Another prediction by scientists studying climate change has come to bear. They forecast that melting permafrost will release methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. A study determined that a heat wave in 2020 has revealed a surge in methane emissions from thawing rock formations in the Arctic permafrost.
According to climatologists, even if greenhouse-gas emissions are cut to net-zero by 2050 — an ambitious and costly goal — temperatures will keep rising for decades beyond. Climate change is making heatwaves more common and extreme. Longstanding temperature records are being broken in western states by significant margins. And they are expected to become more frequent and deadlier in the future.
The International Energy Agency says that to reach net-zero by 2050, the world must install the equivalent of the largest solar park — every day. The rate of energy efficiency improvements will have to triple the rate of the past two decades. And by 2035, new gasoline-powered cars need to be a thing of the past. But the commitments made to date to reach those goals fall far short of what is required. So, what else should be done in the interim?
A potential solution is climate engineering, commonly referred to as geoengineering. It involves a large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system to counteract climate change. Intervening with the climate ecosystem has been viewed as a risky step to slow warming because of unintended consequences. But with carbon and now methane emissions soaring, initiatives to study and develop geoengineering technologies are gaining momentum.
Scientists agree that geoengineering does not substitute for reducing emissions. But because reducing harmful emissions have economic and political consequences, making their implementation problematic, some amount of geoengineering might be inevitable.
Although there are the uncertainties over effectiveness and the huge risk of unintended consequences such as regional climate disruptions, experts maintain that the risks of such interventions must be balanced against of risks of damaging climate change.
The main categories of geoengineering are solar geoengineering and carbon dioxide removal. Solar geoengineering reflects some of the sunlight back to space to limit climate change by cooling the planet. Carbon dioxide removal refers to removing carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere and sequestering it indefinitely.
Solar geoengineering efforts includes:
1. Injecting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space.
2. Spraying fine sea water to whiten clouds and so reflect sunlight back into space.
3. Thinning cirrus cloud, which reduces their heat trapping capacity, resulting in a cooling effect.
Harvard University researchers have determined that solar geoengineering may be surprisingly effective in alleviating some of the worst impacts of global warming on agriculture.
Carbon dioxide removal involves methods that capture it from the atmosphere and storing it, possibly underground. These techniques are expensive and entail risks such as carbon dioxide leaking from underground storage.
A lower-cost technique in this category is to plant new trees to absorb carbon dioxide. A 2019 study from the Swiss Institute of Integrative Biology suggested that planting one trillion trees would dramatically slow climate change.
No matter what technique is chosen in the near term, something needs to be done because climate change is upon us. Just ask the citizens of Miami Beach experiencing sunny day flooding. Close to home, sunny day flooding could morph from an occasional nuisance to a regular problem in St. Petersburg neighborhoods such as Shore Acres in the coming decades.
Building nuclear power plants, updating the electric grid, and further incentivizing the purchase of electric cars should be part of long-term solutions. President Joe Biden has proposed spending at least $15 billion to build electric vehicle charging stations, with the goal of reaching 500,000 charging stations nationwide by 2030. It will alleviate range anxiety, an impediment to buying electric cars.
That’s all well and good. But before those long-term solutions can take effect, some interim measures will be needed — and soon.
Murad Antia teaches finance at the Muma College of Business, University of South Florida in Tampa.
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