A code of conduct for geoengineering research

By Anna-Maria Hubert, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Calgary, and Associate Fellow, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS), University of Oxford  / December 08, 2017

In 2009, in its landmark report on geoengineering, the UK’s Royal Society called for “the development and implementation of governance frameworks to guide both research and development in the short-term, and possible deployment in the longer term,” including  the development of “a code of practice for geoengineering research” to “provide recommendations to the international scientific community for a voluntary research governance framework.”[1]

From this was born the Geoengineering Research Governance Project — an international, interdisciplinary study on the regulation and governance of geoengineering research. The project has involved significant research and stakeholder engagement on the regulation and governance of geoengineering research. This past June, we convened a high-level international workshop at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford which sought the input of a distinguished group of experts representing different disciplinary perspectives, international and national policy experts, and members of civil society.

In October 2017, after three and a half years of study, we launched the Code of Conduct for Responsible Geoengineering Research. Its goal is to promote the near-term governance of geoengineering research and to guide responsible decision-making in what remains a largely unregulated space. The instrument is the first of its kind, and is a critical step in this fledgling area of climate science and policy.

What role could a code of conduct play in the early governance of geoengineering?

  1. A code of conduct could establish general ground rules to guide geoengineering research and development

International law is largely silent on the issue of geoengineering. Geoengineering science is also emerging in the context of pluralistic legal order, in which an uncoordinated approach to the elaboration of regulatory and governance arrangements by different actors and at different levels may prove to be an obstacle to the development of cohesive rules. A code of conduct could serve as an umbrella instrument to provide a gap-filling and harmonization function for this emerging field.

An important first step will be to expressly state that geoengineering, including research, is subject to internationally-agreed general principles on the protection of the environment and sustainable development.

It will also be necessary to establish specific principles to address significant gaps in existing frameworks. For example, a new instrument should clarify the relationship between geoengineering (in particular, solar geoengineering) and emissions reductions, so that research and development in this area does not undermine global cooperation under the Paris Agreement.

  1. A code of conduct could set out principles and best practices for the prevention and minimisation of harm to the environment from the conduct of outdoor experiments on geoengineering

Certain “unencapsulated” or “open air research” on carbon dioxide removal or solar radiation management may cause direct, physical harm to the environment.

Current regulatory and governance frameworks at the international and domestic levels were not designed for the specific purpose of regulating geoengineering. Moreover, early small-scale outdoor experiments are likely to fall below the physical thresholds that trigger most environmental obligations (e.g., a risk of significant harm).

A code of conduct could provide specific principles and procedures for the prevention and minimisation of environmental harm from outdoor experiments on geoengineering. This would be consistent with a growing trend towards the establishment of best practices for the environmentally responsible conduct of scientific research in other areas.

  1. A code of conduct could contribute to ensuring that geoengineering research contributes to societal goals

Though geoengineering research may also advance our understanding of basic environmental processes, the predominant rationale can be characterised as “missional” in nature: that is, it is necessary to conduct research on geoengineering to better understand the potential efficacy, benefits, and risks of specific geoengineering proposals which aim at counteracting climate change. This places special demands on the governance of research to ensure that geoengineering contributes to social goals.

First, governance should stipulate that environmental decision-making on geoengineering take into account “best available knowledge” or “sound science”. Claims about the feasibility and benefits of proposed geoengineering techniques need to be independently verifiable. Drawing upon the London Protocol amendment on marine geoengineering, a code of conduct could recommend the adoption of mechanisms — such as peer review and the timely, complete and reliable reporting of research results and data — to help ensure the quality and credibility of the knowledge that will ostensibly be used to inform future climate policy.

Second, in light of the large uncertainties and to ensure the policy-salience and legitimacy of the knowledge being produced, geoengineering research processes must take into account different societal preferences and values. To this end, a code of conduct should provide for public participation in decision-making on geoengineering. Specifically, government agencies, research councils and academies, ethical review bodies, experts, and interested members of the general public should have a right to be notified and provided with an opportunity to comment on geoengineering research initiatives. This input should be taken into account in relevant decision-making on proposed research projects.

  1. A code of conduct could promote early international cooperation on geoengineering research

Even at this early stage, the international community’s interest in research activities conducted within national borders is evident. A large-scale deployment of geoengineering (in particular, solar geoengineering) raises the prospect of long-term environmental management on a planetary scale.

At present, however, the study of geoengineering remains very much a western enterprise. Most of the research on geoengineering to date has been conducted in the United States, Germany and the UK. There is clearly a need for broad, inclusive and equitable participation in geoengineering research to allow for informed decision-making by all countries.

Moreover, if geoengineering measures do have a role in meeting Paris Agreement goals, then upstream scientific research and development processes must be mindful of potential downstream challenges relating to the diffusion of new climate technologies.

The prevailing approach to redress the climate technology gap has been to increase technology transfer from developed to developing countries. But as Professor Damilola Olawuyi points out, emphasis on climate technology transfer does not address the ability of recipient countries “to adequately absorb, deploy and maintain transferred climate technologies, and to develop endogenous climate technology solutions.” This concern applies equally to carbon dioxide removal and some solar geoengineering strategies, which, like conventional mitigation and adaptation, are local in nature.

Early capacity-building, joint participation in research projects and increased funding for research in developing countries could help to avoid this problem in the context of geoengineering.

Deployment would almost certainly call for international agreement to govern the ongoing study, use, and financing of geoengineering, and would require stable institutions and scientific advisory bodies to inform and coordinate actions at different levels, both domestically and internationally.

But Rome was not built in a day. Global cooperation of this scope and magnitude and on such a controversial matter as geoengineering will proceed in stages. Time and effort will be required develop shared normative and factual understandings about the potential risks and benefits of different geoengineering technologies, and to establish the legitimacy of the science and governance.

A code of conduct should incorporate principles on international cooperation on geoengineering research, calling on relevant actors to:

  • Cooperate in the establishment and implementation of laws, measures or policies and their harmonisation for the responsible conduct of geoengineering research
  • Cooperate and coordinate in the conduct of geoengineering research
  • Cooperate in the exchange of information (research results) on geoengineering
  • On the basis of equity, to cooperate to assist and strengthen the capabilities and capacities of those in developing countries to participate in geoengineering research and to support decision-making through, inter alia, joint programmes to provide education and training for scientific and technical personnel

Next steps

The Code of Conduct for Responsible Geoengineering Research was developed to spark a concrete conversation about how to develop specific governance for geoengineering, focusing on the near-term prospect of the conduct of outdoor experiments. In this sense, the creation of document is as much about launching a process as it is about promoting a particular governance approach. The current conversation will need to expand beyond the academic community to include decision-makers, civil society, and the wider public. We hope to present our findings to various stakeholders in this discussion, including governments, intergovernmental organisations and treaty bodies, research funders, scientific academies and institutions, and non-governmental organisations.

In practical terms, a voluntary code of conduct on geoengineering research could serve as a politically feasible stopgap for the promotion of responsible research practices in this largely unregulated field. We encourage relevant actors — including key international bodies with a mandate in this area — to evaluate and discuss this proposal as a possible way station to more elaborated governance as we learn more about the potential benefits and pitfalls of geoengineering measures. We also encourage national funding agencies and members of the scientific community to consider and possibility adopt the standards laid out in this document as a benchmark for responsible research practices for outdoor geoengineering experiments going forward.


[1] John Shepherd and others, ‘Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty’ (Report 10/09, The Royal Society 2009) (The Royal Society Report on Geoengineering) 57 and 61. See also Catherine Redgwell, ‘Abstract for Keynote III-1: Policy, Governance and Socio-Economical Aspects of Geoengineering’ in O Edenhofer and others (eds), ‘IPCC Expert Meeting Report on Geoengineering Meeting Report’ (IPCC Working Group III Technical Support Unit and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research 2012) (IPCC Expert Meeting Report on Geoengineering), Annex 3. See also Daniel Bodansky, ‘The who, what, and where of geoengineering governance’ (2013) 121 Climatic Change 539, 547; Schäfer and others (n 6); Editorial, ‘Look ahead: research into climate engineering must proceed – even if it turns out to be unnecessary’ Nature (2 December 2014) <http://www.nature.com/news/look-ahead-1.16466> accessed 9 February 2015.

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