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Climate change and energy

The inadvertent geoengineering experiment that the world is now shutting off

As the air gets cleaner, the world is also losing an important cooling effect.

April 11, 2024
A large container cargo ship travels over the ocean
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Usually when we talk about climate change, the focus is squarely on the role that greenhouse-gas emissions play in driving up global temperatures, and rightly so. But another important, less-known phenomenon is also heating up the planet: reductions in other types of pollution.

In particular, the world’s power plants, factories, and ships are pumping much less sulfur dioxide into the air, thanks to an increasingly strict set of global pollution regulations. Sulfur dioxide creates aerosol particles in the atmosphere that can directly reflect sunlight back into space or act as the “condensation nuclei” around which cloud droplets form. More or thicker clouds, in turn, also cast away more sunlight. So when we clean up pollution, we also ease this cooling effect. 

Before we go any further, let me stress: cutting air pollution is smart public policy that has unequivocally saved lives and prevented terrible suffering. 

The fine particulate matter produced by burning coal, gas, wood, and other biomatter is responsible for millions of premature deaths every year through cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, and various forms of cancer, studies consistently show. Sulfur dioxide causes asthma and other respiratory problems, contributes to acid rain, and depletes the protective ozone layer. 

But as the world rapidly warms, it’s critical to understand the impact of pollution-fighting regulations on the global thermostat as well. Scientists have baked the drop-off of this cooling effect into net warming projections for the coming decades, but they’re also striving to obtain a clearer picture of just how big a role declining pollution will play.

A new study found that reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants are responsible for about 38%, as a middle estimate, of the increased “radiative forcing” observed on the planet between 2001 and 2019. 

An increase in radiative forcing means that more energy is entering the atmosphere than leaving it, as Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, lays out in a handy explainer here. As that balance has shifted in recent decades, the difference has been absorbed by the oceans and atmosphere, which is what is warming up the planet. 

The remainder of the increase is “mainly” attributable to continued rising emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, says Øivind Hodnebrog, a researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Norway and lead author of the paper, which relied on climate models, sea-surface temperature readings, and satellite observations.

The study underscores the fact that as carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases continue to drive up temperature​​s, parallel reductions in air pollution are revealing more of that additional warming, says Zeke Hausfather, a scientist at the independent research organization Berkeley Earth. And it’s happening at a point when, by most accounts, global warming is about to begin accelerating or has already started to do so. (There’s ongoing debate over whether researchers can yet detect that acceleration and whether the world is now warming faster than researchers had expected.)

Because of the cutoff date, the study did not capture a more recent contributor to these trends. Starting in 2020, under new regulations from the International Maritime Organization, commercial shipping vessels have also had to steeply reduce the sulfur content in fuels. Studies have already detected a decrease in the formation of “ship tracks,” or the lines of clouds that often form above busy shipping routes. 

Again, this is a good thing in the most important way: maritime pollution alone is responsible for tens of thousands of early deaths every year. But even so, I have seen and heard of suggestions that perhaps we should slow down or alter the implementation of some of these pollution policies, given the declining cooling effect.

A 2013 study explored one way to potentially balance the harms and benefits. The researchers simulated a scenario in which the maritime industry would be required to use very low-sulfur fuels around coastlines, where the pollution has the biggest effect on mortality and health. But then the vessels would double the fuel’s sulfur content when crossing the open ocean. 

In that hypothetical world, the cooling effect was a bit stronger and premature deaths declined by 69% with respect to figures at the time, delivering a considerable public health improvement. But notably, under a scenario in which low-sulfur fuels were required across the board, mortality declined by 96%, a difference of more than 13,000 preventable deaths every year.

Now that the rules are in place and the industry is running on low-sulfur fuels, intentionally reintroducing pollution over the oceans would be a far more controversial matter.

While society basically accepted for well over a century that ships were inadvertently emitting sulfur dioxide into the air, flipping those emissions back on for the purpose of easing global warming would amount to a form of solar geoengineering, a deliberate effort to tweak the climate system.

Many think such planetary interventions are far too powerful and unpredictable for us to muck around with. And to be sure, this particular approach would be one of the more ineffective, dangerous, and expensive ways to carry out solar geoengineering, if the world ever decided it should be done at all. The far more commonly studied concept is emitting sulfur dioxide high in the stratosphere, where it would persist for longer and, as a bonus, not be inhaled by humans. 

On an episode of the Energy vs. Climate podcast last fall, David Keith, a professor at the University of Chicago who has closely studied the topic, said that it may be possible to slowly implement solar geoengineering in the stratosphere as a means of balancing out the reduced cooling occurring from sulfur dioxide emissions in the troposphere.

“The kind of solar geoengineering ideas that people are talking about seriously would be a thin wedge that would, for example, start replacing what was happening with the added warming we have from unmasking the aerosol cooling from shipping,” he said. 

Positioning the use of solar geoengineering as a means of merely replacing a cruder form that the world was shutting down offers a somewhat different mental framing for the concept—though certainly not one that would address all the deep concerns and fierce criticisms.


Now read the rest of The Spark 

Read more from MIT Technology Review’s archive: 

Back in 2018, I wrote a piece about the maritime rules that were then in the works and the likelihood that they would fuel additional global warming, noting that we were “about to kill a massive, unintentional” experiment in solar geoengineering.

Another thing

Speaking of the concerns about solar geoengineering, late last week I published a deep dive into Harvard’s unsuccessful, decade-long effort to launch a high-altitude balloon to conduct a tiny experiment in the stratosphere. I asked a handful of people who were involved in the project or followed it closely for their insights into what unfolded, the lessons that can be drawn from the episode—and their thoughts on what it means for geoengineering research moving forward.

Keeping up with Climate 

Yup, as the industry predicted (and common sense would suggest), this week’s solar eclipse dramatically cut solar power production across North America. But for the most part, grid operators were able to manage their systems smoothly, minus a few price spikes, thanks in part to a steady buildout of battery banks and the availability of other sources like natural gas and hydropower. (Heatmap)

There’s been a pile-up of bad news for Tesla in recent days. First, the company badly missed analyst expectations for vehicle deliveries during the first quarter. Then, Reuters reported that the EV giant has canceled plans for a low-cost, mass-market car. That may have something to do with the move to “prioritize the development of a robotaxi,” which the Wall Street Journal then wrote about. Over on X, Elon Musk denied the Reuters story, sort ofposting that “Reuters is lying (again).” But there’s a growing sense that his transformation into a “far-right activist” is exacting an increasingly high cost on his personal and business brands. (Wall Street Journal)

In a landmark ruling this week, the European Court of Human Rights determined that by not taking adequate steps to address the dangers of climate change, including increasingly severe heat waves that put the elderly at particular risk, Switzerland had violated the human rights of a group of older Swiss women who had brought a case against the country. Legal experts say the ruling creates a precedent that could unleash many similar cases across Europe. (The Guardian)

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