What is geoengineering?
Geoengineering is the proposed intentional and large-scale interference by humans in the Earth’s climate system to reduce the negative effects of climate change.
While terms vary, there are two main approaches:
- Carbon Removal is a family of techniques which primarily address the causes of anthropogenic climate change, by drawing out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) refers to them as Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs), and has incorporated them into its models to show how the world could keep temperature rise below 1.5-2°C above the pre-industrial level. Some carbon removal technologies are already in use, but not at a sufficient global scale to achieve this target.
- Solar Geoengineering is a family of technologies which primarily address the symptoms of climate change, by reflecting solar radiation away from the Earth in order to cool the planet. Lab research and computer modelling of a number of technologies is underway, but no atmospheric testing or deployment has yet begun.
Each approach poses a unique and complex mixture of risks, costs and benefits for society, with environmental, political, economic and ethical dimensions. Both the research and the potential deployment of geoengineering will require governance, nationally and internationally, to maximize benefits and minimize risk, as well as to ensure costs and benefits are justly distributed.
Why are people considering geoengineering?
The world is already suffering from the effects of climate change. Extreme heat is increasing death rates (and affecting child development) in many places, polar sea ice is disappearing, melting glaciers are changing the geology of high mountain regions, and the sea level is rising.
Recent extreme weather events, such as hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, forest fires in Europe, droughts in Africa and floods in Asia, have shown how increasing numbers of people, especially the poor, are becoming vulnerable to catastrophic weather events.
These events are causing wide-scale suffering. They are also undermining the Sustainable Development Goals, which world governments agreed to in 2015 as a road map to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.
In December 2015 in Paris, world governments agreed to limit average global temperature rise to within 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels—beyond which there could be catastrophic consequences for humankind.
To do this, the Paris Agreement envisaged a rapid decarbonization of the world energy system. To stay within the safe temperature levels, the world needs to reach net-zero emissions in the second half of the century.
However, scientists say the Paris targets are unlikely to be achieved through mitigation and adaptation alone. Recent peer-reviewed studies give the world a 5 per cent chance of meeting the 2°C goal and a 1 per cent chance of meeting the 1.5°C goal. Many scientists agree that only by the additional and massive deployment of carbon removal will these targets be met; and a growing number are suggesting that solar geoengineering techniques may also be necessary.
Carbon Dioxide Removal measures are used in more than 80% of the IPCC’s modeling scenarios in its Fifth Assessment Report, which are designed to demonstrate how the world might limit temperature rise to within 1.5–2°C.
Solar Radiation Modification would not primarily address the cause of human-induced climate change, but rather the symptom: warmer land and ocean temperatures. It might potentially buy the world some time, but this benefit must be weighed against its many risks—both known and unknown.
As the effects of temperature rise become more apparent, there is concern that some actors may go ahead with unilateral and ungoverned, forms of geoengineering, in particular solar geoengineering, in order to keep temperatures down. This could cause significant problems, including the possibility of conflict.
Would geoengineering allow us to keep emitting greenhouse gases?
No. If geoengineering techniques are to be deployed at all, they must be considered as complementary to massive mitigation, as well as to adaptation efforts to lower the risks from the unavoidable impacts of climate change.
There is already enough CO2 in the atmosphere to cause climate change for hundreds of years. This means that the world needs to reduce emissions (mitigation) and lower greenhouse gas concentrations (carbon removal) at the same time.
Solar Radiation Modification may also be needed to buy extra time to tackle an overshoot of the 1.5-2°C temperature rise goal, but in itself would not act primarily to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change.
What is the current legal status of geoengineering?
Since 2009, reports from the UK Royal Society, the European Union, and the U.S. National Academies of Science have highlighted the need for governance of geoengineering. Governments and intergovernmental organizations have, however, largely ignored their recommendations.
Some piecemeal approaches are in place:
- Some decisions under the Convention on Biological Diversity have established a framework for considering the use of geoengineering.
- Amendments to the London Convention/London Protocol have addressed marine geoengineering, such as ocean fertilization, in a risk management framework.
Unfortunately, however, there is currently no comprehensive, multilateral set of rules governing the research, testing or possible use of climate geoengineering technologies. Given their planetary-wide effects, it’s essential that this governance gap be closed and that there be a transparent, inclusive public discussion on how the world governs geoengineering.
What does C2G2 see as the top priorities for geoengineering governance?
After wide-ranging discussions with experts in governance and geoengineering, C2G2 established three priorities:
- Governance of Solar Radiation Modification
C2G2 will catalyse international agreements to help prevent the deployment of solar radiation modification unless (i) the risks and potential benefits are sufficiently understood, and (ii) international governance frameworks are agreed.
- Governance of Research
C2G2 will support the development of international governance of research, particularly for solar radiation modification.
- Governance of Carbon Dioxide Removal
C2G2 will encourage discussions about the governance of large-scale carbon dioxide removal at the appropriate sub-national, national and global levels, including in particular at the UNFCCC.
Who needs to talk about geoengineering?
Until recently, the debate around geoengineering was mostly limited to scientific circles. Despite recommendations, the policy community largely has not addressed it. This needs to change; and representatives from across society need to get involved.
Many key players are currently holding back from a more open debate because they fear that discussing geoengineering could weaken governments’ support for radically reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. This is known as the ‘moral hazard’ argument, and it needs to be addressed.
The general public is also largely unaware to what extent the world is in jeopardy of overshooting the 1.5–2°C Paris temperature goal, and the consequences of that overshoot. Most people are largely uninformed about geoengineering.
Leaders as well as the public need to acknowledge the risks as the climate crisis deepens. It is time for thought leaders in different communities to consider the governance implications of geoengineering, and many will need to be involved in any eventual decisions on deployment.
- Scientific and Academic Community. Scientists and academics have driven the debate on geoengineering for the past decade, and published hundreds of papers. The UK Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences have recommended that it needs to be governed. For the most part, this debate has been concentrated in developed countries.
- Environmental Pressure Groups. Until this year, active discussion of geoengineering has been somewhat taboo in the environmental community, largely to avoid the ‘moral hazard’ of diverting attention and resources away from mitigation. As emissions continue to rise and the Paris goals seem increasingly difficult to achieve, a growing number environmental groups have started to address the potential risks and benefits of geoengineering, including how to govern it.
- Faith Communities. Geoengineering touches on profound questions around humanity’s relationship to the environment and the cosmos. For many people, this has been the province of religion rather than government or science; any serious debate must include representatives from a wide range of religions and philosophies.
- Governments and Intergovernmental Organizations. Governments have not tackled geoengineering in a systematic way. This may be changing, as concern grows over the 1.5–2°C temperature rise target. C2G2 has briefed many senior officials of governments and international organizations over the past year; and seen rising interest.
- Media. 2017 saw several spikes in media interest in geoengineering, as concern has risen that a 1.5-2°C limit on warming may not be achievable without it. Several events in 2018 may bring this discussion to greater prominence.
- Cultural Leaders. Geoengineering has not broken through into mainstream debate, but sci-fi movies such as Snowpiercer and Geostorm reflect growing popular concern. Musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers could do more to tackle the possibilities of a geoengineered world.
- Businesses. Many entrepreneurs are creating start-ups, largely on carbon removals, often as offshoots from scientific work. Some corporations, including fossil fuel companies, continue to explore the field. But for the most part the business case has proved elusive, in particular, absent a price on carbon. Policy measures may be needed to provide incentives for scale up as well as regulatory functions.
Where and when will geoengineering governance be discussed?
Over the course of 2017–2018, several key moments are expected to increase pressure for more action at an international level. These include:
- Governor Jerry Brown of California hosted an international Climate Action Summit in mid-September 2018, in which actions at the sub-national level were profiled. This could include consideration of carbon dioxide removal.
- The IPCC released its Special Report on 1.5°C in September 2018, focusing attention on the feasibility of achieving this temperature goal. Carbon removal technologies are heavily relied upon in IPCC models to keep temperature below 1.5–2°C degrees. Whether this is realistic—or not—is for policymakers, economists, politicians, and civil society to assess, in addition to scientists.
- The UNFCCC’s “Facilitative Dialogue” is scheduled to take place during the 24th meeting of its Conference of the Parties COP24 in December 2018. In the lead-up to this dialogue, governments will be urged to increase their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.