Engineering solutions to climate change not ideal, but worth studying

The university community is currently scrambling for innovative ideas and tactics to win RecycleMania, the 10-week competition I wrote about in my last column. RecycleMania focuses on recycling and waste reduction, but other strategies exist to tackle climate change, namely engineering and scientific solutions. These may not be the most ideal solutions, considering anthropogenic actions are the main cause of climate change, but they are creative and worth studying.

The website newsscientist.com lists feasible climate engineering plans, most of which work by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or reflecting solar energy back into space. Either approach would lower global temperatures.

One way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would be to plant extensive forests. This may not sound like the most feasible or economical plan, but it does come with several benefits: the trees would absorb carbon dioxide, and we could potentially gain more weekend relief from urban pressures. Turning agricultural waste into charcoal and then burying it would achieve the same goal, plus it would be cheap and low-tech and would fertilize the soil. Both of these ideas work with the environment by manipulating our natural resources without drastically altering other aspects of the environment.

"Scrubbing" carbon dioxide out of the air and then storing it underground is another method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "Scrubbing" involves isolating carbon dioxide from the other gases emitted after combustion in a power plant. Storing carbon dioxide underground, however, would not have the same benefits as storing agricultural waste underground; it would merely turn air pollution into terrestrial pollution.

Space mirrors in Earth's orbit, clouds of sulfur particles, and ground-based reflectors have been considered as energy reflective strategies. Any of these methods would reflect solar energy back into space, but it has not been proven that they would actually decrease greenhouse gases. Energy reflective methods simply lessen the warming effect on Earth by reducing the amount of solar energy trapped near the surface.

Increasing reflectivity on roofs is a solution that could be government-mandated or considered by individual families or communities. A cool roof reflects and emits the sun's energy back to the sky rather than into the building below. Cool roofing can reflect as much as 87.5 percent of the sun's energy, which would help reduce the cost and necessity of cooling a home, decreasing the need for power plants that rely on fossil fuels.

Short-term solutions will not solve our environmental problems. We must avoid the temptation of looking for quick fixes, as many researchers feel that this only encourages people to continue to be excessive in their burning of fossil fuels. We should focus on changing the way we live and consume and recalculate the impact of our activities on the environment. Short-term methods should only be considered during periods of urgency and when no long-term solutions are on the horizon. As Case students, we need to focus on practicing RecycleMania guidelines around campus and remember that engineering taught in the classroom could have great environmental impact.

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