This startup is crossing a red line by changing the climate

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While the objective of limiting global warming to below 2°C (let’s not even talk about the 1.5°C of the Paris Agreements…) by 2050 seems complicated by conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine, which is upsetting the energy market, the psychological barriers around climate geoengineering (in other words the search for methods to directly modify and control the climate) are gradually falling.

However, the recent announcement by the American startup Make Sunsets risks causing a real outcry. While the situation stimulates alternatives to energy savings such as the direct capture of CO2 in the atmosphere, Make Sunset wants to capitalize (because it is indeed a question of monetizing its services) on the direct modification of the climate via aerosol releases in the upper layers of the atmosphere.

Controlling the climate with sulfur dioxide particles in the atmosphere: the theory

This method of geoengineering was conceptualized in the early 1990s. After the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano in 1991, whose plume of particles dispersed into the stratosphere, scientists found that the average temperature on Earth had dropped. According to the data available, the decrease observed during the year 1992-1993 was 0.4°C on average across the globe.

In the northern hemisphere the observed ground temperatures were between 0.5°C and 0.6°C lower than normal in the two years that followed. It must be said that the eruption of Pinatubo in 1991 is one of the most major eruptions of the 20th century. The sudden eruption after 500 years of sleep spread from June 1991 to the following September 2.

More than 10 km3 of material was ejected from the volcano in this relatively short interval, including a large part of particles or aerosols that have reached the stratosphere. Of these materials it is known that a large part was in fact sulfur dioxide. This reacts with water to form sulfuric acid aerosols – they were the ones that reached the stratosphere and then spread all around the planet in the year that followed.

But sulfuric acid reflects solar radiation. Which reduced the amount of light on the ground by around 10% in the northern hemisphere. The effect lasted for two years after the eruption, then the particles continued to disperse and fall all over Earth over a period of three years since the start of the eruption.

Consequences still difficult to predict

It is in this context that the meteorologist Paul Crutzen proposed in 1991 to imitate volcanoes by carrying out massive, voluntary releases of sulfur dioxide to lower the average temperature on Earth and thus limit the effects of CO2 emissions while curbing global warming. The problem is that falling temperatures weren’t the only thing that followed the Pinatubo eruption.

Among other things, it is believed that the rainy weather over North America in 1992 and the heavy flooding in the American Midwest in 1993 are also linked to these aerosols. Volcanic dust in fact sows the clouds by the phenomenon of nucleation which can cause increases in precipitation. More serious: the rate of destruction of the ozone layer would have been accelerated by the consequences of this eruption.

This is why the scientific community still has strong reservations against experimentation around these techniques with potentially unpredictable effects. Especially since it is still possible to limit the damage by changing our behavior and whatever follow-up to be given to the fight against global warming, changes in behavior are and remain essential.

Still, as Paul Crutzen already pointed out at the time, this geoengineering technique is potentially one of the most economical and safest methods for modifying the climate. But especially in the absence of other solutions, and if efforts to reduce emissions fail in a world gripped by conflict…

The Make Sunset method questions and shocks

Make Sunset, however, obviously does not care about these reservations and has decided to release particles into the stratosphere from Mexico now. They used simple weather balloons for this. Fortunately, we told you, these are only two small releases – the effect of these will therefore be almost non-existent, even very locally, because of the quantities of materials involved.

But depending on the aerosols used, the altitude of dispersion and the winds, it is however possible that these releases locally cause in the long term a slight more or less localized pollution. Make Sunsets bases its business model on the concept of “cooling credits”, modeled on carbon credits.

With the sums collected, Make Sunset intends to carry out more and more massive releases. However, it is unclear what credit to give to the initiative of Make Sunset at this stage, nor its chances of success. However, it seems that in parallel, the intention of those responsible for Make Sunset is precisely to challenge the public and convince more people to bring down the reservations around this type of geoengineering.

As Janos Pasztor, of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, quoted by MIT Technology Review : “the current state of our knowledge is not yet enough… either to reject, or to accept this kind of techniques… let alone its implementation at this stage” which he describes as a “bad idea” comparable to using CRISPR to modify the DNA of human embryos.

Scientific data from releases, to absent subscribers

Other scientists fear that the startup’s initiative will create mistrust and reduce funding for research on the subject – which could still prove useful, with more knowledge, a framework and guarantees…

Not to mention the risk that perfect “noobs” of the climate do not end up imitating the startup elsewhere in the world, and do not begin to multiply the releases “wild” following the example of Make Sunsets. In detail, the first launches of Make Sunsets are described as two fairly rudimentary, almost symbolic releases, without the slightest authorization from the Mexican authorities.

The team simply released the balloons hoping they would explode at the correct altitude. However, Make Sunset’s approach also reveals an appalling lack of scientific methodology. The startup is unable to confirm that the explosion of the balloons took place at the planned altitude. Likewise, it is not known where the remains of the balloons fell. No equipment collected the slightest data, whether on board the balloons or on the ground…

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