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Advancing transnational governance of geoengineering research

This post was co-authored by Alex Hanafi and Andy Parker, and originally appeared on The Washington Geoengineering Consortium.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its last report in a three-part series  assessing the latest data and research on climate change.  The new report discusses actions we can take to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change, while previous reports focused on the scientific basis for climate change, and on potential ways to reduce vulnerability to the risks presented by our rapidly changing climate.

The morning sun reflects on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean as seen from the Apollo 7 spacecraft during its 134th revolution of the Earth on Oct. 20, 1968. Image Credit: NASA

The morning sun reflects on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean as seen from the Apollo 7 spacecraft during its 134th revolution of the Earth on Oct. 20, 1968. Image Credit: NASA

For the first time, these IPCC reports also include significant attention to the topic of “solar radiation management” or SRM.  Also known as “solar geoengineering,” SRM describes a controversial set of theoretical proposals for cooling the Earth, and thereby potentially counteracting the temperature-related impacts of climate change, by reflecting a small amount of inbound solar energy back into space.

With the impacts of rising temperatures already being felt and the IPCC drawing into sharper focus the range of impacts expected in the coming decades, SRM is attracting increasing attention as a potential cheap, fast-acting, albeit temporary response to some of the dangers of climate change.

SRM’s potential effects are only poorly understood, however.  And most discussions to date on SRM research governance, as well as most research activities, have taken place in developed countries.  Yet people in developing countries are often most vulnerable both to climate change, and any potential efforts to respond to it.  The scientific, ethical, political, and social implications of SRM research are necessarily global. Discussions about governance of SRM research should be as well.

Recognizing these needs, in 2010 the Royal SocietyEnvironmental Defense Fund (EDF), and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) launched the SRM Governance Initiative (SRMGI), an international NGO-driven initiative, to explore how SRM research could be governed. SRMGI’s activities are founded on a simple idea: that early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, will increase the chances of SRM research being managed responsibly, transparently, and cooperatively.

SRMGI is neither for nor against SRM. Instead, it aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary, and international discussion on SRM research and governance.

Much of the work of SRMGI concentrates on bringing in new voices and perspectives, particularly from the developing world. For example, in late 2013, SRMGI and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) published a report on a series of SRM research governance workshops held around Africa in 2012 and 2013.  These workshops were made possible by funding from the IAP (the global network of science academies) and UNESCO. The workshops took place in Senegal, South Africa, and Ethiopia in 2012 and early 2013, bringing in over 100 participants from 21 different African countries.

The workshops followed the same approach developed by SRMGI at previous meetings held in China, India, Pakistan and the UK, with three factors perhaps most important to their success:

First, local partnerships have been crucial. As with previous local SRMGI partners (such as the Sustainable Development Policy Institutein Pakistan, or the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in India), AAS’s convening power, networks of experts, and reputation were invaluable assets.

Second, participant interaction is prioritized over expert lectures.  After introductory talks on the science of SRM and the range of socio-political concerns it raises, discussion turns to local participants drawn from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Quickly breaking down into small groups, they are encouraged to explore and express their own concerns, hopes and ideas regarding SRM research and governance.

A third important element of SRMGI’s success has been the decision to avoid identifying preferred or consensus options among different governance arrangements. Instead, SRMGI aims to ‘open up’ discussions of SRM governance by exploring and recording the different perspectives and options that participants express—from no special governance to complete prohibition of research activities.  Knowing that there is no meeting statement to sway, and that opinions will simply be discussed and recorded, often leads to a broad and thoughtful exchange. This decision to avoid “picking winners” has been seen among both developed and developing country stakeholders as a key component in establishing trust and encouraging participation in SRMGI activities.

To build the capacity for an informed global dialogue on geoengineering governance, a critical mass of well-informed individuals throughout the world must be developed, and they must talk to each other, as well as to their own networks. An expanding spiral of distinct, but linked outreach processes could help build the cooperative bridges needed to manage potential international conflicts, and will help ensure that if SRM technologies develop, they do so cooperatively and transparently, not unilaterally.

With SRM research in its infancy, but interest in the topic growing, the IPCC’s inclusion of SRM in its report is a reminder of the importance of establishing governance mechanisms to ensure that where SRM research does proceed, it is safe, ethical, and subject to appropriate public oversight and independent evaluation. Well-informed voices from civil society and other stakeholders can play an important role in guiding these evolving international discussions.

No one can predict how SRM research will develop or whether these strategies for managing the short-term implications of climate change will be helpful or harmful.  But early cooperation and transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on geoengineering research governance will make it more likely that the global community can make informed decisions about research into SRM and other emerging geoengineering technologies.

 

Alex Hanafi is Senior Manager of Multilateral Climate Strategy at EDF, where he coordinates a range of research and advocacy programs designed to promote effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the globe.

 

 

 

Andrew Parker

Andy Parker is a Research Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.  His research focuses on the politics and governance of solar geoengineering.

 

 

 

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IPCC mention of geoengineering, though brief, opens window for discussion

The IPCC's latest report includes a brief mention of geoengineering — a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system. (Photo credit: NASA)

Just a few weeks ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first piece of their fifth crucial report on global warming – and it confirms that our climate is changing. Key messages from the report include:

  • Warming of the climate is unequivocal
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear, and the evidence for human influence has only increased since the last IPCC report
  • Further changes in temperature, precipitation, weather extremes, and sea level are imminent

In short, humans are causing dramatic climate change—and we’re already witnessing the effects. Oceans are warming and acidifying. Weather patterns are more extreme and destructive. Land-based ice is declining—and leading to rising sea levels.

None of this should be surprising to those following the science of climate change. What has generated surprise amongst some, however, is the IPCC’s brief mention of the science of geoengineering, tucked into the last paragraph of the IPCC’s 36-page “Summary for Policymakers.”

Understanding the science of geoengineering

As communities and policymakers around the world face the risks presented by a rapidly changing climate, interest in the topic of “geoengineering” is growing.

Geoengineering refers to a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) or by reflecting away a small percentage of inbound sunlight (solar radiation management, or SRM).

Some of these ideas have been proposed by scientists concerned about the lack of political progress in curbing the continued growth in global carbon emissions, and who are looking for other possibilities for addressing climate change if we can’t get emissions under control soon.

With the risks and impacts of rising temperatures already being felt, the fact that SRM would likely be cheap to deploy and fast-acting means that it has attracted particular attention as one possible short-term response to climate change.

The world’s governments tasked the IPCC with investigating these emerging technologies in its new report, and the IPCC summary rightly sounds a cautionary note on their potential utility, warning:

Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system…

Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale.

So what does this mean? Three things are clear from the IPCC’s brief analysis:

  1. CDR and SRM might have benefits for the climate system, but they also carry risks, and at this stage it is unknown what the balance of benefits and risks may be.
  2. The overall effects of SRM for regional and global weather patterns are likely to be uncertain, unpredictable, and broadly distributed across countries. As with climate change itself, there would most likely be winners and losers if SRM technologies were to be used.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, SRM does not provide an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since it does not address the rising emissions that are the root cause of ocean acidification and other non-temperature related climate change impacts.

This last point is particularly important. The most that could be expected from SRM would be to serve as a short-term tool to manage some temperature-related climate risks, if efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions prove too slow to prevent severe disruption of the earth’s climate.

In that case, we need to understand what intervention options exist and the implications of deploying them. In other words, ignorance is our enemy.

Need for inclusive and adaptive governance of solar radiation management research

While much of the limited research on solar radiation management has taken place in the developed world – a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future – the ethical, political, and social implications of SRM research are necessarily global. Discussions about governance of research should be as well.

But a transparent and transnationally agreed system of governance of SRM research (including norms, best practices, regulations and laws) does not currently exist. With knowledge of the complex technical, ethical, and political implications of SRM currently limited, an effective research governance framework will be difficult to achieve until we undertake a broad conversation among a diversity of stakeholders.

Recognizing these needs, The Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) launched in 2010 an international NGO-driven initiative to explore how SRM research could be governed. SRMGI is neither for nor against SRM. Instead, it aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary, and international discussion on SRM research and governance.

SRMGI’s activities are founded on a simple idea: that early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, will increase the chances of SRM research being handled responsibly, equitably, and cooperatively.

Connecting dialogues across borders

A key goal is to include people in developing countries vulnerable to climate change and typically marginalized in discussions about emerging science and technology issues, to explore their views on SRM, and connect them in a transnational conversation about possible research governance regimes.

This month, for example, saw the launch of a report by the African Academy of Sciences and SRMGI describing the results from a series of three SRM research governance workshops held in Africa in 2012 and 2013. Convened in Senegal, South Africa, and Ethiopia, the workshops attracted more than 100 participants – including scientists, policymakers, journalists and academics – from 21 African nations to explore African perspectives on SRM governance.

To build the capacity for an informed global dialogue on geoengineering governance, a critical mass of well-informed individuals in communities throughout the world must be developed, and they must talk to each other, as well as to their own networks. An expanding spiral of distinct, but linked outreach processes could help build the cooperative bridges needed to manage potential international conflicts, and will help ensure that if SRM technologies develop, they do so cooperatively and transparently, not unilaterally.

The way forward

No one can predict how SRM research will develop or whether these strategies for managing the short-term implications of climate risk will be helpful or harmful, but early cooperation and transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on geoengineering research governance will help the global community make informed decisions.

With SRM research in its infancy, but interest in the topic growing, the IPCC report reminds us that now is the time to establish the norms and governance mechanisms that ensure that where research does proceed, it is safe, ethical, and subject to appropriate public oversight and independent evaluation.

It’s worth remembering that the IPCC devoted only one paragraph of its 36-page summary report to geoengineering. So while discussion about geoengineering technologies and governance is necessary, the key message from the IPCC must not be lost: it’s time to recognize that the billions of tons of carbon pollution we put in our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate, and work together to find the best ways to reduce that pollution.

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The EU Considers Additional Steps to Improve the EU Emissions Trading System

EDF recently published a report examining the results and lessons learned from the world’s first and largest multinational cap-and-trade program to limit carbon pollution: the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). The report was designed to assist those jurisdictions like California, China, Australia, the Republic of Korea, and others implementing – or considering adopting – carbon cap-and-trade systems, and to highlight what can be learned from the pathbreaking experience of the EU ETS.

The EU ETS continues to evolve, with current debates in the EU focused on how to improve the system as it transitions to a new trading period next year. The EU is considering several reform proposals, including a short-term reform that would delay the auction of new emissions trading allowances until later in the trading period (“backloading”).

The EU’s backloading proposal is a justifiable short-term step that would give the EU time to consider additional structural reforms needed to build on the EU ETS’s success in reducing Europe’s carbon emissions. For instance, the EU’s success thus far in laying the foundation for achieving its 20% emissions reduction target by 2020 has prompted persistent calls among stakeholders in Europe to tighten the EU’s economy-wide target even further: to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020*, or to set an ambitious target beyond 2020 that would provide additional confidence to market actors to make long term investments in low-carbon innovation. The EU plans to publish by November 14 a carbon market report that examines options to increase the long-term ambition of the EU ETS.

A tighter EU ETS target for 2020 and beyond would not only help the EU achieve its aspirational emission reduction target of 80-95% below 2005 levels by 2050, but – according to one study – could create millions of jobs while bolstering investment and GDP growth.

Doing so would also send an important message about EU climate leadership, providing another lesson to the world on how to chart a path forward to tackle the climate challenge.

*Note: The EU has both economy-wide reduction targets and targets under the EU ETS, which includes the power and industrial sectors, among others. At present, emissions under the EU ETS account for approximately 40% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

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The EU Emissions Trading System is reducing emissions, sparking low-carbon innovation, and growing up. Really.

With 2012 shaping up to be the hottest La Niña year on record and global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise, initiatives to reduce global warming pollution are ever more critical. A new EDF report presents important lessons from the experience of the world’s first multinational carbon emissions trading system: the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).

Jurisdictions as diverse as California, China, the Republic of Korea, Kazakhstan, and Australia are implementing, or are in the process of adopting, cap-and-trade policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and all stand to learn important lessons from Europe.

Why the EU Emissions Trading System matters

The EU’s program is the first and largest cap-and-trade system with enforceable limits on carbon pollution, which gives it a unique position on the world stage. The EU ETS:

Results from the first two trading periods of Europe's Emissions Trading System offer lessons for other jurisdictions on the road to a low-carbon economy. (Photo source: iStockphoto)

  • Began its pilot phase (Phase I) in 2005; the pilot phase transitioned in 2008 into the fully operational Phase II, which will end this year; Phase III will begin in 2013, and last through 2020 (though EU law already provides that emissions will continue to decline beyond 2020).
  • Places strict caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power stations and industrial plants.
  • Applies to about 40% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions, rising to 43% as the ETS expands its coverage to include other industrial sectors and global warming pollutants.
  • Aims to lower the total carbon emissions of covered sectors in the EU to 21% below 2005 emissions by 2020.
  • Includes 30 participating countries, which account for 20% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and 17% of world energy-related CO2 emissions.

As the EU ETS’s first full trading period (Phase II) comes to a close at the end of 2012, our report examines the results thus far of the world’s first carbon cap-and-trade experiment, and looks ahead to its future.

The report, The EU Emissions Trading System: Results and Lessons Learned, reviews the performance of the EU ETS from 2005 until present, and addresses three central points: the EU ETS’s efficacy, efficiency, and market security. (Note: This report focuses on the overall structure and performance of the EU ETS since its inception in 2005, and thus does not discuss the 2012 expansion of the system to include aviation emissions.)

Results and recommendations

Based on our analysis of the EU Emissions Trading System, EDF has identified six major results from the EU ETS's experience, and developed corresponding policy recommendations. The report’s Executive Summary includes additional details on each of the following lessons learned.

1) The EU ETS has achieved significant emission reductions at minimal cost.

As shown below and on page 8 of the full report, the data suggest that the ETS has succeeded in reducing emissions beyond what would be expected from the recession alone, even assuming an emissions growth rate 1% less than the growth in GDP (represented by the dotted business-as-usual line).  ETS sector emissions declined a further 1.8% in 2011, according to recent estimates, while GDP increased approximately 1.4%. However, verified 2011 emissions data will not be available until mid-2013, and thus the graph does not depict the likely drop in 2011 emissions. The EU has achieved this emissions-cutting success at much lower-than-expected cost: according to some estimates, just 0.01% of Europe’s GDP, and that’s without considering the economic benefits of emissions reductions.

EU ETS sector emissions (million metric tons CO2), emissions caps, and EU gross domestic product (GDP), 1990–2015.

 

Recommendation: Emulate the successful design of – and improvements to – the EU ETS, including its focus on the environmental integrity and enforceability of the emissions cap, to unleash the proven effectiveness of cap-and-trade in stimulating low-carbon innovation.

Recommendation: Stimulate long-term emission reduction investments by maintaining a predictably declining, enforceable, science-based cap on carbon.

2) Although over-allocation of allowances and a sharp drop in their prices occurred during the program’s pilot phase in 2005-2007, the policy stability created by longer-term targets subsequently led to durable investments in reducing emissions and deploying low carbon strategies.

Recommendation: Base emissions caps and resulting allowance allocations on measured and verified historical emissions, rather than on estimated or projected emissions.

Recommendation: Provide a predictable long-term policy environment that allows banking of allowances between trading periods.

3) Windfall profits occurred in some member states but can be avoided using a variety of policy tools.

Recommendation: Establish appropriate regulatory oversight of public utilities, and auction some or all allowances.

4) Reforms have improved the elements of the EU ETS that allow emitters to tender credits earned from projects reducing emissions in developing countries (“offsets”), but further reforms would be useful.

Recommendation: Ensure offset programs have rigorous monitoring and accounting methodologies to clarify that emission reductions are “additional” (i.e., below a credible baseline)

Recommendation: Adopt reforms that allow international offset credits only from jurisdictions that have capped some portion of their emissions, or only from least-developed countries.

Recommendation: If linking to other nations’ emissions trading programs, do so preferentially with nations that adopt caps or limits on major emitting sectors.

5) The EU ETS has made significant progress in preventing any recurrence of the tax fraud and theft of allowances that occurred during the program's earlier years.

Recommendation: Establish effective governance and regulatory bodies, as well as preventive electronic security systems, to adapt to evolving cyber attacks and other market security threats.

6) Companies and entrepreneurs have responded to the ETS and its complementary policies with a diverse range of profitable investments in low-carbon solutions.

Recommendation: Institute an ambitious cap-and-trade system to encourage business to think creatively about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s next for the EU ETS, and why the world should care

The EU will further expand the coverage of the EU ETS in 2013 to include additional greenhouse gases and additional industrial sectors, including the aluminum and chemical industries.

Regions, nations, states and local jurisdictions that are considering capping carbon pollution can learn from the experience and build on the success of the EU ETS, the world’s first large-scale CO2 cap-and-trade system. (Photo courtesy of German Wind Energy Association/© BWE / Thorsten Paulsen)

Additionally, even though the EU ETS’s Phase III ends in 2020, the cap on emissions will continue to decline after that – by 1.74% per year – which provides the critical longer-term certainty needed to spur investment in emissions reductions now.

Nonetheless, a suitable set of complementary policies and measures is essential if the EU is to achieve its aspirational emission reduction target of 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. A more ambitious EU ETS target for 2020 or 2030 would help achieve the EU’s long-term reduction goal. Current discussions in Europe include proposals to tighten the EU ETS cap further, not only to strengthen emission reductions, but also to stimulate economic growth.

Perhaps the most important lesson the EU ETS experience provides is that regions, countries and states can benefit from a learning-by-doing approach to cap-and-trade. Any design flaws and weaknesses of various policy tools are often difficult to anticipate, but can be corrected over time as experience warrants.

With its success and durability now attracting the attention of other nations and jurisdictions that seek to link their carbon trading systems to the EU’s, the EU ETS offers a unique opportunity for other regions, nations, states, and even local jurisdictions that are considering such systems to learn from its experience and continue to build on its success.

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