A Significant Milestone for Opening Up the Discussion About Geoengineering

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate system to counteract the impact that pollutants are having on our climate. The proposals sound like the stuff of science fiction – spraying particles in the upper atmosphere to deflect some sunlight, for instance – and EDF’s experts have been following the topic with concern.

Most of the focus on climate change has been about transitioning our economy to clean, renewable energy – removing the cause of the malady. But some are worried that won’t happen fast enough and that a more radical intervention may be necessary. Indeed, a 2014 report from the International Panel on Climate Change indicated that the world may require some form of climate engineering in order to stay within a hoped for two-degree limit to global temperature rise. But these proposals raise a serious risk of unintended consequences.

Geoengineering is in the news because of the release of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. It’s the first study commissioned by the U.S. government that explains our current understanding of the science, ethics, and governance issues presented by geoengineering technologies. I was a member of the panel that drafted the NAS report, and its release is also meaningful for me — and for my colleagues here at EDF — because of our involvement with the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI).

Specifically, NAS was asked to conduct a technical evaluation of a limited number of proposed geoengineering techniques, including albedo modification and carbon dioxide removal. The new report comments on the potential impacts of these technologies.

What is Albedo Modification?

Albedo modification (AM), also known as “solar radiation management,” describes a controversial set of theoretical proposals for cooling the Earth by reflecting a small amount of inbound solar energy back into space.

These techniques have attracted attention because they could — in theory — reduce global temperatures quickly and relatively cheaply. BUT – these techniques would have unknown adverse impacts.

The new NAS report makes clear that AM is not an alternative to deep reductions in carbon pollution.

AM does not address ocean acidification and other non-temperature-related climate change impacts. It can at most serve as a temporary tool to reduce temperatures while lowering the atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases.

AM technologies have potentially serious and uncertain environmental, political, and social risks. The distribution and balance of benefits and risks are currently unknown.

AM research will require governance mechanisms to ensure that if research is undertaken, it is done transparently, safely, and with international agreement.

Unlike the NAS report just released, EDF has not called for small-scale AM research. We are in favor of accelerated discussion and development of a governance framework that would cover any potential geoengineering research.  

Why should research governance involve a global conversation?

The scientific, ethical, political, and social implications of AM research could be global. That means discussions about AM research governance should be global as well. To date, however, most discussions on the governance of AM research have taken place in developed countries — even though people in developing countries are those most vulnerable, both to climate change and to any potential efforts to respond to it.

In recognition of that fact, the Royal Society, EDF and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) launched SRMGI in 2010. SRMGI is an international NGO-driven initiative to expand international discussions on AM, particularly to developing countries.

SRMGI promotes early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, in order to increase the chances of any AM research, should it be undertaken, being managed responsibly, transparently, and cooperatively.

The new NAS report offers an important opportunity to expand that dialogue.

It’s critical that we aim for transnational cooperation and information exchange on climate engineering research governance. That’s because even low-risk climate engineering research presents controversy.

AM’s potentially cheap deployment and quick effect on global temperatures could lead to the rapid and unilateral development of AM research programs, which could engender international tension and conflict.

Furthermore, deployment of AM would not benefit all populations equally.

And, while discussions about geoengineering are necessary, they cannot be considered as a substitute for reducing carbon pollution. The billions of tons of carbon pollution we put into our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate, and we must rapidly and consistently reduce that pollution. No climate engineering technology we can conceive of could keep up with the impacts of rapidly accelerating emissions.

What Comes Next?

The new NAS report should spur the U.S. and other governments to take the governance challenges of research into AM technologies seriously. An important next step is to foster wider international dialogue, including developing countries, on how to responsibly manage AM research.

It’s a dialogue that we at SRMGI, and at EDF, welcome. And the new NAS report is a welcome contribution to this dialogue.

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