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Rutgers professors discuss geoengineering

Alan Robock published a paper in which he lists five possible benefits of sulfur dioxide spraying — and 26 potential negatives.

The idea might be a last-ditch effort to stop the effects of global warming before they lead to disaster, according to Robock, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

“The way to solve the global warming problem is to stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he said. “… But since I don’t see mitigation going on, I’m investigating other ideas.”

Spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere is one form of geoengineering, which changes the Earth’s atmosphere after the fact to try to reverse climate change, rather than preventing it at the source.

A report recently released from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommends research into certain types of geoengineering, particularly spraying sulfur dioxide and burying carbon dioxide deep into the ground.

The concept of using sulfur dioxide is based on the concept of volcanic eruptions, which release sulfur dioxide naturally, Robock said. The gas reflects sunlight, cooling the area.

Robock performs computer simulations to review the possible effects of sulfur dioxide spraying, which could be done with airplanes or by adding the compound to the ocean, he said.

Many have expressed fears about the potential effects of cooling the planet. In Robock’s report, he lists droughts in Africa and Asia and destruction of the ozone layer of the atmosphere as just a few ways the idea could go wrong.

Still, he is glad to hear NAS backing research in the subject.

“If we’re putting particles into the stratosphere, we need to study what the benefits and risks are,” he said. “We should have the information to make an informed decision.”

No formal United States government program exists for climate engineering, he said.

Paul Falkowski, one of 16 members of the NAS panel that recently recommended geoengineering methods, discussed the benefits of carbon dioxide removal.

Falkowski, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, favors the concept because it has more permanent benefits than sulfur dioxide addition, which may have to be repeated to keep working.

“Carbon dioxide removal [is like] taking out the garbage and disposing of it,” said Falkowski, holder of the Bennett L. Smith Chair in Business and Natural Resources. “Sulfur dioxide is like spraying perfume on the trash.”

Not only may sulfur dioxide be dangerous in the long term, it will affect different areas of the world in different ways, he said. The action could benefit South America while harming Russia, for example.

“You can’t dial in a temperature for every country,” he said.

The process of carbon dioxide removal generally involves taking the compound from a large emitter, such as a smokestack, and injecting it into certain geological formations.

All of the ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are net energy positive, meaning they remove more carbon dioxide than they burn, he said.

But carbon dioxide removal runs into policy issues, since so far no funding exists for it. While people pay taxes to have their garbage taken away, no one pays for the cost of carbon dioxide when burning fossil fuels, Fallowski said.

All of these ideas are still lower priority to scientists than finding ways to prevent carbon dioxide emissions, said Anthony Broccoli, co-director of the Rutgers Climate Institute.

Still, scientists need to find out how well they work and whether there are any adverse consequences, Broccoli said.

“We’re not ready to act today, but we’re thinking about possible uses down the road,” he said.

Geoengineering is an emergency measure for use only if researchers find too many detrimental effects down the road, Broccoli said.

Many people whom he tells about his research are surprised to hear the situation is so dire, Robock said.

“They think, if we’re willing to consider something that crazy, they should take global warming more seriously,” he said.

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