What are the governance frameworks required to deploy geoengineering interventions in a fair manner? Climate geoengineering techniques could give humanity much needed breathing space to face the dangers of climate change, but their implementation raises many questions, and will require the development of new global governance mechanisms.
Climate geoengineering – large-scale, deliberate interventions in the Earth system to counteract climate change – has been the object of debate within the scientific community, but is still a new object of consideration within policy circles and in the public sphere. The potential deployment of climate geoengineering interventions raises many questions, including uncertainty regarding their effectiveness and indirect effects, as well as questions regarding the ethics of their use and their governance.
Achieving the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement would require rates of mitigation far in excess of what has been achieved to date. A growing number of scientists and policymakers believe that actions beyond mitigation may be necessary to keep temperatures between 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels.
It is in this context that attention is turning towards a wide range of proposed geoengineering techniques to cool the planet. Such techniques are usually grouped into two categories: carbon dioxide removal techniques involve (as the name suggests) the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while solar radiation management techniques involve reflecting a proportion of the sun’s radiation back into space.
While the former techniques might act to directly address the cause of climate change, the latter could potentially provide a temporary solution to rising temperatures – a breathing space to undertake a radical decarbonization of the global economy. Ultimately, in order to achieve a stable climate, it will be necessary to achieve zero net emissions – reducing emissions significantly and counteracting any remaining emissions through carbon dioxide removal. Until we reach this point, policymakers may consider a combination of both sets of techniques as a means to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
However, governance issues arising out of the broad range of proposed geoengineering techniques, in particular solar radiation management, pose a range of challenges. There is currently no systematic, coherent set of global governance frameworks in place to guide further research, facilitate decision making and guide potential deployment. Governance, in this instance, goes beyond control and decision making, and includes the effective participation of those who would be affected and impacted, as well as their access to prior, relevant information.
Both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation techniques would have environmental and socio-economic impacts. A growing number of scientists believe that the aggregate risks of side-effects from climate geoengineering would be small in comparison to the reduction of climate risks. However, the distribution and severity of impacts would often be unequal, and often affect the most vulnerable. In addition, current scientific knowledge leaves a significant margin of uncertainty regarding the exact effects of climate engineering interventions, including their nature, scale and/or location. Deployment therefore raises issues regarding the criteria and, most importantly, the mechanisms used to make decisions about ways of balancing possible positive global impacts and negative regional or local impacts, including the need for potential compensation to affected populations.
“Climate geoengineering will require global governance frameworks of which, at best, only some elements exist today.”
Another set of issues relate to the dangers of unilateral interventions. There are plausible scenarios where a country or a group of countries unilaterally decide to move toward deployment of solar radiation management – with or without agreement from the international community.
In the absence of multilateral agreements there is a possibility that a small group of countries, a single country, a large company or indeed a wealthy individual might take unilateral action on climate geoengineering. This raises the possibility that those who do not like these actions and their impacts could engage in counter-climate-geoengineering. Clearly, it would be best to avoid such a chaotic and dangerous future. Climate geoengineering would require global governance frameworks, of which, at best, only some elements exist today. These frameworks would have to be developed in parallel to the technologies themselves.
Within the current global governance architecture, it would seem that, given its global impacts, only the UN General Assembly could give legitimacy to any governance framework guiding the potential deployment of climate geoengineering. Actual work, however, could be made more efficient by other measures. One option could be to undertake it within a professional international authority with a mandate from the UN General Assembly, similar to the way the international community addresses peacekeeping or nuclear proliferation. There is scope for the development of other and possibly better approaches involving all relevant stakeholders.
The following questions would need to be addressed in order to develop robust governance frameworks for geoengineering. Who would control the “global thermostat”? How would decisions be made to balance the need to reduce the global temperature with unequal regional and local impacts across the globe? How would trans-border and transgenerational ethical issues be addressed? How would decisions be made to balance the costs and benefits of traditional mitigation methods versus climate geoengineering? What would be the impacts in terms of local and global justice, and in terms of human rights, and how could those be addressed? How would the required governance frameworks withstand potentially substantial geopolitical changes over the decades and possibly centuries that they need to be deployed? How might such techniques be deployed in a manner that does not undermine the will to cut emissions? How would decisions relating to the profile of deployment – the rate of starting, continuing and stopping such techniques – be governed? This last issue is of particular concern with respect to proposed solar radiation management techniques, as a sudden cessation of deployment would result in a rapid rise in temperatures. The research community has addressed many of these issues, but the global policy community has not.
To address this gap, the recently initiated Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2) aims to shift the debate from academia to policy, with the ultimate aim to encourage and catalyze intergovernmental action on the governance of climate geoengineering. C2G2 does not promote climate geoengineering, nor is it intrinsically against it. It assumes a plausible future where some combination of geoengineering techniques could well be used – and given current geopolitical developments, considers this might happen sooner rather than later. The initiative recognizes a huge gap in understanding among various actors regarding these technologies and impacts, as well as related governance requirements – requirements that would take considerable time to develop.
C2G2 will systematically work with intergovernmental organizations, international non-governmental organizations and other non-state actors, such as the private sector, think tanks and, of course, the scientific research community, as well as informally with government officials, to encourage and catalyze action related to the governance of climate geoengineering. While C2G2 will inevitably focus on geoengineering-specific governance options based on existing global governance frameworks, it will also be considering other governance frameworks, including governance by non-state actors. In that context, it is looking forward to new ideas emerging from the Global Challenges Foundation competition, which would then help in better formulating the frameworks needed for these emerging technologies.