Have you ever seen the movie "Snowpiercer"? The one starring Hollywood’s second-greatest Chris (Chris Pine will ALWAYS be No. 1)? The general premise of the entire movie — and the graphic novel upon which it was based — is humanity’s attempt to reverse global warming by engineering the atmosphere. Only, they don’t do it correctly and instead the world becomes one great ice cube. Ah, another cautionary tale about our species’ tendency for self-destructive hubris.
The basis of the plot — the dire need to slow and reverse the unprecedented warming of the Earth — is rooted in a reality we can all recognize. And while it may be easy to dismiss that dystopian future as sci-fi at its best, there is a hotly debated global conversation currently happening between scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians about altering our planet’s atmosphere.
So today, I’m going to break down the foundations of that conversation. What is geoengineering, why is it controversial and what technologies fall under its massive umbrella? How relevant is the concept to the overall climate tech marketplace — now, and in the future?
Geoengineering is the intentional large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, specifically to counter climate change via climate-altering technologies and measures. These technologies fall into two camps: carbon geoengineering and solar geoengineering.
- Carbon geoengineering is the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon tech, a sector we often discuss here at GreenBiz, falls within this category — a.k.a. carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct air capture (DAC) technology.
- Solar geoengineering, or solar radiation management (SRM), is far less common and minimally commercialized, as it seeks to reflect sunlight away from Earth’s surface into space to cool the planet. SRM is often broken down into four distinct methodologies: stratospheric aerosol scattering; marine cloud brightening; space-based technologies; and cirrus cloud thinning.
If this is the first time you’ve seen CCS and/or DAC tech defined as geoengineering, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Carbon tech is often purposely separated from geoengineering.
Climate Analytics, a global science and policy institute, explained in a brief, "Conflating negative CO2 emissions technologies [with] techniques such as SRM under the same ‘Geoengineering’ label is misleading, as it strongly downplays the very high risks of geoengineering techniques, and effectively denigrates viable mitigation options that could be provided by some negative emissions technologies."
The controversy in a nutshell
I’m only going to dip my pinky toe into the controversy surrounding geoengineering because a) I don’t have nearly enough space today to cover the topic's plethora of intricacies and b) I’m already working on an article dedicated to the aforementioned plethora of intricacies, so stay tuned.
According to MIT Technology Review, "critics argue that openly talking about the possibility of a technological ‘solution’ to climate change ... will ease pressure to address … rising greenhouse gas emissions." Carbon tech and SRM are not solutions to anthropogenically caused global warming; they’re mitigation tools.
Frank Biermann, an expert in global governance at Utrecht University, spoke to The Guardian about the impending risk of geoengineering: "Soon, everyone who is dependent upon coal, oil and gas will jump on the solar engineering bandwagon and say, ‘We can continue for 40 years with fossil fuels now.’ This debate threatens to derail current climate policies."
Then there’s the possibility of collateral damage. We can’t know for certain that interfering with the planet’s natural processes won’t inadvertently trigger monsoons or significantly alter weather patterns, a la "Snowpiercer."
And that’s nothing compared to the potential geopolitical ramifications SRM poses, keeping the U.S. intelligence community up at night. Officials across the globe fear a worst-case-scenario of one country weaponizing SRM against another by intentionally weakening the power of the sun, causing agricultural failures and triggering abnormal weather patterns. But we’ll talk about that another day.
Money talks, so what’s it saying?
From 2008 to 2018, funding for geoengineering research (primarily SRM) barely made a ripple. In Europe (the EU, Germany and the U.K.), the government financed around $31.3 million for research in that 10-year period, while the U.S. private market funded $20 million.
Compare that to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration providing $22 million toward SRM research in the past three years alone. In October, the White House released a memo declaring its intentions to develop a five-year "scientific assessment of solar and other rapid climate interventions," to put before Congress for funds.
Harvard Solar Geoengineering Program received $16.2 million toward SRM research, and U.S. company Make Sunsets raised a total of $750,000 from venture capital firms Boost and Pioneer Fund. Make Sunsets recently created headlines when it released two weather balloons containing sulfur dioxide into the air in Mexico. The country has since responded to the experiment, saying Make Sunsets violated Mexico’s national sovereignty and is now drafting new laws prohibiting solar geoengineering.
On the carbon geoengineering end, the money is flowing (as I have reported here and here). In response to the passage of the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in the U.S., $1.83 billion in VC funding has gone to carbon tech in the first quarter of 2023, while 2022 saw a total of 242 deals valued at $3.96 billion.
Overall, geoengineering is a multifaceted topic that is likely to grow as we fail to stop warming past levels of 1.5 degrees Celsius. While carbon tech is commonplace, SRM still requires years of research and testing before it can be a viable tool to mitigate the impact of climate change.