Could solar geoengineering solve African poverty?

While a new report say yes, others aren't convinced.

sunset south africa

Scientists are wondering if, instead of combating the effects of climate change retroactively, we took the fight right to the source: the sun.

Approaches to fighting climate change tend to focus on decreasing carbon emissions through renewable energy and ethical consumption practices. But solar geoengineering would combat climate change by using reflective particles in the Earth’s atmosphere to bounce back the Sun’s light before it even reaches us. Theoretically, this would create a planet-wide cooling effect capable of staving off some of climate change’s impending effects. The validity of this approach, however, is still an item of debate among scientists and is largely theoretical.

But new research from the University of San Diego has shown how this approach, should it be implemented, could not only alleviate climate woes but could also help address poverty in some of the wold’s warmest and poorest countries.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Communications looks at four different potential climate models in order to predict how employing a solar geoengineering approach may affect communities around the globe. Their models focused on four different scenarios: natural stabilization of global temperatures, global temperatures continuing to rise, global temperatures stabilized from solar geoengineering and geoengineering over-cooling global temperatures.

The study’s first author and a visiting graduate student with UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Anthony Harding, said in a statement that their models found a strong connection between temperature and economic growth.

“While precipitation has little to no effect on GDP [gross domestic product] growth in our results, there is a relationship for temperatures,” said Harding. “Applying these historical relationships for different models, we find that if temperatures cooled there would be gains in GDP per capita. For some models, these gains are up to 1,000 percent over the course of the century and are largest for countries in the tropics, which historically tend to be poorer.”

Scientists tested their economic models on a variety of potential climate outcomes to see how change in temperature might affect global GDP.
Scientists tested their economic models on a variety of potential climate outcomes to see how change in temperature might affect global GDP and found warmer, poorer countries benefited more.

The study particularly draws out African countries, including Niger, Mali, and Chad, as examples of tropical countries that might benefit from such a geoengineering plan. According to a report from the Brookings Institution in 2019, 422 million Africans still live below the poverty level. And while that is changing in many African countries, it may not be fast enough on its own.

“We find hotter, more populous countries are more sensitive to changes in temperature - whether it is an increase or a decrease,” said Harding. “Those hotter countries are typically also poorer countries. With solar geoengineering, we find that poorer countries benefit more than richer countries from reductions in temperature, reducing inequalities. Together, the overall global economy grows.”

However, how exactly these countries will achieve economic growth, as a result, is left unanswered in the study.

Additionally, due to its speculative nature, this study opens up even more questions than it answers. For example, while the economic models used in this study demonstrate that scenarios are possible in which poorer, warmer countries could see economic growth, it also demonstrates that global GDP could see growth while still leaving poorer countries behind and that such models might not even be feasible within current governmental structure regardless.

“Heterogeneous impacts suggest that the scenario with greatest global economic growth may not be politically feasible under a globally governed system,” write the study authors in the paper. “Furthermore, the scenario with the largest global economic gains is associated with relative losses for the lowest wealth quartile.”

Within the study the authors also clarify that, apart from warming, there are other important climate change effects that their solar geoengineering models neglect to address, including ocean acidification, CO2 fertilization and increases in ground-level UV. By not factoring in the costs of dealing with this negative effects, it’s possible that the economic growth projected is not entirely accurate.

These areas of neglect are also part of what has keeps scientists from largely embracing geoengineering schemes, as well as potential repercussions from geoengineering itself. While it may offer some benefits, geoengineering alone cannot address all the repercussions of climate change. Instead, many scientists purpose that if geoengineering is enacted it should be used in tandem with more traditional methods.


>Exploring heterogeneity in the economic impacts of solar geoengineering is a fundamental step towards understanding the risk tradeoff associated with a geoengineering option. To evaluate impacts of solar geoengineering and greenhouse gas-driven climate change on equal terms, we apply macroeconomic impact models that have been widely applied to climate change impacts assessment. Combining historical evidence with climate simulations of mean annual temperature and precipitation, we project socio-economic outcomes under high anthropogenic emissions for stylized climate scenarios in which global temperatures are stabilized or over-cooled by blocking solar radiation. We find impacts of climate changes on global GDP-per-capita by the end of the century are temperature-driven, highly dispersed, and model dependent. Across all model specifications, however, income inequality between countries is lower with solar geoengineering. Consistent reduction in inter-country inequality can inform discussions of the distribution of impacts of solar geoengineering, a topic of concern in geoengineering ethics and governance debates.

Media via Nature Communications, Dane Moore / EyeEm / Getty