There is at present no single unified governance framework to manage risks associated with climate geoengineering, nor is there a set of interrelated elements from different governance frameworks which, together, would be able to comprehensively manage the risk. More importantly, there is no framework(s) at national or international levels where the risks of climate geoengineering could be addressed together with those of other climate interventions, such as mitigation and adaptation, as well as the risks of non-action, such as continued high emissions of greenhouse gases.
While multilateral actions usually follow considerations and actions at the national level, in the case of climate geoengineering, most of the governance elements have transboundary dimensions. Thus, international arrangements will be of key importance. Some aspects of existing national and international environmental law are applicable to different components of climate geoengineering – but not to the totality of any set of geoengineering technologies. Two cases of existing governance at international levels are, however, particularly relevant to geo-engineering: one in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the other in the London Convention. Both could open a path towards better coordination.
A series of decisions taken by the Parties to the CBD provide a broad mandate for addressing geoengineering and have already begun to govern this issue. Building on a 2008 decision (IX/16 C) that limited use of ocean fertilization, CBD parties further agreed in 2010 to consider limiting all large-scale climate engineering activities that may affect biodiversity until such time that science-based, global, transparent, and effective global governance mechanisms are developed (decision X/33). This decision was reconfirmed in 2016 at the Cancun meeting of the Conference of the Parties in decision (XIII/14) which added to this corpus of internationally agreed direction by specifying application of a precautionary approach and suggesting the need for cross-institutional and transdisciplinary research and knowledge-sharing.
Risks associated to geoengineering have not yet been broadly adopted in international forums or civil society, to the same extent that climate change has.
In parallel, the London Protocol to the London Convention on Ocean Dumping was amended in 2013 to create non-legally binding guidelines to assess proposals for geoengineering research in the ocean. Specifically, the amendments provide criteria for assessment of such proposals and set up a stringent and detailed risk assessment framework. This framework could be extended to Solar Radiation Management technologies if taken up in other relevant fora. These amendments already provide a model for cross-institutional cooperation, having been recognized by the CBD as a model to guide Parties.
Decisions of Parties to conventions like the CBD or the London Convention are non-legally binding on the Parties that have ratified the convention. There are usual reporting requirements under each of the treaties, and implementation is monitored through the regular reports prepared by the Parties. There are, however, no sanctions for lack of compliance.
A closer look at the operative words in the decisions further indicates the limitations of these frameworks. The CBD decision “invites Parties…to consider the guidance below…” – the guidance in question includes 26 sub-paragraphs on climate change in general, and only one, the 22nd on geoengineering. The operative language of this decision is weak, as it does not require any Party to undertake any particular course of action. In addition, the CBD includes no formal enforcement mechanisms.
This is different in the London Convention, where the operating language is much stronger, indicating stronger consensus by Parties about the approach. Parties “…shall… promote the effective control of all sources of pollution…take effective measures… prohibit dumping… etc.” The London Convention does additionally include articles on the establishment of liabilities and on dispute settlement, as well as on compliance procedures.
Risks associated to geoengineering have not yet been broadly adopted in international forums or civil society, to the same extent that climate change has, although some researchers have been developing voluntary codes of conduct, such as, the Geoengineering Research Governance Project at the University of Calgary. It is, however, at present, still unclear what exact formats the global governance of geo-engineering risk will take.
Senior Fellow and Executive Director, C2G2 Initiative on Geoengineering, Carnegie Council