Marine cloud brightening – a fossil fuel industry smokescreen?

By Louise Sales

What is Marine Cloud Brightening? Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB) is a proposed Solar Radiation Management (SRM) technique that aims to create whiter clouds in order to reflect more sunlight back to space and hence creating a cooling effect. To achieve this, MCB proponents suggest injecting salty aerosols into marine cloud layers by sprayings seawater from vessels with nozzles able to turn saltwater into tiny particles.

What are the risks associated with MCB? While modelling results predict that MCB would reduce average global temperatures, they also show that it could have considerably varied and potentially detrimental impacts in different parts of the world. For example, one study predicts that global mean precipitation could decrease up to 2.3%. South America is predicted to become warmer and dryer and substantial rainfall reduction over the Amazon basin is predicted, which would be an ecological disaster. Another study predicts a massive 7.5% increase in runoff over land, primarily due to increased precipitation in the tropics. These studies show the extent to which geoengineering is likely to have major unintended consequences, and how poorly understood those consequences still are.

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The Australian Government is funding dangerous cloud brightening experiments on the Great Barrier Reef through a trust set up by fossil fuel industry executives.

In 2018, Australians raised our collective eyebrows when then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull awarded $444 million to a small private charity – the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, without departmental oversight, or going through a competitive tender process.1

A subsequent Senate Inquiry into the matter concluded that: "The granting of $444 million to the Foundation was a highly irresponsible decision, hastily concocted by relevant ministers, without proper consideration of risks and potential effectiveness, no consultation with key stakeholders, and without having undertaken due diligence."2

The Inquiry also raised concerns that the focus of the Foundation Partnership would not be on the key underlying environmental problems ‒ such as climate change ‒ that are the root cause of the poor health of the Reef. The Inquiry recommended that the most appropriate course of action was to terminate the Partnership.3 Needless to say this hasn't happened.

Project breaches UN geoengineering moratorium

Earlier this year, scientists from the Foundation's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program created international controversy by conducting cloud brightening experiments on the Great Barrier Reef. The move defied an international moratorium on the deployment of geoengineering technologies.

Geoengineering is the large-scale manipulation of the environment. The profound risks associated with geoengineering proposals include further disruption of the global climate; unknown feedback effects; floods and droughts in the global south; and its potential to be weaponised by powerful countries.4 For this reason, in 2010, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity ruled that "no geoengineering activities should be carried out" until a "global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, in accordance with the precautionary approach" can be put in place. The decision allows exceptions for "small-scale experiments" on several conditions, including that they are conducted under "controlled settings" – which was not the case with the Australian experiment. 

The Australian experiment, led by the Southern Cross University and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, was conducted over a four-day period in a southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. The scientists used a modified turbine to spray trillions of nano-sized ocean salt crystals into the air from the back of a barge. In theory, the tiny salt crystals will mix with low-altitude clouds, making them brighter and reflecting more sunlight away from the ocean surface – creating a localised cooling effect.

Next year, the team plans to test the technology at three times the scale, ready for a 10-fold increase a year later, which the researchers say should be able to brighten clouds across a 400 km2 area. According to the Reef Trust Partnership Annual Work Plan, $6.63million has been allocated to solar radiation management research this year.5

The open-air testing of solar geoengineering technology in Australia sets a particularly dangerous new precedent, opening a path to the use of a risky technology that, if deployed at large scale, could be damaging to other regions and even the ocean ecosystems the researchers claim to be trying to protect.

Marine Cloud Brightening is an expensive, risky technofix

MCB and other solar geoengineering technologies are risky, unproven technofixes that divert attention away from the need for real action on climate change. This is why fossil fuel companies have been funding research into solar geoengineering for decades.6 It also explains the Coalition Government's enthusiasm for the project.

In April this year the Federal Government committed $100 million to the Great Barrier Foundation's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Science Program (of which the MCB experiment is a component). $100 million will come from in-kind contributions from the research institutions involved, and they are hoping to raise $100 million from the private sector.7

Shady beginnings

It's still unclear exactly what steps led to the Turnbull Government's decision to donate $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to kickstart this whole project, but the origins of the foundation give ample cause for concern.

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation's four founders include:

  • John Schubert, then director of BHP and Qantas, and former Chairman and Managing Director of Esso Australia Limited (whose parent company Exxon has been involved in advocating against climate science)8;
  • John Boyd Reid, former chairman of the global building materials company and notorious asbestos manufacturer James Hardie; and
  • Sir Ian McFarlane, a businessman who sought to develop shale oil projects in Queensland.9

The Foundation's Corporate Partners include major greenhouse gas emitters from both the mining and aviation industries – including BHP, Orica, Rio Tinto, Boeing and Qantas.10 It also has coal group Peabody Energy (which has also funded anti-climate change activism) on its Chairman's Panel. And there are myriad other links to fossil fuel operators, including Mitsubishi, Origin Energy, AGL and ConocoPhillips Australia.11

One of the Foundation's largest funders is BHP. Freedom of Information documents revealed that the company vouched for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as part of the government's process to approve $444 million donation. In their letter to the Federal Government, BHP stated they had donated $15.4 million to the foundation in recent years, and committed another $12.1 million.12

BHP is Australia's single largest greenhouse gas emitter. In the past 15 years, the emissions from BHP's Australian coal, oil and gas have produced the equivalent of 2,361 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. In 2018, the indirect greenhouse gas emissions from their global operations were equivalent to 596 million tonnes CO2 – more than the projected emissions of 25 million Australians for the same period.13

It is telling that BHP has donated so much to the Foundation in recent years. False solutions such as solar radiation management create a convenient smokescreen for the fossil fuel industry. They give the impression that these companies are helping to "save the reef" while the main driver of reef destruction – climate change – goes unaddressed.

Ignoring stakeholder feedback

On its website RRAP (Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program) pays lip service to best practice stakeholder engagement claiming that "resulting actions must be understood and co-designed by Traditional Owners, Reef stakeholders and the broader community."14

As part of the project's Stakeholder, Traditional Owner and Community Engagement Assessment, a national, representative survey of Australians was conducted. The resulting report put an upbeat spin on the results – claiming that "approximately half the respondents surveyed indicated they were generally accepting of the technologies being investigated by RRAP." 15

However, by inference this means that around half of the people they surveyed either weren't accepting of the technologies being investigated, or weren't sure about it.16 As the survey delved deeper into the potential risks associated with the project, it became clear that the public perceived cloud brightening to "have more risks than benefits".17

This view appears to have been shared by the 24 stakeholders that were interviewed. These included representatives of environmental non-government organisations, tourism organisations and local government. According to the project team:

"They expressed greater uncertainty and concerns about the technologies and identified several risks… stakeholders strongly cautioned against over-emphasis on a costly and misguided 'technical-fix' at the expense of a more holistic (threat reduction) and community-engaged approach. These sentiments about the relative importance of threat reduction (i.e. action on greenhouse gas emissions and marine water quality) compared with large-scale restoration align with the survey results."18

Stakeholders also appeared understandably suspicious of the motives behind the project with the Assessment reporting:

 "generally low levels of trust in government motives behind RRAP and in the political level decision-making processes. This has created some cynicism towards restoration, which in the early stages of RRAP was compounded by generally low level of awareness (and perceived transparency) of the program and its intentions."19

Both Traditional Owners and other stakeholders emphasised the importance of genuine consultation. According to the report:

"Both stakeholders and Traditional Owners strongly asserted that for risks to be managed, and benefits to be realised, meaningful participation and transparency in decision-making and in the R&D process was required throughout any R&D program."20

This simply hasn't happened. There have already been open air trials of the technology with very little awareness among either reef stakeholders or the broader community about the research and its potential risks. The project team admit that "to date, RRAP has undertaken limited public outreach on specific interventions."21

While some traditional owners are involved in the project, there are more that 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owner groups with connections to the Great Barrier Reef. There is no way that RRAP have obtained prior informed consent from them all. And yet what they are proposing could have profound impacts, not only on the reef, but in surrounding wet tropical ecosystems.

And then of course there is the opportunity cost of squandering millions of taxpayers' dollars on unproven technofixes that could be used to fund a rapid transition to renewable energy. We already have the technologies we need to tackle climate change – the Federal Government just lacks the political will to implement them.

Louise Sales coordinates Friends of the Earth's Emerging Tech Project. emergingtech.foe.org.au

References

1 https://www.barrierreef.org/what-we-do/reef-trust-partnership

2 Commonwealth of Australia (2019) Report: Great Barrier Reef 2050 Partnership Program, 13 February 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y42te3df

3 ibid.

4 CIEL (2019) Fuel to the Fire: How Geoengineering Threatens to Entrench Fossil Fuels and Accelerate the Climate Crisis, https://tinyurl.com/y3jyblqw

5 Great Barrier Reef Foundation (2020) Reef Trust Partnership Annual Work Plan 2020-2021, https://tinyurl.com/y3hqjrkx

6 ibid.

7 Australian Government (2020) Joint Media Release: $150 million to drive innovations to boost Reef resilience, 16/4/20, https://tinyurl.com/y6gllh9m

8 SourceWatch (2020) John Schubert, https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/John_Schubert; West, M. (2018) Great Barrier Reef: funding links to climate sceptics and political donors, 10/5/18, https://tinyurl.com/ybsdzlsc

9 Cox, L. (2018) No environment officials at Turnbull meeting about $443m reef grant to tiny charity, The Guardian, 1/8/18, https://tinyurl.com/ycs7ze4x

10 Great Barrier Reef Foundation (2020) Corporate Partners, https://tinyurl.com/y6txyc3t

11 West, M. (2018) op. cit.

12 Taylor, J. (2018) The Tiny Foundation That Got $443 Million To Save The Great Barrier Reef Asked A Mining Company To Vouch For It, BuzzFeed, 13/11/18, https://tinyurl.com/y2yyem8w

13 Moss, J. & Fraser P. (2019) Australia's Carbon Majors, Practical Justice Initiative, UNSW, https://tinyurl.com/y6jhy9n5

14 ibid, p.1

15 Taylor B, Vella K, Maclean K, Newlands M, Ritchie B, Lockie S, Lacey J, Baresi U, Barber M, Siehoyono Sie L, Martin M, Marshall N, Koopman D (2019) Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program: Stakeholder, Traditional Owner and Community Engagement Assessment. A report provided to the Australian Government by the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, https://tinyurl.com/y2jj9wxv

16 ibid., p. 19.

17 ibid., p. 20.

18 ibid., p. 1 & 13.

19 ibid., p. 15.

20 ibid., p. 1.

21 ibid., p. 18.

Published in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021. www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction


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