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Recalibrating our work after the UNEA resolution

Janos PasztorBy Janos Pasztor / 16 April, 2019

It’s been an eventful start of 2019 for C2G2, and more broadly, for governing emerging approaches and technologies to tackle the climate crisis. Perhaps it’s time to check whether, or to what extent, recalibrating our work could be helpful to further facilitate raising awareness, increasing learning, and expanding the conversation among actors.

Most prominently, in March, Switzerland, together with a group of countries, submitted a draft resolution to the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which attempted to kickstart an international learning process for “geoengineering,” but it did not pass. Nations were unable to agree on commissioning a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report that would assess the state of play for both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification methods.

I have a few observations to make.

The fact that the resolution was tabled at all was helpful from my point of view in that it sparked a much-needed beginning of a multilateral conversation on what these technologies entail and how the world might govern these technologies. A formal decision would have been welcome, but we can see the debate the resolution engendered was important in its own right. Such debate and conversations are important steps of governance, which not only involves regulation but also the process of inclusive participation and decision making.

The decision by countries like Burkina Faso, Federated States of Micronesia, Georgia, Liechtenstein, Mali, Mexico, Niger, and Senegal to co-sponsor the resolution, and many other countries who supported it in the negotiations, sent a message that many countries on the frontlines of climate change do want an international discussion and a learning and awareness-raising process about these technologies: their risks, potential benefits, and their governance needs.

At the same time, during and after UNEA-4, it has become clearer that the current political climate may simply be too difficult for intergovernmental bodies to take well-informed decisions on these issues in the immediate future.

Challenges around framing and terminology did not help. Specifically, we see evidence that the umbrella category “geoengineering” – which traditionally includes both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification – may now be actively working against a constructive societal debate. This is partly because it can give the impression that risks, costs, potential benefits, and governance needs are universally shared for these technologies, whereas they are often quite distinct.

It is important that we limit any obstacles to understanding, especially at a time when interest in some of these approaches is switching to a higher gear. This is particularly the case for large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

Following the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C reconfirming the message of the 5th Assessment Report on the critical role large-scale carbon removal plays, there has been a significant increase in the push by environmental groups for “nature-based solutions” to draw down CO2. We have also seen energy companies announce sensible investments in Direct Air Capture, a pilot initiative on
Bioenergy with Carbon Capture in the UK (Drax), and look anew at carbon capture, usage, and storage technologies in leading economies.

Discussions of these developments, however, rarely if ever reference the term “geoengineering”. As interest in CDR has broadened, a willingness to consider it as geoengineering has declined. The IPCC sent an important message last year by not using the term in its special report. We now see many actors in this space refusing to consider their work within the frame of geoengineering.

We in C2G2 are mindful of these developments related to terminology and are in the process of reacting to it more substantially. Watch this space.

While there were fewer identifiable developments in the debate around solar radiation modification, there has been considerable interest in a recent paper in Nature Climate Change. This paper claimed that, if done at more moderate levels, “solar geoengineering” may not negatively impact any region, challenging a widespread notion that there would be winners and losers in any potential deployment. If opinion shifts in this direction, it could prompt more calls for research into SRM.

At the same time, we also see increasing tensions around terminology for SRM. We at C2G2 have decided to follow the IPCC’s terminology and refer to the broad category of technologies as solar radiation modification and be clear what type of technology we are discussing. In public usage, it is very often the case that the term geoengineering, or “solar geoengineering”, tends to be understood synonymously with one specific technology: stratospheric aerosol injection.

Meanwhile, new terms are emerging for other proposed forms of solar radiation modification, such as ‘climate restoration’ or ’climate repair’, to apply to a range of actions to address climate risk, such as emission reductions, carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification.

So, what are we to make of all these developments, in terms of our work? Is there a need to recalibrate, and if yes, how?

First, they suggest that the debate around these technologies and approaches remains too immature to seek formal decisions at the intergovernmental level in the near-term. As we saw in UNEA, even an agreement to generate knowledge about these technologies was not possible at this time for a variety of reasons.

Second, they underline the amount of learning that still needs to take place. Today’s conversation around emerging technologies such as large-scale carbon dioxide reduction and solar radiation modification share one overriding feature: there is a serious lack of shared understanding about not only the technologies, but perhaps more fundamentally, about the urgency presented by the IPCC to ramp up ambition for emission reductions and carbon dioxide removals given the gravity of the climate change situation.

Third, there is no shared understanding of specific approaches, and their effects on sustainable development; no shared understanding about how these approaches would interact with each other; and when it comes to stratospheric aerosol injection, there is no shared understanding about who should take key decisions, when, where, and how.

So, in the near term, while we at C2G2 do not see a need to change our priorities, we do plan to re-double our efforts working with and catalysing partners to increase learning, capacity building, and broadening the discussion about these issues to all sectors of society and in all parts of the world.

If that requires changing the way we talk about these issues, we are ready to do that. We will be delving deeper into this question over coming weeks, and very much look forward to your thoughts and inputs.

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