EDF Talks Global Climate

Why the developing world needs to be included in climate engineering research

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Devastating cyclones in Fiji. Deadly heat waves in Europe. Drought in Somalia.

Communities around the globe are already feeling the impact of the billions of tons of climate pollution that humans dump into Earth’s atmosphere every year and the serious changes to the climate it causes, but people living in the global south in particular are on the front line of climate change.

The one surefire way to address the climate change problem is to cut pollution. But given the urgency of the challenge and notably insufficient pledges by nations to reduce their future climate-warming emissions, the concept of solar geoengineering is being discussed as a way to cool the planet, fast.

Fostering inclusive and informed decision-making

Also known as “solar radiation management” or SRM, solar geoengineering is a controversial idea for reducing the temperature-related impacts of climate change. The leading proposal would involve spraying tiny reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away a little of the sun’s inbound energy, mimicking the cooling effect of volcanoes.

The consequences of solar geoengineering are still uncertain, and developing countries could be most affected by its use. SRM could lower global temperatures and reduce some of the harmful effects that poor countries face due to climate change, such as higher temperatures, changes to rainfall patterns and stronger tropical cyclones. But it could have unexpected and damaging side effects, could cause international tensions, and could distract policymakers from cutting carbon emissions.

Most discussions to date on SRM research governance, as well as most research activities, have taken place in developed countries. That needs to change. Writing in Nature today, a group of 12 scholars from across the developing world made a bold call for developing countries to lead on the research and evaluation of SRM geoengineering.

The Comment in Nature is linked to the launch of a new SRM modelling fund for scientists in the global south. Administered by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the SRM Governance Initiative, with funding support from the Open Philanthropy Project, the modelling fund will provide grants to scientists who want to understand how SRM might affect their regions.

Supporting developing country efforts to lead on SRM research and evaluation is an important and positive step towards ensuring that an inclusive and informed set of voices contributes to decision-making on geoengineering research and governance. EDF played an early role in the NGO community in promoting governance of climate engineering research. In 2010, EDF co-founded the SRM Governance Initiative with the Royal Society and The World Academy of Sciences, in order to engage a diverse and global range of voices to discuss SRM research and appropriate governance. Increasing numbers of environmental NGOs have joined us in this effort, and some of them have endorsed small-scale research.

SRM is not a ‘technological fix’ for climate change…but it needs to be understood 

Without exception, all scientific reports have confirmed that SRM is no substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since it would at best mask some of the impacts of climate change. The environmental, economic, social, ethical, political and legal risks of using these technologies are also poorly understood. That means we still need to do everything we can to address the emissions problem head on. We need to cut climate pollution now.

But it also makes sense to explore and understand the implications of solar geoengineering. As the world warms, some may propose the use of geoengineering technologies, or even deploy one of them. We need to understand the potential consequences before that happens.

It will be critically important to have strong rules in place to govern any outdoors research that proceeds, to deal with the technology’s profound social, ethical and geopolitical consequences. Governance regimes should be established in parallel with the very first experiments.

By expanding geoengineering research and governance to better integrate developing country perspectives and expertise, we stand a much better chance of making informed, legitimate decisions on the potential role of these technologies, if any, in global efforts to tackle climate change.

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