Yesterday, Exponential Investor discussed a squabble I’d had in Berlin, with one of the world’s leading experts in solar radiation management climate engineering, David Keith. Simply put, that’s the business of squirting stuff into the sky, to reflect sunlight – thus keeping the planet cool.

Surprisingly, dimming the sun actually tends to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. There are several mechanisms involved, but one of these is simple: a colder ocean more readily dissolves CO2, than does a warmer ocean. It’s the same effect that makes warm fizzy drinks go flat. Because this effect can be relatively easily quantified, we then have a very useful effect: by blocking out a small proportion of sunshine, we can potentially uptake quite a lot of carbon dioxide into the oceans.

Why does this matter?

So, here’s the big deal. It’s potentially cheap and easy for small entrepreneurs to block out sunshine. To give an example: even something as basic as painting your roof white will tend to reflect sunlight, and cool down the oceans a tiny little bit. Obviously, you couldn’t possibly measure the effect on the ocean from painting one roof white. But you can calculate that effect – turning your white roof into a dependable reduction in CO2.

Now, turning back to the voluntary carbon offsets (VCOs) described in yesterday’s article, if painting your roof white gives a small-but-reliable reduction in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, you can (in principle) claim a VCO for doing this. You can then sell this VCO to someone who wants to pollute with a sort-of clear conscience – such as an airline passenger.

Actually, painting your roof white is not a very cost-effective way of reflecting sunlight – although it certainly does work. Fortunately, there are some far more effective approaches. One is to spray chemicals, such as sulphuric acid, in the upper atmosphere. This is technically very difficult to do – and will require companies to spend a lot of money developing the necessary aircraft. That’s unlikely to pose much of a regulatory problem, in the near term.

There’s another approach, and it could get messy

There’s a potent geoengineering technique under development, called marine cloud brightening (MCB). This is potentially very cheap – at least in terms of capital cost. This means small “mom and pop” entrepreneurs could start doing it soon.

All MCB requires is spraying seawater into the air. Technically, it’s a bit more complicated than that – as the seawater mist must be very fine indeed, and that’s presently a challenge. You also have to be very careful where you spray, to make it work properly. But in unpolluted air, and with the right type of clouds, this sea spray should be able to cool the planet.

As such, MCB appears to be a cheap and simple approach. Furthermore, it’s also potentially very easy to get started, requiring equipment costing perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds – or less.

Low barriers to entry means a regulatory ache

The accessibility of a market for geoengineering, monetised by VCOs, potentially leads to a very big problem of regulation. If entrepreneurs can go and earn money from buying a small boat with a cloud-brightening machine on top, then changing the world’s climate becomes as cheap and easy as buying a buy-to-let flat.

David Keith is rightly concerned about whether this is a sensible thing to permit. In contrast to his proposed prohibition of this mom-and-pop approach, my own research looks at how this kind of activity could be effectively regulated. (“Licence to chill: Building a legitimate authorisation process for commercial SRM operations”; Environmental Law Review.)

Regardless of my differences with David, the key take-away is clear. We are entering an era where we might want or need to change the climate, and this action could be taken by a swarm of independent small entrepreneurs – people just like you. Whether that’s a good thing is certainly controversial.

I hope my research has added a bit of sanity to what could otherwise be a chaotic field. But of course, even researching this kind of issue can potentially cause a “slippery slope” – where others pick up on the ideas, and run with them. It’s similar to the way that demonstrating the principle behind an atom bomb tends to lead to an inevitable arms race.

Of course, Exponential Investor will be bringing you the latest news as this exciting field unfolds. Hopefully, we’ll soon be bringing you news of a team that’s looking to create a hurricane-destroying boat, using the MCB technology we’ve discussed. Watch this space!

Would you ditch your buy-to-let investments, and buy a climate engineering machine? Let us know – andrew@southbankresearch.com.

Best,

Andrew Lockley
Exponential Investor