilometres across, yet only a few millimeters thick, floating in space at the L1 point, would reduce the solar energy reaching the Earth by approximately 0.5% to 1%. He estimated that this would cost around US$10 billion up front, and another $10 billion in supportive cost during its lifespan.[70] One issue with implementing such a solution is the need to counteract the effects of the solar wind moving such megastructures out of position.

Climate engineering poses several challenges in the context of governance because of issues of power and jurisdiction.[37] Climate engineering as a climate change solution differs from other mitigation and adaptation strategies. Unlike a carbon trading system that would be focused on participation from multiple parties along with transparency, monitoring measures and compliance procedures; this is not necessarily required by climate engineering. Bengtsson[71] (2006) argues that "the artificial release of sulphate aerosols is a commitment of at least several hundred years". Yet this is true only if a long-term deployment strategy is adopted. Under a short-term, temporary strategy, implementation would instead be limited to decades.[72] Both cases, however, highlight the importance for a political framework that is sustainable enough to contain a multilateral commitment over such a long period and yet is flexible as the techniques innovate through time. There are many controversies surrounding this topic and hence, climate engineering has become a very political issue. Most discussions and debates are not about which climate engineering technique is better than the other, or which one is more economically and socially feasible. Discussions are broadly on who will have control over the deployment of climate engineering and under what governance regime the deployment can be monitored and supervised. This is especially important due to the regional variability of the effects of many climate engineering techniques, benefiting some countries while damaging others. The main challenge posed by climate engineering is not how to get countries to do it. It is to address the fundamental question of who should decide whether and how climate engineering should be attempted – a problem of governance.[73]

Solar radiation management raises a number of governance challenges. David Keith argues that the cost is within the realm of small countries, large corporations, or even very wealthy individuals.[74] David Victor suggests that climate engineering is within the reach of a lone "Greenfinger," a wealthy individual who takes it upon him or herself to be the "self-appointed protector of the planet".[75][76] However, it has been argued that a rogue state threatening solar radiation management may strengthen action on mitigation.[77]

Legal and regulatory systems may face a significant challenge in effectively regulating solar radiation management in a manner that allows for an acceptable result for society. There are, however, significant incentives for states to cooperate in choosing a specific climate engineering policy, which make unilateral deployment a rather unlikely event.[78]

Some researchers have suggested that building a global agreement on climate engineering deployment will be very difficult, and instead power blocs are likely to emerge.[79]

There have been a handful of studies into attitudes to and opinions of solar radiation management. These generally find low levels of awareness, uneasiness with the implementation of solar radiation management, cautious support of research, and a preference for greenhouse gas emissions reduction.[80][81] As is often the case with public opinions regarding emerging issues, the responses are highly sensitive to the questions' particular wording and context.

One cited objection to implementing a short-term temperature fix is that there might then be less incentive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions until it caused some other environmental catastrophe, such as a chemical change in ocean water that could be disastrous to ocean life.[82]

Ever since the idea of artificial cooling of planet was proposed, there has been major backlash and skepticism.[citation needed] Many people oppose the suggestion, but a recent study from the journal of Nature Climate Change has shown the speculation that solar geoengineering could cause extreme temperatures and increase severity of storms is actually incorrect. This journal shows that only 0.4% of places on the Earth would experience worsened weather conditions.[citation needed] Although no action has been carried out for spraying these gases and clouds into the atmosphere, this discovery could have a major influence on the course of action humans choose to take for reducing the greenhouse gas effect.

Many critics and concerned scientists are whole-heartedly against the idea of solar geoengineering. A geophysics professor, Alan Robock, has reprimanded the Nature Climate Change journal for neglecting to mention other environmental effects that will occur from the atmospheric spray. Robock had said the choice to cool the Earth by artificial emissions would be very costly and it could serve a potential threat to different plant and animal species.[citation needed] Likewise, The Nature Ecology and Evolution journal predicted the use of aerosols would cause a quick transfer of temperatures from warm to cold which would not allow animals to move to a comfortable environment.[83][failed verification]