Geoengineering: basic principles, some thoughts, some questions

In the face of the potential for catastrophic climate change and global warming, “geo-engineering” is an arena getting a little attention and some press, such as W Broad, NYT Times 

Geoengineering is the deliberate modification of Earth’s environment on a large scale “to suit human needs and promote habitability”. 

One can argue that all efforts to control carbon emissions (to reverse past emissions) falls within GeoEngineering, but that is not the general context of consideration, which often focuses on efforts that would, somehow, have a direct impact on Earth’s temperatures (and not, necessarily, on carbon loads).

One step back question, which does not necessarily seem to occur in many conversation, is what principles should guide Geo-Engineering efforts and prioritization of their potential.

Some thoughts as to principles

The core principle should be: win-win-win.  A proposal that, in a systems of systems effort, provides multiple wins and does not solely address temperature.  Thus, a proposal that offers real potential for improving economy, reducing carbon, and contributing to reduced temperature (both directly, somehow, and indirectly through reduced carbon loads or carbon capture) would seem to merit greater prioritization than high-cost efforts that would solely impact “temperature” but not impact (or worsen) the carbon load equation.

Risk factors must be placed into the equation.   How “known” are the system-of-system implications? Does it create other problems while “solving” (or ameliorating or delaying) temperature challenges?

And, can the response be done quickly, affordable, and in a distributed fashion?

These seem to be some questions that can be asked to see whether ‘win-win-win’ is possible.

Looking at options:  Five “traditional” proposals

Wikipedia provides five examples of GeoEngineering

  • Mirrors in space: proposed by Roger Angel with the purpose to deflect a percentage of solar sunlight into space, using mirrors floating around the earth in orbit.

While each is interesting (even intriguing) in its own way(s), these seem to (across the board) fail the “win-win-win” equation process (although, to be honest, the artificial trees are rather interesting to consider).  The space mirrors would be tremendously (prohibitively) expensive and do nothing about carbon loads (and, potentially, actually worsen them).  The Sulphur risks more acid rain for a limited gain in slowing warming trends.  The Iron Seeding seems to have limited results in testing and has uncertain long-term prospects.  Cloud-Seeding, again, is a net carbon cost (the energy to run the system) with some uncertainty over the impact.  Each of these merits more attention than one summary paragraph can provide, but to summarize: these are not win-win-win strategies.

Do Geo-Engineering Win-Win-Win Spaces Exist?

Okay, I’ve set out a few ideas on principles, created a challenge.  Is it a challenge that can realistically be met.  Simply put:  yes!  Here are several paths to help contribute to dealing with temperature levels that go to a positive space in other arenas.

Reflective Roofing:  A typical ‘asphalt’ shingle/such roof, with a very low albedo factor (reflectivity) absorb substantial amounts of solar radiation through the year.  Shifting to a reflective roofing material can send much of that solar radiation back to space. It is also highly cost effective because it can reduce air conditioning loads and increase roof longevity.  Some payback analysis suggests that, when compared to ‘traditional’ roofing, reflective roofs can pay back the added cost in just a few weeks.  Now, what about the heat/cooling impact globally

The Earth has an albedo of 0.29, meaning that it reflects 29 per cent of the sunlight that falls upon it. With an albedo of 0.1, towns absorb more sunlight than the global average. Painting all roofs white could nudge the Earth’s albedo from 0.29 towards 0.30. According to a very simple “zero-dimensional” model of the Earth, this would lead to a drop in global temperature of up to 1 °C, almost exactly cancelling out the global warming that has taken place since the start of the industrial revolution. A zero-dimensional model, however, excludes the atmosphere and, crucially, the role of clouds. [But!] It would be interesting to see if more sophisticated models predict a similar magnitude of cooling.

As much as 1 degree centigrade via white roofing!  Perhaps it is time to start changing building codes and reflecting some sun back to space.  And, remember, this will lower carbon loads through energy efficiency and reduced roofing replacement requirements in out years. And, another win element: this can be done by almost any organization, any government, any individual … now. And, they will save money while helping to save the planet’s habilitability.

Permaculture:  We can reclaim deserts through inexpensive but quite thoughtful practices, reducing the heat loads in these areas, capturing carbon, and fostering economic activity.  Don’t believe me?  Take a few moments to watch this.  Again, this can be done almost anywhere, at low cost with a high benefit.  What are we waiting for?

Agrichar / Biochar / Terra Preta:   Very simply, we have the potential for a carbon-negative fuel that will, over time, also foster improve fertility in soil.  Very simply, gasification of biomass can be combined with agricultural practices to create energy, have the waste plowed back into the soil to improve fertility (while reducing fertilizer requirements), and have some of the carbon from each of these cycles captured in the soil.  “[T]he great advantage of biochar is the fact that the technique can be applied world-wide on agricultual soils, and even by rural communities in the developing world because it is relatively low tech.” This is a highly promising arena that is getting attention, but perhaps not enough.  For some additional discussion, for example, see: Energize America (also); Biochar: The New Frontier; The pay dirt of El Dorado; International Biochar Initiative; Birth of a New Wedge; and Terra Preta for Carbon Reduction.

Roaring 40s:  Remember the ice cube being dropped in the ocean to solve Global Warming in Futurama?  Maybe this wasn’t total lunacy.  The Roaring 40s in the southern hemisphere have tremendous wind resources, wind resources that are Stranded WindWind farms, perhaps floating wind farms, can be set up in these great winds to make ammonia to be used for fuel (and perhaps hydrogen and perhaps be used to support industrial processes in these areas).  The process of making this ammonia will remove heat energy from the oceans and, voila, contribute to ice formation. 

Win-Win-Win

Geo-Engineering is staring us in the face. But, we can pursue “Geo-Engineering” along win-win-win paths, such that they will more than ‘pay for themselves’ while helping to moderate temperature through the decades (centuries) of abnormally high carbon loads in the atmosphere.

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4 responses to “Geoengineering: basic principles, some thoughts, some questions

  1. Erich J. Knight

    the current news and links on Terra Preta (TP) soils and closed-loop pyrolysis of Biomass, this integrated virtuous cycle could sequester 100s of Billions of tons of carbon to the soils.

    This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.

    UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference

    http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/steinerbalinov2107

    SCIAM Article May 15 07;

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=5670236C-E7F2-99DF-3E2163B9FB144E40

    After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

    Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

    The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

    S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

    A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

    Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

    for the 2007 Farm Bill

    http://www.biochar-international.org/newinformationevents/newlegislation.html

    Bolstering Biomass and Biochar development: In the 2007 Farm Bill, Senator Salazar was able to include $500 million for biomass research and development and for competitive grants to develop the technologies and processes necessary for the commercial production of biofuels and bio-based products. Biomass is an organic material, usually referring to plant matter or animal waste. Using biomass for energy can reduce waste and air pollution. Biochar is a byproduct of producing energy from biomass. As a soil treatment, it enhances the ability of soil to capture and retain carbon dioxide.

    Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.
    Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
    National Renewable Energy Laboratory

    http://www.ases.org/climatechange/toc/07_biomass.pdf

    The organization 25×25 released it’s (first-ever, 55-page )”Action Plan” ; see; http://www.25×25.org/storage/25×25/documents/IP%20Documents/ActionPlanFinalWEB_04-19-07.pdf
    On page 29 , as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: “The development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration.”
    and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of infrastructure: “Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and existing carbon credit trading systems.”

    I feel 25×25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

    There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG should be returned to the Soil.

    Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

    If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I’ve been drafted to co-administer. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

    It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who’s back round I don’t know have joined.

    Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

    The Honolulu Advertiser: “The nation’s leading manufacturer of charcoal has licensed a University of Hawai’i process for turning green waste into barbecue briquets.”

    See: http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/antalkingsford

    ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State

    http://www.conocophillips.com/newsroom/news_releases/2007news/04-10-2007.htm

    Glomalin, the recently discovered soil protien, may be the secret to to TP soils productivity;

    http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2003/030205.htm

    Mycorrhizae Inoculent;

    http://www.mycorrhizae.com/

    The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at their home page; http://www.biochar-international.org/home.html

    Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important stories and links;

    Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

    Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,………… and that now……… we are over doing it.

    The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
    I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world’s forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

    On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

    It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons of carbon.

    The best estimates I’ve found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
    pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
    that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
    the other 2/3.

    Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel CO2 emissions as stable charcoal in the soil.

    As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, “Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day’s are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative”. and that ” a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! ”

    Terra Preta Soils Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

    This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I’m sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it’s implementation.

    The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
    provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
    structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

    The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade or a Carbon tax in place.

    .Nature article, Aug 06: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

    http://bestenergies.com/downloads/naturemag_200604.pdf

    Here’s the Cornell page for an over view:

    http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/biochar/Biochar_home.htm

    University of Beyreuth TP Program, Germany http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=taxonomy/term/118

    This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

    http://forums.hypography.com/earth-science/3451-terra-preta.html

    There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

    Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

    The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it’s benefits is this one static:

    One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

    One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

    Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

    What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

    To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 20-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994). http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/carbon1.html

    All the Biochar Companies and equipment manufactures I’ve found:

    Carbon Diversion

    http://www.carbondiversion.com/

    Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

    http://www.eprida.com/home/index.php4

    BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis – Biomass – Clean Energy – Renewable Ene

    http://www.bestenergies.com/companies/bestpyrolysis.html

    Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

    http://www.dynamotive.com/

    Ensyn – Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

    http://www.ensyn.com/who/ensyn.htm

    Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

    http://www.agri-therm.com/

    Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

    http://www.advbiorefineryinc.ca/

    Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

    http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/17298/

    3R Environmental Technologies Ltd. (Edward Someus)
    WEB: http://www.terrenum.net/

    The company has Swedish origin and developing/designing medium and large scale carbonization units. The company is the licensor and technology provider to NviroClean Tech Ltd British American organization WEB: http://www.nvirocleantech.com and VERTUS Ltd.

    http://www.vertustechnologies.com

    Genesis Industries, licensee of Eprida technology, provides carbon-negative EPRIDA energy machines at the same cost as going direct to Eprida. Our technical support staff also provide information to obtain the best use of biochar produced by the machine. Recent research has shown that EPRIDA charcoal (biochar) increases plant productivity as it sequesters carbon in soil, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

    http://www.egenindustries.com/

    .

    If pre-Columbian Kayopo Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin using “Slash & CHAR” verses “Slash & Burn”, it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

    Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

    We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

    Erich J. Knight
    Shenandoah Gardens
    1047 Dave Berry Rd.
    McGaheysville, VA. 22840
    (540) 289-9750
    shengar@aol.com

  2. Great post Adam. I think your principles for Geoengineering are good. Hardly any of the “techno-fixes” some people are proposing these days meet any, let alone all of those tests.

    BTW, on biochar, which has TONS of promise, the “Engineer Poet” wrote a lot about this awhile back, with some very intruiging back-of-the-envelope calculations and ideas about how to set up a truly carbon negative, or “climate positive” energy system with pyrolisis of biomass at its core:

    -The Ergosphere: “Going negative”

  3. Pingback: Energy Cool: Spend a week WIRECing « Energy Smart

  4. new_biochar_land

    Don’t believe in what biochar can do?
    Learn more about the future of agriculture with biochar, from the most complete book about biochar “The Biochar Revolution”

    http://www.biochar-books.com

    Learn how to get terra preta!

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