AEI's Lane discusses economics and politics of geoengineering

Is geoengineering the future of the United States' climate policy? During today's OnPoint, Lee Lane, co-director of the geoengineering project at the American Enterprise Institute, explains the role geoengineering can play in the United States' efforts to reduce emissions. He discusses the economic and political challenges of geoengineering and compares it to other emissions reduction methods.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Lee Lane, the co-director of the geoengineering project at the American Enterprise Institute. Lee, thanks for coming on the show.

Lee Lane: Delighted to be here. Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Lee, geoengineering is being considered as a possible response to climate change. There's still a lot of research and development that needs to be done on it, though. What exactly is geoengineering, and how would it fit into the push to reduce emissions?

Lee Lane: Well, geoengineering really refer -- is a term that refers to two quite different sets of technologies. They both involve very large-scale modification of the Earth's climate system in order to limit some of the potential damage from climate change future. But the two sets of technologies or families of technologies really work very differently.

One of them, in effect, just sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sticks it someplace, the bottom of the ocean or underground, someplace where it can't cause warming any longer. It's out of the atmosphere. The other family of technologies works on a completely different principle and actually would try to counteract the effects of warming, in essence by reflecting a little bit more of the sunlight that strikes the earth back into space, and hence creating an offsetting cooling effect to counteract the warming effect of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Monica Trauzzi: So the second approach wouldn't exactly be reducing emissions, but it would be having an impact? So - I mean, but this seems almost too good to be true, that we could continue to emit but not have an impact. Do we need to employ emissions reductions methods as well in for that to work?

Lee Lane: The answer is yes. The answer is clearly yes. But that is what the concept is. It, if, it would allow for an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and yet avoid either all or at least some of the warming that would otherwise result from that buildup of greenhouse gases.

The problem is, there are two big problems potentially with it. One is that it doesn't have any impact on some of the other potentially harmful effects of that buildup of greenhouse gases. For example, it's widely feared that greenhouse gas increases, CO2 increases in particular, will cause the oceans to acidify, with various harmful effects on the productivity, economic productivity of the oceans. Geoengineering can't stop that effect.

Secondly, over time, there are likely to be, it's not certain, but there are likely to be diminishing marginal returns to this kind of, this particular kind of geoengineering, which is called solar radiation management, more technically. So it's likely to produce an offset for a lot of cooling, but not work forever.

And so it needs to be married to some kind of emissions reduction strategy as well, but it can potentially, potentially, change the timing. It can give us more time in which to implement the emissions reductions that ultimately have to take place, but which might cost a lot less if we can spread them over a longer period of time.

Monica Trauzzi: How far along is the development of these two concepts that you discussed?

Lee Lane: Both are really in very early stages of development. Neither one of them is really ready to be implemented, and both of them would require substantial periods of time to do concept development and testing, and even basic scientific research. So these are concepts at this point. They're not strategies and they're not options yet. All we know is that in principle, these things look like they might well work.

Monica Trauzzi: How would something like this be governed? I mean, what's the politics behind it?

Lee Lane: Well, that's one of the really key questions, and just as the technologies haven't really been thought through in a fully developed way, we're even less far along in thinking about how the politics might play out.

And indeed, one of the things that my work has been concerned with is trying to make sure that we create the sort of institutional structures that on the one hand really do carefully explore these technologies, including the potential risks that are associated with them, but on the other hand are not so cautious in their approach that they end up depriving us - depriving us of what might be the best hope we have of avoiding some really harmful impacts, should we turn out to be very unlucky with climate change itself.

Monica Trauzzi: You've testified before Congress about this, so it is getting some level of attention. Do you think it's getting the appropriate amount of attention?

Lee Lane: Well, there's no question it's gathering vastly more attention than it was getting when I began investigating this about five years ago. It's a night and day difference then. But it's still in an early stage, and in particular, the government research funding for these concepts is way below what I think is warranted, given their potential promise. The U.S. government is probably spending less than a million a year in investigating these concepts.

Now that compares with a budget for developing various energy technologies of about $3 billion a year. That's an awfully big difference. And the promise of these technologies certainly warrants a lot more R&D spending than they're getting from the federal government right now.

Monica Trauzzi: So at this point, we're not talking about implementing a technology like this in lieu of a cap and trade. It would have to be something working with some kind of emissions reduction method?

Lee Lane: I think that's right, although as I say, and I want to stress, I think that if we develop these technologies, and if they turn out to be as promising as they look as though they might be, they might not. That might not happen. But if they turn out to be as promising as they look as of right now, I would argue that it gives us a lot more time to deploy emissions controls, which would be a very good thing, if you consider how little progress we're actually making on emissions controls. I noticed in the paper this morning the U.N. chief climate negotiator announced, well, no treaty on emissions controls this year, again, after 22 years of previous failed annual efforts.

So we're not doing very well with emissions controls, and more time from these technologies could prove to be an awfully valuable thing.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. We're going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Lee Lane: OK. Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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