The global aviation industry accounted for 12% of all transportation-related emissions in 2013. That statistic has pushed The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) to rally the industry around new efficiency and sustainability efforts. But what if airplanes carrying payloads inspired by volcanoes held the key to stopping global climate change in its tracks? One pioneering scientist not only thinks it's possible, but given the plan's relatively low annual price tag of just $10 billion, thinks there's a chance that a country -- or perhaps an industry or individual company -- will attempt the geoengineering project in our lifetime.
How would it work?
Atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira took an interest to geoengineering, or planet hacking, well before any other climate scientist would dare associate themselves with such crazy ideas. Caldeira began much the same way, actually, only taking the field on to disprove its feasibility. However, no matter how many variables he included in his models, they were all proven to be quite realistic. Fourteen years later those crazy ideas have formed into a buzzing field littered with well-respected climate scientists.
There are many ideas on how to potentially geoengineer the planet to reduce temperatures, absorb carbon dioxide, reduce ocean acidification, and the like. The particular idea Caldeira thinks could happen is a solar geoengineering project aimed at reducing global temperatures by mimicking a very large volcanic eruption -- with some key differences.
Earth's history is dotted with massive volcanic eruptions that spewed enough particles into the atmosphere to affect global temperatures for years or longer by blocking sunlight from reaching the surface. Scientists have the geological record to back them up; most recently with the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which churned out enough sulfur dioxide to cause global temperatures to drop by nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit for the few years following.
Humans cannot control volcanos (yet), but we can produce massive quantities of pure sulfate aerosols and deposit them into the stratosphere with high-altitude airplanes or balloons. The idea sounds a bit wild, but it's quite plausible. Several studies have estimated that the costs to deploy 1-5 million MT of aerosols 18-30 kilometers above the surface would range from $5 billion to $10 billion annually. That's much cheaper than the $2 trillion estimated annual price tag for efforts aimed at halving carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
New high-altitude airplanes would have to be created, but companies dedicated to the Industrial Internet of Things (powered by drones and automation) could design systems capable of taking off, depositing material, landing, refueling, and monitoring progress without much human interaction. General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) believes that the Industrial Internet could add $10 trillion to $15 trillion to the global economy by 2035 and is putting its money where its mouth is right now. Perhaps solar geoengineering will make its way into the innovative company's portfolio sooner rather than later.
Who would attempt it?
Scientists are pretty confident the plan will work as a last-ditch effort if we really manage to screw up the planet, but who would attempt such measures? Given the plan's relatively low price tag, even the smallest country threatened by climate change could feasibly make it work. For instance, rather than sitting around and waiting for major offenders such as the United States and China to enact emissions policies, Australia or Indonesia could take matters into their own hands to protect the large parts of their economies dependent on agriculture and biodiversity.
Similarly, a single industry or company could act to ensure its survival. In an 11th Hour scenario, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) or Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) may feel it's necessary to protect critical assets and ensure hydrocarbon reserves will be monetized if future carbon taxes or regulations threaten to strand their assets. Royal Dutch Shell has already stated that climate change won't do such a thing, claiming that it currently factors in a $40 per metric ton cost for carbon dioxide emissions when analyzing new projects. Still, it's difficult to predict what international governments will do decades down the road or if they'll set a price on carbon -- and how high it would be.
If ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell are faced with the possibility of stranded assets, then solar geoengineering offers a realistic way forward. Consider that the combined total annual cash distribution for the two companies is $26.5 billion -- more than enough to cover the annual cost of high altitude aerosol disposition. If they rally enough companies, industries, or governments to join their cause, then their costs would drop even further.
But what about...?
There are some obvious flaws with geoengineering projects of any kind, which Caldeira and others are quick to promote. For instance, there are social, financial, and ethical costs and consequences that would have to be evaluated or dealt with. If it's acceptable to dump carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere, then is it also acceptable for a single nation or company to dump sunlight-blocking particles there? After all, no one country owns the atmosphere -- how would complaints and legal action be handled? If ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, or General Electric Company want to band together to attempt a project in international waters to protect their assets, then who can stop them? More worrisome, if the world comes to rely on solar geoengineering to press pause on climate change, then we may have no incentive to introduce more sustainable practices into industries with the heaviest impacts on the environment.
I'm more optimistic about the world's ability to respond to climate change than most, especially considering the vast potential of waste carbon manufacturing platforms that could convert costs or taxes associated with carbon emission mitigation into sizable revenue streams. Companies are also taking sustainability, circular economies, and efficiency measures much more seriously now than just a decade ago. Of course, that may not be enough to reduce emissions in the limited time frames we face. So at the very least, know that humanity has a realistic tool to deploy when the time comes to hit the panic button. But let's try not to press it in the first place.