This is the second chapter in The Road to COP26 series.
If humanity decides to tinker with Earth’s thermostat, there are going to have to be some rules on how to control the dial.
Many ideas for technologies to combat global warming by intervening in planetary systems — sometimes called geoengineering — are still in the research phase. But with climate change already taking hold, some could end up getting used.
That’s leading to growing questions about how they should be regulated.
“It’s a major problem. We need a global governance mechanism to make sure that rogue actors don’t begin tampering with the world climate system without adequate international consultation and assent,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Most geoengineering tech broadly falls into two categories. The most contentious is solar radiation management, or SRM, which aims to reflect sunlight back into space to cool the planet by brightening clouds to make them more reflective or injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to mimic the sun-dimming effect of a huge volcanic eruption.
Despite the planet-wide consequences and risks — the aerosol injection method could, for example, disrupt monsoon patterns — there’s no international law to stop someone deploying this type of tech, Gerrard said.
The other major category of geoengineering — large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere, which includes ideas like fertilizing oceans with nutrients to cause carbon-munching algal blooms or capturing carbon directly from the air — is at least partially regulated.
Several international agreements apply to various CDR methods, even if “governance gaps” remain, said Janos Pasztor, director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative and a former United Nations assistant secretary-general for climate change.
One example: the London Protocol, which bans commercial ocean fertilization activities but has only been ratified by 53 countries.
Few agreements address geoengineering directly. In 2008, however, the 196-member U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted a decision that some see as a moratorium on such technologies.
The signatories agreed that “no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities” and until there’s been a consideration of the risks. However, “small scale scientific research studies” are allowed.
A touchy topic
While the European Commission does finance carbon capture, storage and use projects, it is wary of geoengineering. The EU funds some research projects to better understand the science, but does not support deployment of such technology.
“The EU’s different climate policies and their underpinning analysis do not consider geoengineering techniques like SRM or ocean fertilization, and there is no financial support,” a Commission official said.
In 2019, Switzerland unsuccessfully tried to submit a resolution to the U.N. Environment Assembly asking for an assessment of geoengineering techniques — including SRM — as well as potential governance frameworks.
“There was acknowledgement that this topic is relevant, that was not the challenge,” said Felix Wertli, deputy head of the Swiss delegation at the time and now head of the global affairs section at the country’s environment ministry.
The Swiss idea was killed by two opposing worries — on one side the fear that an assessment could make such technologies acceptable and on the other a concern that it would open the door for rules hamstringing their development.
“It is a sensitive political topic: If you have a U.N. report, would that be enabling technologies that might be dangerous or risky? That was a concern of some,” Wertli said.
Saudi Arabia and the United States — home to fossil fuel giants that have shown interest in geoengineering — reportedly led the opposition to the failed Swiss resolution.
Critics also argue that debating such ideas risks undermining more conventional efforts to cut greenhouse gases.
“As long as we discuss geoengineering, we take other options off the table,” said Lili Fuhr, leader of the international environmental policy division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the German Greens. “The fast exit from fossil fuels, the reorganization of our agricultural systems … all these debates that we need right now get no room. It’s a waste of time and money and political resources.”
Others say that discussions need to take place regardless, noting that according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “all pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C … project the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR).”
And on SRM, Wertli said: “We see that discussions and some research activities are going on and can’t exclude that in the future some actors might want to test or even apply SRM on a large scale. We can’t put our head in the sand and have to think [about] appropriate governance frameworks to contain potential risks.”
Building a consensus
The other major problem the Swiss effort faced — and that any future attempt at regulation will also run into — is the difficulty of finding a consensus on geoengineering.
“Climate politics is slow and complex; agreeing on using untested technology on a planetary scale could prove impossible,” a report by the European Parliament’s research service warned earlier this year.
An international agreement remains a remote prospect. “The priority now is learning and understanding both about the risky situation we are in and what options exist. Nobody is talking about a treaty,” said Carnegie’s Pasztor.
But he believes that even reluctant governments will eventually want to talk about governance — if only out of fear that another country might unilaterally deploy geoengineering tech.
Given how controversial these technologies are, Pasztor thinks the most likely scenario is a deadly climate-related crisis that puts pressure on governments to deploy SRM. “If that were to arise, it would be extremely useful to have in place an international mechanism equipped to assess the legitimacy of that deployment,” he said.
Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, said the deployment of solar blocking technology was “hard to think about it in the context of, let’s say, climate impacts that are a little bit uncomfortable.” But if the world reaches a point where “these climate impacts are a disaster, we can’t bear this, this is completely shit hit the fan, we have to get out of this, otherwise we’re all gonna die type rationale, then I could see SRM being deployed.”
Some critics of geoengineering, including Fuhr of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, would prefer to ban SRM altogether.
“It’s an untestable and ungovernable technology that is much too risky,” said Fuhr. At the same time, existing regulation governing other techniques needs to be “defended and expanded,” she said.
Fuhr thinks finding a consensus will be challenging but noted that nearly 200 members of the CBD did manage to agree to halt geoengineering. “You can criticize that it doesn’t have teeth — the U.S. aren’t part of it — but it’s a consensus,” she said.
Switzerland, meanwhile, thinks it’s worth trying again.
“The topic is not less but if anything more relevant than two years ago,” said Wertli. “So at the moment, we are considering … whether to resubmit a resolution together with other partners. It’s an ongoing discussion. But it’s very clear that the topic is not off the table.”
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