June 30, 2022

A test flight to explore ways to cool the earth by blocking sunlight will not take place as planned in Sweden in June after environmentalists, scientists and indigenous groups have raised objections.

The Swedish Space Agency announced this week that it had canceled plans for the flight in which it launched a high-altitude balloon from its facility in the Arctic on behalf of researchers. It would have been the first flight of a long-planned experiment called Scopex, a project led by scientists from Harvard University.

The state-owned company said it had consulted “both leading geoengineering experts and other stakeholders” as well as a Harvard committee to advise the researchers. The decision not to take the test was made in agreement with the Harvard Panel.

The Advisory Committee issued its own statement recommending that test flights be suspended until it “can make a final recommendation on these flights based on a solid and inclusive public engagement in Sweden”.

Scopex aims to better understand a form of solar geoengineering: Injecting substances into the air in order to reflect some of the sun’s rays back into space and thus reduce global warming relatively quickly.

Solar geoengineering has long been the subject of intense debates among scientists and policy makers, often viewed as a desperate, potentially dangerous measure that could have unintended consequences for the regional climate. Even conducting research on the subject was deemed harmful as it could distract society from the goal of reducing emissions of gases used to warm the planet in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

However, some scientists believe that given the world is not making nearly enough progress in reducing emissions, geoengineering research is needed to learn more about how and if it would work if the pressure was on to use the technology would increase. Last month, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, a powerful scientific advisory body, urged the United States to spend at least $ 100 million on research.

Research in solar geoengineering currently includes computer simulations or experiments in a laboratory. Scopex, which stands for Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, has been in development for years. One of its main goals is to provide real data to improve simulations.

The planned first flight would not have injected anything into the atmosphere. Instead, it would have tested the experimental setup, which contains large fans to create a brief lag in the upper atmosphere. In such disturbed areas, injection experiments would take place in future flights.

Niclas Hällström of What Next, an Uppsala-based environmental research group, said it was concerned about what might come later, which has led to objections in Sweden.

“The mobilization against this project in Sweden has been remarkable and has brought scientists, civil society and the Saami people together against the threat of a slippery slope to normalize a technology that is too dangerous to ever be used,” said Hällström.

David Keith, a Harvard physicist involved in the project, doubted anyone knew how widespread the opposition was in Sweden. He said surveys in other countries, including some in the hardest hit countries by climate change, have shown support for geoengineering research.

“Every time there has been a real consultation process, everyone has suggested that public support for such experiments is important,” he said.

The Scopex flight was originally intended to be in the US southwest, but was relocated to Sweden last year due to problems with contractors. Regarding the question of whether the flight could be moved back to the US now, “We are definitely looking at these and other options,” said Dr. Keith.

The Harvard Advisory Board said that “community engagement” should take place in Sweden before Scopex research is carried out there and that it is working with specialists to begin the process. “This will likely postpone the launch of the platform to 2022,” the committee said.

But Mr. Hallstrom said that no engagement would convince those who oppose the project that it should move forward.

Geoengineering research has made advances in the United States in recent years. In 2019, Congress gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration $ 4 million to research the technology. Last year a nonprofit called Silver Lining announced an additional $ 3 million in grants to Cornell University, the University of Washington, and others for research purposes.

Kelly Wanser, executive director of Silver Lining, described the decision to cancel the test as “an indication that purely private efforts are unlikely to work well” and as evidence of the importance of government research.

An earlier attempt to do atmospheric research, a project called Spice, due to take place in the UK in 2012, has been canceled due to a conflict of interest involving some of the researchers. But the project was also the target of public opposition. Like the first Scopex flight, the Spice experiment was just a technical test of the equipment.