Solar geoengineering to protect crops from global warming

01-06-2021 | |
Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Research from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) finds that solar geoengineering may be surprisingly effective in alleviating some of the worst impacts of global warming on crops.

Solar geoengineering means putting aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and reduce global warming. The reserchers looked at three types of solar geoengineering: stratospheric aerosol injection, marine sky brightening, and cirrus cloud thinning. They also looked at their impact on the global yield of maize, sugarcane, wheat, rice, soy and cotton in a “business-as-usual future” where emissions continue at their current levels.

Strong cooling effect to benefit crop yields

In such a future, the most effective way to protect crops against the worst effects of global climate change is to reduce the surface temperature. The researchers found that all three potential solar geoengineering methods have a strong cooling effect that would benefit crop yields.


Previous research suggested that cooling temperatures brought on by stratospheric aerosol injection may also lead to less rainfall, which could result in yield loss for rainfed crops. But according to SEAS these studies didn’t look at one of the most important ecological factors in crop transpiration and productivity: humidity.

“Relative humidity or vapor pressure deficit has stronger control on plant water use and crop productivity than precipitation,” said Yuanchao Fan, a Fellow in the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program. “We found that in a cooler world under multiple scenarios, except cirrus cloud thinning, there will be higher relative humidity, which will alleviate water stress for rainfed crops. Our model shows that the change in precipitation resulting from all three solar geoengineering methods would, in fact, have very little effect on crops.”

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Rainfed crops increasingly depend on irrigation due to global warming with extending periods of drought, however water is growing more and more scarce in many parts of the world. - Photo: Canva

Rainfed crops increasingly depend on irrigation due to global warming with extending periods of drought, however water is growing more and more scarce in many parts of the world. – Photo: Canva

Reduction of CO2 fertilisation

The researchers compared how agricultural productivity is affected by solar geoengineering and emissions reductions. They found that while emissions reductions have strong cooling and humidity benefits, they may have a smaller benefit for crop yields than solar geoengineering because the reduction of CO2 fertilisation reduces the productivity of most crops compared with solar geoengineering that achieves the same temperature reduction.

The finding highlights the need to combine emissions reductions with other tools, including increasing the use of nitrogen fertilisation and changes to land use.

David Keith, the Professor of Applied Physics at SEAS and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said: “Policymakers need to consider how emissions cuts might be supplemented by specific local adaptations to help farmers reduce the impacts of climate on agriculture, and by global actions such as carbon removal and solar geoengineering.”

The SEAS research is a collaboration with the Norwegian Research Centre and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Seoul National University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences and is published in Nature Food.

Also read: Irrigation’s cooling effect on crops

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Hugo Claver Web editor for Future Farming