The Global Challenges Foundation notes that the discussion about geoengineering has shifted. As the field of research receives more funding and attention from the scientific community the position of what constitutes geoengineering is currently under change.
The author Janos Pasztor gives us an insight on the recent developments that displaces the previous views of geoengineering. A division must be made to properly evaluate the technology’s potential benefits and address its risks.
The views expressed in this text are those of the author. The statements are not necessarily endorsed by the Global Challenges Foundation.
As the climate crisis deepens, scientists are increasingly concerned that the world’s current mitigation strategies – to radically cut emissions and remove carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere – may not be deployed quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate risk.
To that end, some have been exploring potential additional approaches, known as Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), to reflect some sunlight back into space, in order to reduce the global temperature.
Also described as solar radiation management, or solar geoengineering – or just plain geoengineering – these approaches would not address the causes of climate change, and would not be substitute for urgent mitigation action. They should not be considered as any kind of Plan B.
At best, however, they might be considered as part of an adjusted Plan A to ‘buy time’ while other measures are accelerated – in order to limit the negative effects of overshooting international temperature goals, and the potential for breaching one or more highly dangerous tipping points.
Two prominent ideas include marine cloud brightening (such as is now being explored in Australia to potentially protect the Great Barrier Reef), and stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), in which reflective particles would be sprayed into the stratosphere. More information about these approaches can be found at: https://www.c2g2.net/solar-radiation-modification/
For now, however, they remain mostly theoretical, and we know little about their potential effects.
There are numerous research initiatives underway in different countries to explore these ideas, and interest is growing amongst policymakers worldwide to find out whether or not they should consider them, and what their implications might be.
We simply don’t yet know enough to answer many of these questions. What we can say is that, if ever deployed at scale, some SRM approaches could create long-term risks and governance challenges of their own, which would need to be assessed against the risks they are trying to reduce.
SAI, for example, could affect local climates in various parts of the world differently, potentially creating more rain in some places and less in others. If SAI were started but then stopped prematurely, without tackling the underlying drivers of global warming, there could be a risk of rapid temperature rise (so-called termination shock), that could be disruptive to human society and dangerous for many species.
Depending on the materials it uses, SAI could also damage the ozone layer, causing health and environmental problems. And its deployment might be supported by some actors whilst being opposed by others, creating geopolitical and security tensions.
All these issues would need to be considered against the very serious risks of a rapidly warming world.
The SRM governance challenge
The international community currently does not yet know enough about the risks, costs and potential benefits, or their governance requirements, to understand if SRM technologies could be viable, or – if so – whether, when or how to deploy them. Who should take these decisions, and in what forum? How should countries react to any ungoverned, unilateral deployment? How would the concerns of the most vulnerable, and future generations, be taken into account?
An immediate challenge is the governance of SRM research, with small-scale outdoor experiments of some methods already underway. Research governance could include public policy guidance, codes of conduct or independent monitoring and safeguards, including to ensure that research doesn’t lead the world down a slippery slope towards eventual deployment.
In the longer term, due the pivotal policy choices ahead, and the global yet potentially uneven impacts of SRM, some level of international governance is essential.
Fora and processes which could contribute include the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the London Convention and London Protocol (LC/LP), the Vienna Convention (VC) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In addition, regional bodies, governments, civil society organisations, research communities and others might all usefully participate in discussions about how SRM should be governed.
What we have learned
Consideration of such climate-altering technologies could mark a new phase in the planet’s response to climate change, and their governance will be defined by those who prepare ahead.
But so far these debates have been confined to a relatively limited group of people, and primarily in the global north. Partly this is because of the newness and complexity of the topic, but another factor has been a broader philosophical and ethical concern about intentional intervention in the climate system – which cuts to the heart of how people see their relationship with nature and the cosmos.
Some fear these technologies offer an illusory techno-fix to a problem rooted in social structures. Others feel they could be a means for the powerful to oppress the vulnerable – although some constituencies in the global south may actually be more favorable than those in the north. Some see potential steps towards ‘geoengineering’ as an act of hubris that amounts to ‘playing god’.
What is clear is that these are big issues which will take time to resolve, and which require a certain humility of approach.
SRM governance currently requires a society-wide process of awareness raising, learning, and discussion, before any decisions are taken: although it would be sensible for governments to consider international agreements to prevent the deployment of technologies like SAI, unless the risks and potential benefits are sufficiently understood, and international governance frameworks are agreed.
During the last two years of our work, we at the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G) have noticed changes, and see evidence that a broader learning process has begun.
In 2019, there were efforts in the UNEA to pass a resolution calling for a global study of these ideas. While the resolution did not succeed, it prompted widespread discussion, and there are expectations the issue could return in 2021. In the early months of 2020, there were plans to hold and considerable interest to participate in a major information event on SRM amongst the diplomatic missions to the United Nations in New York.
The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) is currently under way. AR6 is expected to explore these ideas in more depth, and governments will need to address its conclusions, currently planned for release in 2022.
Initiatives like Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, and the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, have successfully brought these issues to a much wider set of global stakeholders than before.
It’s early days yet, but international discussions on SRM are beginning to take hold. A sound risk management approach to the climate crisis demands no less.