Mexico will shut down solar geoengineering projects in the country following an unauthorized experiment carried out in Baja California Sur (BCS).
Mexico is one of the first countries to create an explicit ban on these types of experiments.
The two-person startup Make Sunsets carried out a geoengineering experiment in the state without permission from the government and without warning the surrounding communities. The technology strives to prevent the earth’s temperature from rising by releasing particles that could reflect sunlight back into space. However, the impacts of such activity are not well understood.
Make Sunset’s CEO, Luke Iseman, a California-based entrepreneur, does not have a climate science background. His company was founded only in October, according to its website. However, Iseman told the Wall Street Journal newspaper in an interview last month that the startup has already raised US $750,000 in venture capital and other funds.
During an experiment in BCS in April, Iseman lit sulfur on fire and put it into a helium weather balloon he bought on Amazon, releasing it into the sky where he hoped it would burst. According to the Make Sunsets website, the results of the experiment are unknown, as the balloons were not monitored or recovered.
Following the experiment, the Environmental Ministry (Semarnat) and the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) issued a joint statement announcing the ban on Jan. 13, pointing out that there are no international regulations or supervisory frameworks addressing geoengineering projects.
“The opposition to these climate manipulations is based on the fact that there are currently no international agreements that address or supervise solar geoengineering activities, which represent an economically advantageous and risky way out for a minority while supposedly remedying climate change,” the statement said.
Semarnat will develop a strategy that “prohibits these practices in national territory,” and Conacyt will coordinate with experts to review the existing scientific research on threats geoengineering practices pose to the environment and communities. Both federal agencies will make the relevant information on geoengineering public.
“Solar geoengineering practices seek to counteract the effects of climate change through the emission of gasses into the atmosphere, such as sulfur dioxide and aluminum sulfate, among others,” the agencies said. “This process causes the sun’s rays to be reflected back into space, thus avoiding the increase in temperature within specific geographical areas.”
“However,” they added, “there are enough studies that show that there would be negative and unequal impacts associated with the release of these aerosols, which cause meteorological imbalances such as as winds and torrential rains, as well as droughts in tropical areas, in addition to generating impacts on the thinning of the planet’s ozone layer.”
The technology has led to fraught debates worldwide surrounding climate change and how scientists and governments address it. Some scientists consider it an attractive method to reduce rising temperatures, given the increasing urgency of slowing down climate change.
Others consider it a last resort, posing unnecessary risks when governments could instead focus on moving away from fossil fuels or implementing other measures that address the root causes of climate change.
Iseman defended his experiment.
“This field is not moving forward,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post on January 9. “We’re the guys willing to go out on a limb.”
However, after the joint announcement, the company did write on its blog post on January 18 that it appreciated Mexico’s concerns about the the technology and promised to put off three more planned experiments in Mexico in January that it had announced on its website on January 1.
“We look forward to the work of the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) to ensure the rigorous review of scientific research in this field,” the post said.
“As such, Make Sunsets will share all information about its activities in Mexico to date (if any) with Conacyt and other responsible agencies, and will follow the strategy for scientific research being developed by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat).”
While several scientific organizations have recommended the cautious pursuit of geoengineering technology, and the U.S. government has created a five-year research plan, Make Sunsets is trying to develop this technology quickly and profit from it.
Given the high stakes of carrying out studies on geoengineering, most scientists agree that local communities and governments should be consulted before undertaking research and conducting experiments.
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report in March 2021 calling for the U.S. to pursue a research program for solar geoengineering, but it also emphasized that such research should be carried out in coordination with other nations and be subject to governance. It also emphasized that solar geoengineering is not a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A NASA graphic showing the progression of global temperatures since 1880.
There is uncertainty surrounding how experiments, particularly larger ones, could affect temperatures and agricultural systems.