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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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EDF releases new blog for all our expert voices

EDF’s Climate Talks blog keeps you updated on major international climate issues. We provide thoughtful analysis on international climate negotiations and important climate policy developments around the world, so you can stay informed. However, we know you may have a broad interest in environmental issues.

That’s why we wanted to share with you Environmental Defense Fund’s new flagship blog, EDF Voices. EDF Voices collects stories, ideas and arguments from all of our EDF expert voices in one place. Our thought leaders use this space to weigh in on all sorts of environmental issues, from stories on how farmers in India are adapting to climate change to ideas on how to save the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.

We hope you like what you read on our new EDF Voices blog and become a subscriber.

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South Korea's new climate law signals growing global momentum to curb climate change

South Korea's new climate law will establish a cap-and-trade system covering about 60 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

South Korea today became the first country in Asia to pass climate change legislation that limits the country's carbon emissions, joining the host of countries around the world that also have passed climate laws. (Only weeks ago Mexico passed a climate bill that aims to increase renewable energy use, set ambitious goals to curb domestic emissions and establish a high-level climate commission authorized to create a domestic carbon market.)

The South Korean bill, approved today in a near-unanimous vote in Korea's National Assembly, establishes a cap-and-trade system for limiting the country’s growing carbon emissions. Specifically, the law:

  • limits emissions from top polluters across the economy through a cap-and-trade system that is slated to start in 2015.
  • covers about 60 percent of South Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions, which puts the government on track to fulfill its international pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from projected levels by 2020.
  • allows Korea’s system eventually to link internationally with other emissions trading systems. The government and Australia have already announced plans to initiate such talks later this year.

Richie Ahuja, EDF’s Regional Director for Asia, said:

South Korea’s bold move is evidence that fast growing economies can put a limit on dangerous carbon emissions with broad support from elected leaders, and of the mounting desire and momentum to curb climate change across both the developed and developing world.

Such visionary actions by countries is how the global climate race will be won.

Cap-and-trade systems like Korea's have a successful track record of curbing carbon emissions. The cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide in the U.S. Clean Air Act, for example, reduced emissions faster and at lower cost than predicted. In Europe, the world's first and largest Emissions Trading System  has played a significant and successful role in reducing the EU's emissions.

Next for Korea, the Presidential Commission on Green Growth and related ministries will work on the final details of the law; those will be released in a Presidential Decree in the next few months.

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Australia's landmark legislation will put price on carbon pollution, create world’s second-largest carbon-price system

As expected, Australia’s upper house of Parliament voted yesterday to adopt a carbon price, which will compel Australia’s largest polluters, beginning July 1, 2012, to pay for their carbon pollution.

Australia will have the largest carbon-price system in the world outside Europe's, after its upper house approved the Clean Energy Future package of bills Nov. 8.  The package of bills aims to cut emissions from coal-dependent Australia 80% by 2050 from 2000 levels. (Image: freeaussiestock.com)

The legislation’s passage will give Australia, which has the highest per capita emissions of any developed country in the world and uses even more coal than the United States, the largest carbon-price system in the world outside of the European Union.  (That is, the largest outside the EU until California’s program takes effect in January 2013; California last month approved the largest, first-ever economy-wide carbon market in North America, which could eventually link to other sub-national, national and regional markets around the world.)

EDF applauds Australia on its leadership on the vitally important problem of climate change.  This vote is another indication that more and more countries around the world – with the U.S. being a notable exception – are taking climate change seriously.  The legislation also  backs Australia’s international commitment to reduce emissions by between 5 and 25 per cent by 2020 from 2000 levels.

The Clean Energy Future Package

The Clean Energy Future package is made up of 18 bills that will assign a price to carbon starting July 1, 2012 and cut Australia’s emissions 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 (though the target can be strengthened based on science or international action), and 80% below 2000 levels by 2050.

Australia’s 400-500 largest emitters will be covered by the carbon price, which will take the form of a fixed price (starting at A$23 per metric ton) for the first three years, and shift to a carbon market emissions trading system in 2015.

As we mentioned when Australia’s lower house passed the clean energy legislation on October 11, the Clean Energy Future package will shift Australia’s energy towards cleaner and renewable sources by:

  1. Placing a price on carbon.
  2. Creating a market-based system with plans to link it with ‘credible international carbon markets or emissions trading schemes in other countries’ – like New Zealand and Europe – after 2015.
  3. Giving a big boost to renewable energy research and development and deployment through a new $10 billion financing vehicle, the “Clean Energy Finance Corporation.”

(The Southern Cross Climate Coalition has some more details on the legislation in its analysis, as does Natural Resources Defense Council’s Jake Schmidt in his post Congrats Australia! Law passed which will require mandatory carbon pollution reductions for major polluters.)

Climate groups in Australia welcomed the passage of the laws, as did:

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who told reporters:

Today we have made history. … This is about what's right for the nation's future.

Deutsche Bank Australia carbon analyst Tim Jordan, who said:

This is a very positive step for the global effort on climate change. It shows that the world's most emissions-intensive advanced economy is prepared to use a market mechanism to cut carbon emissions in a low-cost way.

CEO of The Climate Institute John Connor, who said:

This is a vital cog in Australia's pollution reduction machinery with the potential to help cut around 1 billion tonnes of carbon pollution from the atmosphere between next year and 2020.

This vote means Australia now brings greater credibility going into international climate negotiations starting later this month in South Africa. It also puts wind in the sails of other jurisdictions about to introduce, or considering, emissions trading schemes which similarly price and limit carbon pollution.

The G20 Cannes Action Plan for Growth and Jobs even highlights the Australian legislation as an example of how members will “enhance competition and reduce distortions” in its plan to create “sustained, broad-based reforms to boost confidence, raise global output and create jobs.”

What’s next for Australia

Now, the Government moves into implementation mode, which means it will take to:

  • Establishing new institutions, including the Climate Change Authority (to recommend on future emissions targets); the Clean Energy Finance Corporation; and the Clean Energy Regulatory to oversee the market;
  • Finalizing contracts next year to close 2000 MW of brown coal power generation;
  • Working with New Zealand and EU officials on linking schemes after 2015.

Linkages to international carbon markets that are built into the system will also see Australia become a key player in the international offset market.

And Australian officials will be able to hold their heads high at the UN climate conference in Durban at the end of this year, as they promote their joint proposal with Norway for a roadmap to a 2015 global climate treaty.

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Australia’s carbon price system passes in historic vote in lower house, 2012 start now virtually guaranteed

Australia is likely to pass legislation next month that will give it the largest carbon price system in the world outside of Europe. (Thanks and photo credit to Flickr user Urban Gazelle)

In a historic vote Wednesday Oct. 12, Australia’s lower house passed a legislative package to put a price on carbon starting mid-2012.  This will put the country – which is comparable to the United States as one of the developed world’s largest per-capita emitters – on the path to reducing its emissions and shifting energy to renewable, less-polluting sources.

The bill, passed by a predictably close margin, is now virtually guaranteed to pass in the Senate when it comes to a vote, likely in November.  That will give Australia, the third-most coal-dependent country in the world, the largest carbon-price system in the world outside of the European Union (at least until California’s program takes effect six months later).

What Australia’s "Clean Energy Future" legislation will do

The Clean Energy Future package consists of 18 bills that aim to cut Australia’s emissions 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 (though the target can be strengthened based on international action), and 80% below 2000 levels by 2050.

The legislation reaches these targets through programs that will start shifting Australia’s energy to renewable sources by:

  1. Placing a price on carbon.
    • Starting July 2012, Australia’s largest industrial emitters, which cover roughly two-thirds of the country’s greenhouse gas pollution, will have to pay a fixed price for the carbon pollution they produce — $23 (Australian) per ton of carbon, rising by 2.5 per cent each year.
    • In 2015, the fixed price system will automatically transition to a market-based cap-and-trade system open to trading carbon credits in the international market.
  2. Designing the market-based system to link to international carbon markets, with plans to link with already operational cap-and-trade programs in New Zealand and Europe after 2015.
  3. Giving a big boost to renewable energy research and development and deployment through a new $10 billion financing vehicle, the “Clean Energy Finance Corporation.”  The money will be invested in jump-starting Australian commercial-scale renewable energy projects to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The Australian system has strong support from key international players in global carbon markets: the European Union and the United Kingdom have both praised the Australian approach, and a senior visiting Chinese official has observed that China is also looking to the Australian system as a potential model as China designs its six proposed regional cap-and-trade trials.

The link to international markets that’s built into the system also sets up Australia to become a key player in the international offset market – and will enhance Australia’s influence at the UN climate conference in Durban at the end of this year.

We look forward to Australia’s Senate vote in November, and to the critical momentum the country will bring to the development of international carbon markets when it becomes the newest member in the group of the world's carbon market leaders.

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