Science·What on Earth?

Even if geoengineering can help mitigate climate change, is it ethical?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we examine the ethical ramifications of geoengineering and collect reader feedback on zero-waste grocery shopping.

Also: Palm oil production is up

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Even if geoengineering can help mitigate climate change, is it ethical?

  • Palm oil production is on the rise

  • Reader feedback on zero-waste shopping


Even if geoengineering can help mitigate climate change, is it ethical?

(Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Getty Images)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and scientists from around the world have said it time and again: CO2 emissions need to be radically reduced in order to stop the world from warming to a point where it will trigger catastrophic climate change.

But radical reductions aren't in place right now, which is why some scientists and policymakers are considering a controversial option: geoengineering, or the deliberate manipulation of the environment.

The discussion has recently taken centre stage as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. received $4 million to research geoengineering, with no confirmation as to what that might look like.

One of the more popular methods of geoengineering is solar radiation management (SRM). In this method, particles of sulphur dioxide or calcium carbonate are sprayed into the stratosphere, which makes solar radiation "bounce" off clouds back into space, creating a cooling effect. It's the same process that happens after a large volcanic eruption.

There are many issues concerning the potential of employing such a method, including whether it is scientifically possible, economically viable and how a body like the United Nations might govern its use. 

But another big one is whether it is ethical.

Thus far, geoengineering studies have been done primarily in labs using models. It's unknown whether it would produce the desired effect on a larger scale or what the consequences might be.

However, several studies that have modelled SRM find that large-scale use of it could increase precipitation in some parts of the world — potentially in some of the regions in the tropics.

"If you're talking about justice and equity, then the impacts of changing rainfall patterns are going to fall disproportionately on the poorest around the world," said Emily Cox, an environmental policy researcher at Cardiff University as well as the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K.

Cox also noted that there is a philosophical discussion around intentional versus unintentional harm. For example, burning coal and emitting CO2 isn't limited to borders and is already causing unintended consequences. Similarly, if we employ SRM, we could be causing unintentional harm for other countries.

"Everything we do affects other nations," she said.

David Keith is a Canadian professor of applied physics at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, which is home to one of the leading geoengineering labs in the world. He disputes the findings that state SRM will increase precipitation.

"We had a big paper that was very well reported last year in [the journal] Nature Climate Change that contradicts that assumption," he said.

There is clearly still dispute over the effects of geoengineering, but given the potential differences in outcome, it's unlikely every country in the world will agree on the specifics of SRM. So what happens when one country says it doesn't support it? How ethical would it be for another country to simply proceed?

There are "big philosophical questions here," said Cox. As a result, "there's a real danger of polarization."

Nicole Mortillaro


Reader feedback

Marianne Wyne wrote in to say, "I would love to learn more about all the different renewable energy projects that are either underway or being planned across Canada. All news seems focused on the fossil fuel energy sector and the projects underway or the ones that have been shut down." As an example of a low-carbon initiative, Wyne cited the Travers project near Vulcan, Alta., which will be Canada's largest solar farm. "I think Canadians want to hear about all such projects," she said.

We at What on Earth? agree, and will make more of an effort to highlight some of these emerging projects.

Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.


The Big Picture: Global consumption of palm oil

Palm oil has become a ubiquitous substance in modern life, showing up in the ingredient list of everything from candy and chips to infant formula and shampoo. It's also used as a biofuel. Palm oil is, in fact, the world's most commonly produced vegetable oil, and much of it comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil's many uses have inevitably led to greater worldwide consumption — and the establishment of ever more palm plantations has led to displacement of Indigenous peoples, loss of biodiversity and deforestation. Here's a look at how palm oil production has gone up.

(CBC)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • An American engineer figured out a way to repurpose and connect old Android phones to create an early warning system for illegal logging in rainforest regions in places like Brazil, Cameroon and Peru.

  • Car companies are gearing up to offer more electric vehicle options, and our colleague Don Pittis wrote about how this will disrupt the existing "fuel-retail network" — i.e. gas stations.

Readers share their zero-waste shopping tips

(Isabel Terrell/CBC)

Last week, Isabel Terrell wrote about her one-week attempt to buy groceries without packaging. She cited a number of wins, produce being the most obvious. But she also experienced some frustration — for example, in sourcing frozen foods and cooking oil without excessive packaging.

We asked readers to share their own triumphs and setbacks in zero-waste grocery shopping. 

Wendy Jeske in Tsawwassen, B.C., had suggestions for protein items: "I have been buying meats from the butcher counter, so that they are wrapped in paper (as my mother used to do!), rather than buying meat that is placed on a plastic tray and wrapped in plastic film." Jeske also said that she gets her eggs "from a local farm and they want the cardboard cartons only, so I keep returning them to the farm. No styrofoam or plastic cartons! Yay!"

Catherine Irwin-Gibson in Montreal said her fishmonger gives her "a 15 per cent discount for my own container, and just zeroes the scale with my container on it, then prints the label for the cost. Yes, there is a label and that's the waste, but it's much lower than the whole packaging and styrofoam and such nonsense like that." 

Irwin-Gibson also had a fix for frozen food. "Buy [produce items] fresh when they're in season and freeze them yourself. That's really the only way to avoid packaging."

"I dusted off my bread machine and I make my own," said Marcia Parker.

Kiirsti Owen in Truro, N.S., said she brings her own growler (large bottle) to local breweries to get beer and cider. She also put in a plug for the SodaStream home-carbonization system: "I was skeptical at first, but it's greatly reduced the number of bottles/cans we use."

Kaitie Hoffmann in Toronto rhymed off a list of things she has "successfully gotten package-free: meats (bacon, chicken breast, ground meat), cheese, milk, yoghurt, sour cream, cream cheese, bacon, breads, fresh and frozen veggies and fruit, oils (olive, etc.), spices, pasta, oatmeal, potato chips, honey, crackers, tortilla chips, peanut butter, chocolate bars, coffee, tea... you name it." She accomplished this, she said, by bringing her own containers to bulk and grocery stores. 

Alex Denicola has "completely eliminated plastic bottled liquid soap for both dishes (hand-washed) and the bathroom sink and shower for over 10 years now. We use both a 'laundry bar' soap and a 'shampoo and conditioner' bar soap made by a Toronto company, and they awesomely come with zero wrapping. What we do in the kitchen is simply run or pour hot water over the soap bar, and voila, we have a sink or basin of sudsy water."

Some readers bemoaned the fact that it's hard to go zero-waste outside of Canada's urban centres. 

Ghita Jones in Calgary talked about her efforts to live zero-waste, and made this point: "I do not live in the downtown core so I have to drive, with my containers, to get them refilled. The question comes up: Is it better to drive (I do not have an electric car, am on maternity leave with two children) and create more emissions and wear and tear on my third-hand vehicle to refill my cleaning products (that are more expensive) rather than buying some while I grocery shop at the local store that is five minutes away from my home?"

Julie Poole in Swan River, Man., wrote, "even though [zero-waste shopping] is possible in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, it is actually totally impossible in rural Canada." She said she wrote in "to voice my frustration that I want to do better, but the things I need are not available where I live. No bulk foods and no butcher."

Kaitie Hoffman offered this parting insight: "I have heard that 'it's not about a small group of people doing this perfectly, it's about a large group of people doing this imperfectly.' I think that is an amazing message that hopefully will resonate with your readers and beyond. It's not about going 100 per cent plastic/packaging-free — it's about avoiding single-use plastics and other packaging where you can."


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said that solar radiation management includes a process of spraying particles of sulphur into the stratosphere. The substance is in fact sulphur dioxide.
    Feb 28, 2020 11:53 AM ET

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