Solar geoengineering research needs rules as outdoor experiments planned
Embargoed until April 5, 2018 at midnight EDT
April 6, 2018 — With the world’s first known, outdoor experiment of solar geoengineering planned later this year, the head of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2), Janos Pasztor, urged governments to create effective guardrails for these powerful, emerging technologies.
Pasztor, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general on climate change, will address Arizona State University on April 6, the likely location of the world’s first outdoor experiment on stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which is one type of solar geoengineering that researchers are exploring as a possible means to counteract some of the negative impacts of climate change.
“Sometime within the next year, we may see the world’s first outdoor experiment on stratospheric aerosol injection take place here in the skies above Arizona, yet for the most part governments are not aware of, nor addressing, the profound governance issues this poses,” Mr Pasztor will say. “We urgently need an open, inclusive discussion on how the world will research and govern solar geoengineering. Otherwise, we could be in danger of events overtaking society’s capacity to respond prudently and effectively.”
Solar geoengineering does not remove carbon from the atmosphere, and hence could only properly be used as a supplement, not a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many risks and unknowns remain, said Pasztor, including its environmental, justice, geo-political, and governance consequences.
With SAI, aerosols are sprayed into the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation, thereby quickly cooling the earth. SAI is still in the early stages of development, and scientists say it will take another 15-20 years for the technology to be fully developed. Any eventual full-scale deployment of these technologies would have planetary-wide effects and pose profound ethical and governance challenges. Pasztor warned that the risks and potential benefits of SAI are not yet sufficiently understood for policy makers to make informed decisions.
The proposed outdoor experiment, called SCoPEx, is run by a Harvard University research group, which stressed that the experiment does not represent actual deployment of SAI. According to the Harvard team, the physical risks posed by the amount of aerosols released during the SCoPEx experiment will be hundreds of times less than during a transatlantic flight of a commercial airliner. That said, the governance of SCoPEx will likely set important precedents.
“As solar geoengineering moves from the lab to outdoor experiments, crucial questions remain unanswered,” says Pasztor. “How does this experiment acquire legitimacy from other scientists? Do civil society groups and the public, including those located in the area of the experiment, have a say? What are the ramifications for other proposed experiments in this country or in other countries?”
So far, many governments and civil society organisations have shied away from, or have not been aware of, the need to create governance for solar geoengineering. A commonly voiced concern is that such a discussion could distract society from the essential work of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
But recent events suggest interest is growing. The US Congress held a hearing on solar geoengineering research in 2017, and a spate of research papers have prompted growing media interest. Other geoengineering ideas, which may be nearing testing, include proposals to refreeze parts of the arctic and to brighten clouds at sea.
“There’s no question we must accelerate efforts to rapidly reduce global emissions, whilst at the same time remaining open to the possibility that other approaches may also be needed if we are to limit some of the adverse impacts of global warming”, said Mr Pasztor. “Public policy needs to address very legitimate safety, human rights and accountability issues, as well as concern for future generation. Getting this right is a challenge that affects all humanity, and needs to be addressed through discussions that include all sectors of society.”
C2G2 is working with governments, non-state actors and international institutions to catalyse the development of rules and regulations to govern solar geoengineering. “It’s critical the world addresses this issue as soon as possible.We need international agreements to prevent any deployment of solar geoengineering unless the risks and potential benefits are sufficiently understood, and international governance frameworks are agreed,” says Pasztor.