Engineering a Solution to Global Warming

Most scientists agree that the Earth is warming, whether due to the effects of human habitation and lifestyle or as part of a cycle that is as natural as the rotation of the Earth itself. Whatever the cause it looks as if sea levels are going to continue to rise, weather patterns are changing and this is going to cause serious problems for millions of people across the globe. But what can be done about it?

Firstly I should define the terms used both here and elsewhere a little better. Climate Change and Global Warming are the two main terms we hear in both the scientific and popular press. They are not however interchangeable. Climate change represents changes in the climate (obviously), increased or decreased rainfall for example as well as temperature change, but from a geographical point of view. Global warming specifically represents the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature in general as provoked by the increase in so called ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions, it is not geographical but global. This article on the NASA website describes the development of the terminology.

Global warming is therefore the tricky term. Recently however a group of scientists that included global warming skeptics agreed that the planet is in fact warming, although there is still some debate as to why. The results were a surprise as the research was carried out by a long time global warming skeptic at the University of Berkley, and reported to Congress last year. Read the article in the Los Angeles Times.

Those scientists that have accepted the definition of the problem have offered various engineering solutions to the problem, some seem a little absurd and others foolishly simple, so I would like to have a look at a few of them.

The following describes the problem of the ‘greenhouse effect’ that is believed to cause global warming, and the two main variables that could be manipulated, heat coming in and heat leaving the atmosphere.

Major variables in the ‘greenhouse effect’

Those in the know call it Geo-engineering, and its intentions and goals can be grouped into 2 basic classes, carbon dioxide removal techniques and solar radiation management techniques. The first involves the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through means such as ocean fertilization, changes in land use, afforestation, bio-energy, enhanced weathering and direct mechanical air capture techniques. This should let more heat out. The second involves surface albedo, cloud enhancement, stratospheric aerosol and space based methods. The first addresses the perceived cause of the problem, carbon and other pollutants in the atmosphere, while the second attempts to alleviate the problem by reflecting some of the heat from the sun back into space.

In terms of removing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere they have a couple of large scale proposals, either land or sea based. Land based involve the obvious stuff like reforestation and stopping deforestation, also enhanced weathering techniques that involve spreading minerals on agricultural land to help the earth absorb the carbon as it is washed down by the rain, but also some interesting large scale engineering projects. One is to build lots of huge carbon alkali filters, probably above disused mines or in a desert somewhere and filter out the carbon as the air passes through them, before storing it in the chambers left by the mining. This technique is touted as interesting because the facilities can be built anywhere, and so cheap unpopulated zones can be used.

Ocean fertilization is another option being looked into, the oceans are fertilized with algae that soak up the carbon and sink down into the sea where the water then breaks it down. From a personal point of view I think the possibility of forever changing the oceans’ ecosystem is clear for all to see however (there is also a possibility that the volume of the seas might expand, not a desired side effect by any stretch of the imagination).

The second options are more interesting, they involve reflecting the sun’s rays back before they arrive, or reflecting more as they hit the Earth.

I like the simple ideas. Seeing as black soaks in more heat and white reflects it back into space, painting all rooves white and making all the roads white would do a great deal. As would growing light coloured plants in large numbers. Suggestions include planting huge areas of light coulored trees, a doubly productive approach. These ideas seem more reasonable to me as at least they can be managed relatively easily, something that cannot be said for ocean fertilization or some of the following suggestions.

One of which is to disperse millions of tiny pieces of reflective paper into the outer atmosphere so that less sun physically arrives. This seems a bit risky to me though as you can’t get rid of them once they are up there and the effect may be disastrous for some regions that could experience dramatic weather changes. Irreversibility is a big no as far as I am concerned, as is complete lack of control. In the event of the Earth starting to cool how could you get them down?

Artificial cloud production or whitening is also on the table, but also has the problem of control, you cannot determine where the clouds will go, and their very existence in one area can have huge impacts on others. If it rains too much in one place it may well cause drought in others. Stratospheric aerosol use poses similar risks and problems.  Placing huge seas of mirrors in the desert to reflect the sun back up seems a bit less risky to me, maybe they could even produce some electricity while they were at it!

The solutions above do not address the problem of carbon emissions, and many seem to be rather haphazard operations. Many of them will be outside human control even during testing operations, and I can’t help but feel that they are talking about point of no return.

If you were wondering, I promise you that I did not make any of this stuff up, and if you would like to read an in depth report about the proposals outlined above you can download one here from the Royal Society of Engineering for free. More of my writing on this subject as well as many related issues can be found as ever on the Bassetti Foundation website.

If anybody else has any ideas I would love to hear them. Next week I look at the Holy Grail, pollution free, cost free energy, patented, on sale, and for you to behold from the comfort of your own computer.

24 thoughts on “Engineering a Solution to Global Warming

  1. Christopher (admin team)

    You write about some really interesting solutions here Jonny, the thing is, I would rather we focused research and money on reducing CO2 in the first place, rather than trying to solve the problems it can cause.

    For example, you say we could paint all roofs white which could help lesson the problem, however why not just plaster all roofs in solar panels, so that there are less greenhouse gasses being emitted in the production of energy?

    I think the second paragraph where you talk about the difference between global warming and climate change is really good. It is sometimes easy to refer to the two as the same thing.

    “If you were wondering, I promise you that I did not make any of this stuff up” – I wouldn’t ever believe that you would make something up Jonny! WE don’t blog about what we think might be real, we blog about what is real 🙂

    Overall a very good article, I am looking forward to the next one!

    • Thanks for your comment, the making stuff up line refers exactly to your point. Extreme measures that seem beyond the realm of reasonable action! It seems that these proposals do not address the core issues, and in fact in most circles are considered an emergency measure. When all else fails then we try this…. Certainly not a great scenario but these scientists argue that if there is a need to cool the planet these solutions can do it, more or less quickly and in a more or less controlled manner. Placing solar panels on every roof is a great idea, but emissions will not suddenly drop very much and the effects of the pollution from recent years will continue to effect the atmosphere so the immediate effect is minimal.

      • Christopher (admin team)

        I see what you are saying Jonny.

        Regarding placing solar panels on peoples roofs, would that not significantly reduce daytime domestic emissions, were everyone to have solar roofs?

  2. This is one of those huge topics that no matter who you talk to, you generally get different opinions. In my opinion the earth has gone through many different cycles, throughout its lifetime. The earth has gone through ice ages so why would there not have been, for lack of a better word, “hot” ages. What makes today so different from the past. We are just going into yet another cycle. Now that being said, I am sure that we as a race have made the circumstances different and added to the problem and sped up the process, with all the different chemicals and air pollutants we have introduced into our environment. I do hope that scientists can come up with a viable solution.

  3. I don’t think there is any doubt on global warning. Simply from scientific point of view, energy can never be destroyed. So all that heat energy coming from the sun has to be absorbed or converted to other forms. But the process is very gradual and will not significantly affect anyone living today.

    • Christopher (admin team)

      The idea of global warming is not that the sun is warming the earth, (well it sort of is) but that humans are through the generation of greenhouse gases. These gases trap more of the suns rays inside the atmosphere, hence the warming.

      Thanks for commenting, welcome to the blog.
      Christopher – Admin Team

    • Oh it is affecting a lot of people today, rainfall patterns are changing and agricultural land is being lost and sea levels are rising submerging land. There are already serious problems in low lying areas. Look up Bangladesh for example.

      • Christopher (admin team)

        That is a good example Jonny, Bangladesh is very unlucky, as it suffers from river flooding due to deforestation in the north (as these can help to act as a barrier to slow water down and can help soak up water) as well as tidal flooding. I think they all need houses on stilts 😉

  4. Hi Jonny,

    Indeed the atmosphere today is getting warmer. I really learned alot from this post. But I have summarized the solution for global warming and that would be – human being should stop destroying the nature. Human being should love earth again!

    • Christopher (admin team)

      The thing is Eliza, that would mean loosing our current lifestyle – at least for many of us – and most people would resist that :-/

    • Everything has an environmental cost, how can we determine what is acceptable? We might feel lost without a computer and mobile phone but their production involves environmentally and ethically debatable practices. And we should remember that we are talking about the rich minority here doing the damage, not the economically poorer parts of the world.

  5. Hi Jonny,

    This is indeed an interesting topic. I also like the simple ideas being suggested like painting roofs white and planting more light-coloured trees. I guess in these simple approaches, people can help in reducing the effects of global warming. For the riskier parts like reducing CO2, maybe we could leave that to the experts.

    • Christopher (admin team)

      The thing is Alex, how many people are going to paint their roofs white? My guess is not many!

      Thanks for taking the time to read our content and add your view, welcome to the community 🙂
      Christopher – Admin Team

    • Every little helps, white roads would be great too. The problem is that anything like this would be difficult to implement on a large scale and the results difficult to measure, and that factor alone makes it unattractive to the political community. If you decide to go for it single handed use a harness when on the roof, remember what happened to Rod Hull!

      • Yeah, not too many people might do this but I agree with Johnny, every little thing helps. It might indeed be difficult to measure on a large scale basis but, if you do it, you know that you’ve helped even in the smallest way possible. 🙂

  6. Interesting to read about all these suggestions. I think the biggest solution is to simply create mass awareness. Nothing will work as well as people all over the world themselves taking initiatives every step of the way rather than one body of people only.

    I hope the reflective paper dispersal idea never materializes. It would produce disastrous amounts of space junk which we will never get rid of. Not a good thing in our already crowded orbit.


  7. Ramnarayan Chttopadhyay

    Pragmatic solution to cut down GHG emission at source (industries) and thus to reduce rate of global temperature rise through green or eco- engineering been been extensively covered in only available book entitled ‘Green Tribology ,Green Surface Engineering, and Global Warming’,ASM International, USA,2014.
    The book is based on four decades of research and field experience in providing green engineering solution to produce products with low Carbon-Energy-Dollar Foot Print. Author has 3 more books on each of the 3 subjects published earlier. The unique series of four books received received appreciation from leading Scientists,CEOs,President of India etc
    Author (Prof.(Hon)Ramnarayan Chattopadhyay,Ph.D (London, C.Eng(UK) ,FIIIM (UK),Member-UN Environment
    Shall appreciate if you can look through this book and include it in your future featured article

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