Mexico has become one of the first countries to ban solar engineering experiments, after a start-up released balloons of sulphur dioxide particles meant to cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight back into space.
“The company’s behaviour plays into long-held fears that a ‘rogue’ actor with no particular knowledge of atmospheric science or the implications of the technology could unilaterally choose to geoengineer the climate, without any kind of consensus around whether it’s okay to do so—or what the appropriate global average temperature should be,” reports MIT Technology Review.
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The balloons (not to be confused with another small flotilla of balloons that has since been making headlines) were released in Baja California last April by Make Sunsets, a United States start-up that says it makes “reflective, high-altitude, biodegradable clouds that cool the planet.” The balloons are intended to release their payload by bursting when they reach the upper atmosphere.
Make Sunsets says its method is “really effective,” with one gram of cloud cover offsetting the warming that one ton of carbon dioxide emissions creates for a year. The company sells US$10 “cooling credits” that each buy the release of one gram of cloud. In January, around four months after launching, CEO Luke Iseman said the fledgling company had raised $750,000 in venture capital and other funds, Mexico News Daily reports.
But in response to news of the balloon launch from its territory, Mexico’s government said it would “prohibit and, where appropriate, stop experimentation practices with solar geoengineering,” citing a moratorium against geoengineering deployment for countries party to the 2010 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
“The opposition to these climatic manipulations is based on the fact that there are currently no international agreements that address or supervise solar geoengineering activities, which represent an economically advantageous way out for a minority and risky for the supposed remediation of climate change,” Mexico’s environmental ministry SEMARNAT and the National Council of Science and Technology said in a joint release. Make Sunsets carried out the experiment “without prior notice and without the consent of the Government of Mexico and the surrounding communities,” the statement added.
Iseman, a California entrepreneur with no background in climate science and a self-professed geoengineering novice, argues that the accelerating pace of climate change makes immediate action necessary and that the balloon release was not illegal, TIME Magazine writes.
“It was surprising that people feel like we’re trying to sneak around some law when that is not the intent,” Iseman said. “There doesn’t appear to be some permit that I should have filed for and did not.”
Defined as a “deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change,” several countries are pursuing geoengineering as a strategy to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But another geoengineering strategy, one that aims to artificially cool the planet through methods like ocean fertilization or deflecting solar rays, is more controversial.
“The two strategies are very different, and the term ‘geoengineering’ is sometimes wielded to misleadingly conflate them,” explains Vox. But the two branches are also similar in important ways. Both might be necessary parts of a climate solution if countries fail to embrace more practical, equitable climate solutions. And both can affect the whole world, “but don’t require worldwide buy-in to pull off.”
International law has so far failed to grapple with solar geoengineering, but many scientists are opposed to it. Make Sunsets’ experiment may have been too small to do any damage, but solar geoengineering on a larger scale could have dangerous side effects like increasing rainfall in some areas while reducing it in others, James Haywood, a professor of atmospheric science at Exeter University, told Climate Home News. Other research indicates that solar geoengineering could redistribute malaria risk in developing countries, increasing transmission in some cases and decreasing it in others, and drastically reduce crop yields.
Environment groups also tend to oppose the practice, saying it would allow fossil fuel companies to maintain business as usual instead of making transformational changes that reduce emissions. Make Sunsets “plays into the hands of the fossil fuel industry” by “offering a supposedly cheap and easy fix to the climate crisis,” Lily Fuhr, deputy program director at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement.
The risks have produced an intense ethical debate and prompted Sweden’s space agency to cancel the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), a solar geoengineering experiment promoted by Canadian researcher David Keith, after Indigenous communities objected—again.
“This is at least the third time that SCoPEx has been halted on Indigenous territory. First in New Mexico, then Arizona, and now Sweden,” ETC Group Research Director Jim Thomas said at the time. “Each time, geoengineers promise to ‘consult’ better, deliberately missing the point that consultation does not equal consent. When communities and Indigenous people say no to planet-altering schemes being launched from their territories, it is disrespectful to mishear that as ‘needing more consultation’. No means no.”
Since some countries will suffer the adverse effects of solar geoengineering projects more than others, and some may be more in control of geoengineering outcomes, “the geopolitical implications of such uneven effects and risks—or even just the perceived risks of unevenness and unintended consequences —could put up a huge barrier to this technology being used consensually and peacefully,” Olaf Corry, professor of global security challenges at Leeds University, told the Financial Times.
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