OCTOBER 5, 2022 — Editor’s Note: This editorial by Hamid BeladiJaney S. Briscoe Chair in Business at the Carlos Alvarez College of Business and Amitrajeet A. Batabya, Arthur J. Gosnell, professor of economics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News.
Scientists, economists and policy makers around the world now agree that climate change is the most serious environmental problem facing humanity today. Although the long-term changes in temperatures and weather we are talking about are caused, at least to some extent, by natural forces, there is now a consensus that at least since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change. change the salient problem that it is today.
The burning of fossil fuels – for example coal, oil and gas – is the main human activity that has contributed to the increase in temperature on the Earth’s surface. This generates greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane. Metaphorically speaking, these emissions can be thought of as a blanket that envelops planet Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising the Earth’s surface temperature.
To solve this problem, economists and policy makers have generally advocated the use of instruments to control prices (taxes) and quantities (carbon credits). Efforts have largely focused on creating the right incentives for individuals and businesses to reduce their use of fossil fuels and shift to renewable energy sources. Sometimes politicians have even advocated the use of prohibitions to modify human behavior. For example, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently said that by 2035 his state would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars and light trucks. The hope here is that such an act will inspire state residents to drive more electric vehicles that typically have zero tailpipe emissions.
While there is nothing wrong with using price and quantity control instruments to fight climate change, these traditional tools have not been enough to solve the massive problem we face. We seem to hear and see stories of climate devastation almost regularly. In recent times there have been many reports of record temperatures in the western states of the United States, devastating floods in several cities in Australia and in large parts of Europe, including the Germany and the Netherlands, unbearable heat waves in New Delhi, India, and abnormally high rainfall leading to widespread flooding in Pakistan.
It’s time to think about new solutions to fight climate change. This means thinking seriously about solar geoengineering or climate engineering. This type of engineering encompasses two types of technologies: carbon dioxide removal and, more intriguingly, methods of reflecting sunlight.
Carbon dioxide removal technologies refer to processes such as direct air capture that attempt to address a key cause of climate change by lowering atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. However, as Doug MacMartin, a researcher at Cornell University, and his colleagues pointed out in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencescurrent carbon dioxide removal strategies are either not on the scale or too costly to significantly reduce the 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted by humans each year.
This Saturnian perspective on direct air capture leads us to the modification of solar radiation, which is perhaps an interesting climate change mitigation strategy. The relevant technology involves injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere so that more sunlight bounces off the Earth’s atmosphere instead of being absorbed by the earth along with its “cover”. The fundamental point is that methods of reflecting sunlight, including the injection of stratospheric aerosols, can offset the negative effects of climate change by cooling planet Earth.
HVAC is a fascinating new area of research and, admittedly, we don’t know all of the effects that could occur if we employed the technologies suggested by this new research. Although we can continue to use price and quantity control instruments to fight climate change, two points are essential. First, society must seriously consider expanding its policy toolbox with promising approaches. Second, it must explore all available options to identify the best opportunities to make our planet more hospitable for future generations.