Geoengineering on the Agenda at the United Nations Environment Assembly

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Wednesday, Mar. 06, 2019

First time here? Visit our What is Climate Engineering page.

Don’t miss our Academic Working Group’s report, “Governing Solar Radiation Management.”

The Swiss Resolution on Geoengineering and its Governance

The government of Switzerland with the support of 10 other countries has developed a resolution on “geoengineering and its governance.” The resolution is being considered at the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, in March 2019. UNEA is an intergovernmental forum created in 2012 to act as “the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment.”

The resolution calls, among other things, for the United Nations Environment Programme to “prepare an assessment of the status of geoengineering technologies, in particular, carbon dioxide removal technologies and solar radiation management.”
The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment prompted a range of experts to comment on the following questions:
  • What do you make of the resolution proposed by the Swiss government?
  • Would adoption of the resolution be a generally positive or a generally negative thing? Why?
  • Do you agree with the resolution’s characterization of carbon dioxide removal options as a form of geoengineering?
  • Is UNEP an appropriate forum for assessing the scope of issues raised in the “Operative Part” of the resolution?
  • Beyond the multilateral fora, agreements, and UN specialized agencies set forth in the resolution, what other, if any, entities should be engaged in the assessment process?

Jump to responses by:


Daniel Bodansky

Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Dan Bodansky

Time is running out to deal with climate change, so we need to explore all options, rather than rule any out.  The Swiss deserve credit for trying to give climate engineering more attention.  That said, I have concerns with several specific elements of their proposed UNEA resolution:

First, the resolution groups together all of the various techniques for climate engineering, even though they raise very different risks and governance issues.  Direct air capture, for example, has almost nothing in common with stratospheric aerosol injection, so categorizing them both as “geoengineering” is not helpful.  We can have a more productive conversation about climate engineering if we disaggregate the different techniques, which the proposed resolution does not adequately do.

Second, the proposed resolution takes one side on a multi-sided issue.  It expresses “deep concern about the potential risks and adverse impacts of geoengineering,” but does not acknowledge the potential role of climate engineering in averting dangerous climate change and achieving the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal.    Yes, some (but by no means all) climate engineering techniques may be risky.  But risky compared to what?  3 or 4° warming, which is where we are headed now?  By focusing only on the risks and adverse impacts of climate engineering, the resolution may reinforce the prejudice against climate engineering that has thus far discouraged much climate engineering research.  And that is risky too, since it means that, if states ultimately engage in climate engineering out of desperation, they will do so without adequate knowledge of the comparative risks and benefits of alternative techniques.

Third, although I think international assessment of climate engineering could usefully supplement the assessments that have been conducted nationally (such as those by the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences), the appropriate international assessment body is the IPCC rather than UNEP, since the questions ripe for assessment are scientific rather than policy in nature.  What is the state of existing climate engineering science?  What are the main research questions? And how should scientific research on climate engineering be organized?  These are questions that need answering now.  The broader question of climate engineering governance, for which UNEP might be the appropriate forum, is premature, since, in my view, we need to know more about climate engineering before we can sensibly decide how it should be governed.

Climate engineering may or may not make sense.  But the bigger risk right now is that we do too little climate engineering research, rather than too much.   Remedying that problem should be the goal of a UNEA resolution.

Kerryn Brent

Lecturer and Deputy Director of the Australian Forum for Climate Intervention Governance, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia

Kerryn Brent

The draft resolution by Switzerland for consideration at the 4th UNEA is an interesting step in the development of international geoengineering governance. To date, the issue of geoengineering governance has primarily been considered by treaty bodies that address specific environmental issues, namely the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and London Convention and Protocol for ocean dumping. The extent to which these treaty bodies can govern CDR and SRM proposals is limited by their mandates, being the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of the marine environment from pollution respectively. The UNEA is the policy-making organ of the UNEP, which has a far broader mandate regarding issues of environmental protection and sustainability. This resolution, therefore, has the potential to elevate the topic of geoengineering governance beyond issue-specific treaty bodies and highlight it for separate consideration by states.

The use of the term “geoengineering” in this draft resolution is noteworthy. Geoengineering has often been used in the literature as a blanket-term that includes both CDR and SRM. A prominent example can be found in the 2009 report by the Royal Society, which defines geoengineering as ‘the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change’. States and intergovernmental organizations have also used this term. It can be found in CBD COP decisions (e.g., COP 10 Decision X/33) and it is enshrined in the 2013 marine geoengineering amendment to the London Protocol. More recently, natural scientists and governance scholars have questioned the use of this term and its utility in policymaking, given the different governance challenges posed by CDR and SRM proposals. The IPCC declined to use ‘geoengineering’ in its special report on 1.5oC, instead sticking with the terms CDR and SRM. The draft resolution acknowledges the differences between CDR and SRM, but nevertheless uses ‘geoengineering’ in relation to both. States are therefore continuing to use this term in how they communicate with one another regarding CDR and SRM governance. ‘Geoengineering’ is a term that carries some negative connotations, and its continuing use could encourage states to take an overly restrictive approach to the governance of research and small-scale field tests. However, this term might provide states with a common reference point and language to engage with CDR and SRM governance across different international environmental agreements and organizations. The benefits of using the term ‘geoengineering’ might, therefore, outweigh the risks.

Ken Caldeira

Department of Global Ecology/Carnegie Energy Innovation, Carnegie Institution for Science

Ken Caldeira

A report to the Director of UNEP on the status of potentially risky technologies and potential governance frameworks for those technologies would be most welcome. Unfortunately, the proposed resolution is extremely vague and as a result lumps in many technologies that pose no novel risks along with technologies that may pose substantial novel risks.

Specifically, the proposed resolution claims it is “mindful of the varying definitions of geoengineering and the general distinction of technologies in solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal”, yet fails to state which definition is being used in the proposed resolution and further fails to make meaningful distinctions between solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal.

Due to the lack of clear definitions, it is unclear whether actions such as planting a tree would be considered a form of geoengineering and thus fall under the remit of the proposed resolution.

Further, the proposed resolution does not adequately distinguish between solar geoengineering approaches (solar radiation management), which can be thought of as radical adaptation to high greenhouse gas levels, and carbon dioxide removal, which can be thought of as a form of climate change mitigation (reducing net greenhouse gas emissions).

It is unclear what is to be gained by linking these disparate activities under a single umbrella. For example, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has more to do with both bioenergy without carbon capture and storage and carbon capture and storage without bioenergy than it has to do with the intentional placement of aerosols in the stratosphere. Why does this proposal call for considering bioenergy with carbon capture and storage alongside stratospheric aerosol injection, rather than alongside bioenergy alone and carbon capture and storage alone?

The linking of carbon dioxide removal with solar geoengineering in this proposed resolution, as if they were two varieties of the same thing, is unhelpful. Nevertheless, if a high-quality team is put together and they put together a report that focuses on providing information, rather than making judgments and recommendations, the proposed UNEP process could produce a timely and useful document.

Lili Fuhr

Head of International Policy Division, Heinrich Boell Foundation

Lili Fuhr

We have a range of concerns. Geoengineering threatens global peace and security. Some technologies have significant potential to be weaponized. Deploying Solar Radiation Management could create a race to control the Earth’s thermostat and severely alter rainfall and hydrological patterns, particularly in regions that are already suffering from adverse impacts of climate change. Investments in geoengineering could worsen the climate crisis by providing justification for big polluters to continue emitting while locking in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come. We therefore do believe that this issue requires urgent attention by the UN and at the highest level.

However, we have concerns with the Swiss resolution. Our concerns are twofold:

  1. In the proposed UNEA resolution, decisions taken on geoengineering by other UN bodies that have already been dealing with the issue for a long time are not adequately recognized or built on. The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) first considered geoengineering in 2007 and have adopted decisions in five consecutive COPs since COP 9. Significantly, at COP 10 in 2010, the CBD took decision X/33 (w) which established a de-facto moratorium on geoengineering that was again confirmed in 2016. Parties to the London Protocol of the London Convention unanimously adopted a Resolution in 2008 prohibiting all ocean fertilization activities other than those for ‘legitimate scientific research’, followed by another Resolution in 2010 that set out the strict conditions defining what constitutes ‘legitimate scientific research’. In 2013, the London Protocol parties adopted (again unanimously) an amendment to give that prohibition and assessment framework legal force and to open the way for other marine geoengineering activities to be regulated in the future. [The UN expert group on marine environmental protection, GESAMP, is currently finalizing a technical review of many of those other proposed marine geoengineering activities, which will then form the basis for further regulatory considerations by LC-LP parties.]
  2. In addition to these decisions being a starting point for any debate on geoengineering governance in the UN, we believe that this debate should be free of commercial conflict of interests to curtail the long and ongoing influence that the fossil fuel industry, the main culprits of climate change, has had on the topic. In addition to that: if an assessment of geoengineering technologies and their risks and impacts is to be developed for consideration at UNEA, it is crucial that the composition of any group or body that will lead such task is not restricted to experts (who are often those researching the technology or even holding patents, owning companies or applying the technology in the field), but must include truly independent civil society representatives, indigenous peoples, farmers, youth and representatives of potentially affected communities. Individuals and organizations that have vested and commercial interests in geoengineering must be excluded from such a body. It is vital that a robust Conflict of Interest policy be adopted to protect the integrity of processes and outcomes of assessment of geoengineering. This also applies for the UNEA process.

Materials to support our view:

Fuel to the Fire – How Geoengineering Threatens to Entrench Fossil Fuels and Accelerate the Climate Crisis

The Big Bad Fix – The Case Against Geoengineering

Riding the GeoStorm – A briefing from civil society on Geoengineering Governance

Governance for a Ban on Geoengineering

We would further like to recommend this recent policy brief from the German Federal Environmental Agency

Jason Funk

Principal and Founder, Land Use & Climate Knowledge Initiative

 

Jason Funk

What do you make of the resolution proposed by the Swiss government? In general, the resolution seems like a helpful way to introduce the topic of “geoengineering” for formal consideration by governments, through the UN Environment Assembly. Concepts related to geoengineering have been around for a long time, so this would seem to signal that we’ve crossed some invisible threshold of awareness and concern, which has prompted Switzerland and other governments to call for an official assessment and to establish an Ad Hoc Independent Expert Group.

Would adoption of the resolution be a generally positive or a generally negative thing? Why? The adoption of the resolution seems unlikely to do any harm, so I view it as generally positive. Nevertheless, I’m somewhat skeptical of the ability of this sort of UN process to accomplish much. I guess we have to start somewhere. 
Do you agree with the resolution’s characterization of carbon dioxide removal options as a form of geoengineering? Respected experts still disagree about what activities should be characterized as “geoengineering,” so I see this as an inclusive approach. Recent work, such as the US National Academy of Sciences report, have started to suggest limiting the term “geoengineering” to apply only to solar radiation management, rather than CDR, but this is not yet a consensus view. 
Is UNEP an appropriate forum for assessing the scope of issues raised in the “Operative Part” of the resolution? Personally, I think this task is better suited to the IPCC, especially given the scope of the assessment, which includes a heavy emphasis on research, the current state of the science, and technical matters. 
Beyond the multilateral fora, agreements, and UN specialized agencies set forth in the resolution, what other, if any, entities should be engaged in the assessment process?
The resolution makes no reference to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is the primary international policy-making body for climate issues. The UNFCCC members and observer states should certainly be formally invited to participate in the process described in the resolution, at a minimum. There is always a risk that this sort of assessment will get lost in the tangled thicket of UN agencies, but the UNFCCC is the place where it can be brought forward for consideration in real policy-making. 

Alexander Gillespie

University of Waikato

Member of FCEA’s Academic Working Group on Climate Engineering Governance 

Al Gillespie

What do you make of the resolution proposed by the Swiss government? An excellent initiative. Really taking the issue to the top level, via the correct pathway – starting the debate at the UNEA.

Would adoption of the resolution be generally a positive or negative thing? Wonderful thing. The creation of the compendium is the first step from which future ones can flow on a solid foundation.

Do you agree with the resolution’s characterization of carbon dioxide removal options as a form of geoengineering? I am ambivalent. It’s not what most people think of in this arena, but it’s all a question of nomenclature. The problem with including it is it will triple the size of any work in this area.

Is UNEP an appropriate forum for addressing the scope of issues raised in the “Operative Part” of the resolution? Yes.

Beyond multilateral fora, agreements, and UN specialized agencies set forth in the resolution, what other, if any, entities should be engaged in the assessment process? 
This is the correct pathway. I would add the UNFCCC and UNESCO.

Matthias Honegger

Climate Engineering in Science, Society and Politics, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam

Matthias Honegger

While I view the UNFCCC as the primary venue for international governance of climate change, the resolution submitted to UNEA – the supreme venue for environmental governance – offers an important opportunity for the international community to start developing a sense of direction on geoengineering governance.

In conversations with UNFCCC negotiators, two concerns stood out to me: A sense that both Carbon Dioxide Removal, as well as Solar Radiation Modification, posed important but largely unaddressed governance challenges and a fear that addressing these under the UNFCCC might endanger the crucial work of implementing the Paris Agreement.

Although many practical CDR governance issues indeed fall within the scope of the UNFCCC (particularly monitoring, reporting and verification as well as accounting of removed CO2 in national inventories, and cooperative approaches to incentivize CDR), UNEA could contribute to CDR governance: Greater clarity on opportunities and limitations of CDR deployment pathways regarding sustainable development by means of an UNEP assessment, would send an important message regarding the need for greater efforts to accelerate CDR, as well as the urgency of ever more rapid emissions cuts.[1] UNEP could furthermore establish initiatives to pilot CDR deployment: The UN-REDD Programme launched by UNEP, FAO and UNDP in 2008 acts as support programme for the UNFCCC’s REDD+ instrument, a similar initiative focussing on various CDR approaches could help generate momentum for removals implemented under the Paris Agreement.

For SRM, I see the value of UNEA deliberation on potential benefits and risks even more in prompting environmental governance stakeholders to explore the landscape of interwoven normative and scientific judgments, which form the fabric of science-based political assessments.[2] Such exploration would allow to start building a basis for conscious decision-making on whether – and if so how – there may be a role for SRM in future climate change governance. Exploration within UNEA will likely not be the end-point of discussion on SRM: A dedicated report consolidating the scientific understanding of SRM by the IPCC – established in 1988 by UNEP and WMO – would likely also benefit the international communities’ decision-making capacities; UNEA deliberation might actually enable the IPCC as well as other international fora to dedicate attention to SRM governance.

[1] For an initial exploration of potential implications of CDR and SRM on sustainable development refer to Honegger, M., Derwent, H., Harrison, N., Michaelowa, A., & Schäfer, S. (2018). Carbon Removal and Solar Geoengineering: Potential implications for delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, May 2018, New York, U.S. https://www.c2g2.net/wp-content/uploads/C2G2-Geoeng-SDGs_20180521.pdf

[2] For a description of the prevalence of value-judgments in assessments of SRM refer to the chapter «Assessing Solar Geoengineering – What, Who, and How?» in the edited volume Governance of the Deployment of Solar Geoengineering by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/full-text-with-cover_2019-02_geoengineering-paper_vers7.pdf

Joshua Horton and David Keith

The Keith Group, Harvard University

Josh Horton
David Keith

This draft resolution is a welcome step toward both broadening and deepening serious global conversations about CDR and SRM. Such broadening is illustrated by the diversity of states supporting the proposal. UNEP is a particularly fitting venue for these discussions due to its global perspective on the environment, encompassing not only climate change but the full spectrum of environmental problems such as biodiversity loss and ocean acidification which must be taken into account in considerations of CDR and SRM. Introducing this resolution also provides a pathway to deepening these conversations.  UNEP is widely regarded as a competent, authoritative actor producing credible work such as the UNEP ozone assessments and its recent Emissions Gap Reports.  Moreover, UNEA/UNEP may provide a relatively less politicized, more constructive forum for grappling with these issues compared to some other institutions.

Set against these positive aspects of the resolution, its preamble strikes us as unduly negative insofar as it rightly expresses deep concern about “potential global risks and adverse impacts” of these technologies while failing to acknowledge their potential benefits in terms of reducing climate risks in ways that cannot be achieved by emissions cuts alone.

Similarly, we regret that the resolution lumps CDR and SRM together.  As many have argued, these two approaches differ fundamentally in terms of speed, direct cost, and risk profile, and as such should be assessed separately. This distinction is illustrated by the scarcity of nontrivial statements that apply to both CDR and SRM yet do not apply to mitigation. Yet the operative part of the resolution calls for “conclusions on potential governance frameworks for each geoengineering technology,” which could result in obscuring the basic differences between CDR and SRM. Small changes to the language in the operative part could clarify that an assessment should examine governance challenges of CDR technologies as a group and, separately, of SRM technologies as a group.

In general, however, we are happy to see this resolution introduced and hope it is adopted in close to its present form.  We view it as part of a healthy tendency to move CDR and SRM toward formal treatment in international fora, with the involvement of decision-makers from all parts of the world.  Indeed, this is one of the explicit goals of C2G2, which has played an important role in encouraging this development at UNEA/UNEP.

Prakash Kashwan

Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut

Member of FCEA’s Academic Working Group on Climate Engineering Governance

Prakash Kashwan

This resolution brings the question of climate engineering up for deliberations at the UNEA, which is a politically legitimate intergovernmental body that enjoys the universal membership of all 193 UN Member States. It would be important for UNEA to deliberate about the diversity of views that exists within the global community about the wisdom of researching and developing geoengineering technologies. It is crucial that these deliberations pay special attention to the potential implications for globally agreed goals of climate mitigation, climate justice, biodiversity conservation, the international conventions on human rights, and the ‘Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas’ adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2018. A serious consideration of these social and ecological goals requires that UNEA brings on board scientists with expertise in a variety of disciplines – including physical, natural, and social sciences, and those from the humanities. The UNEA would do well to look beyond national governments and to engage with indigenous peoples’ organizations, peasant federations, labor unions, women’s organizations, and youth groups, especially those representing the communities of people in the global South.

Albert Lin

School of Law, University of California, Davis

Albert Lin

The resolution on geoengineering brings to mind the Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” To those of us who have been calling for geoengineering governance for some time, the resolution nonetheless represents a very important step. As the effects of climate change become ever more apparent and as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, geoengineering has piqued growing interest. Much of the modeling underlying the Paris Agreement’s core objective assumes that significant deployment of carbon dioxide removal will be necessary in the coming decades to avoid a temperature increase greater than 2°C. Solar radiation management is increasingly suggested as a possible tool to buy more time to reduce emissions or to stave off some of climate change’s more extreme consequences.

Several distinct concerns nevertheless point to the need for geoengineering governance. Research or deployment could create substantial risks for humans and the environment. Ungoverned development of geoengineering technologies could lock in socially undesirable technologies or undermine mitigation efforts. And controversy surrounding some types of geoengineering has stymied research efforts that could generate information essential to evaluating the feasibility and hazards of specific techniques.

Such controversy, as well as seemingly more pressing issues, have kept geoengineering off of the international agenda—until now. The geoengineering resolution draws attention to this critical subject and, if adopted, could lay the foundation for establishing a governance regime. At the least, the resolution contributes to the mainstreaming of geoengineering into climate policy discussions. Policy makers and the public can begin to grapple with fundamental questions of whether to develop and adopt specific geoengineering techniques, how such techniques might be deployed, and what measures are needed to encourage desired types of geoengineering while discouraging undesired types.

The resolution itself is boldly ambitious and yet not ambitious enough. The contemplated assessment would consider an impressive range of subjects, including the current state of the science, knowledge of potential risks, benefits, and uncertainties, and current governance frameworks. At the same time, the ultimate goal behind the resolution, beyond preparation of an assessment, is not specified. Will the assessment make specific recommendations for action? Will it set the stage for developing guidelines or negotiating a multilateral agreement on geoengineering? Although it may be too early to be more specific, states should consider the resolution as the first step in a much longer journey.

Jane Long

Retired

Jane Long

When and if a choice to deploy geoengineering eventually has to be considered, no doubt the UN should be involved in that decision.  The question for me is what is appropriate for the UN to do now?  There is very little progress on researching these concepts and so the consideration of these technologies by any decision-making body seems premature.  To the extent that this proposed UN activity results in an educational and informational process and that process leads to realizing that we don’t know enough to make decisions about geoengineering, I would support it.

Jeffrey McGee

University of Tasmania

Jeff McGee

The Swiss Resolution is important, but don’t expect a global treaty on geoengineering

The news that Switzerland will introduce a resolution on geoengineering governance into the upcoming 4th meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) should be welcomed. The resolution, supported by ten other countries, calls for the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to prepare an assessment of the status of both CDR and SRM geoengineering technologies. This assessment will cover not only current scientific understanding of geoengineering but also the challenges of governing research and deployment. It is proposed that an Ad Hoc expert group be formed to advise the Executive Director on preparing this assessment for tabling at the fifth session of UNEA in 2020. If successful, this resolution can be the start of important generative work (Young 1999:31) in developing ideas and raising the profile of geoengineering within international environmental governance. This could influence the willingness of other UN institutions, such as the meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to engage more closely with geoengineering (Burns and Craik 2016).

However, it is important to not overestimate where this will lead. At this stage, it would be a brave prediction to suggest that the preparation of this assessment within the UNEA (essentially the governing body of UNEP) will drive the formation of a global treaty to comprehensively govern CDR and SRM activities. Geoengineering governance to date shows a functionally differentiated and bottom-up structure, rather than any early signs of a move towards a comprehensive global treaty. Functionally specific international environmental regimes, such as those concern with biological diversity and ocean dumping, have adopted largely a cautionary approach to restrict SRM and/or CDR activities within their individual areas of competency. Also, small-scale field tests of SRM techniques are planned at a domestic level that will be largely governed by national law and research protocols. Ideas and practices from this domestic governance of geoengineering may well in time flow upwards into the international sphere. This pattern of governance is likely to continue whilst key countries continue to face significant scientific uncertainties in the temporal and spatial risks of both climate change impacts and geoengineering responses (Reynolds 2017).

The real value of this assessment, building on the earlier work of the Royal Society and US National Academy of Sciences, will likely be in reducing some of these uncertainties and thereby assisting states make decisions on the extent that geoengineering will play a role, alongside mitigation and adaptation policies, in the human response to climate change.

References
Oran Young, 1999, Governance on World Affairs, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
Jesse Reynolds, 2014, ‘The International Regulation of Geoengineering: The Lessons from Nuclear Power’, Journal of Environmental Law, 26(2), 269-289.
Neil Craik and Wil Burns, 2016, Climate Engineering under the Paris Agreement: A Legal and Policy Primer, Special Report for Center for International Governance Innovation, 1 November 2016, Waterloo, Canada.

Catriona McKinnon

Politics and International Relations, University of Reading

Member of FCEA’s Academic Working Group on Climate Engineering Governance

Catriona McKinnon

The time is right to begin a conversation about the governance of geoengineering: at present, there is a vacuum of governance. In the coming years, the global community must keep ahead of any developments in geoengineering technologies so as to ensure that any research and development is always and only in the public interest. The public interest should be construed widely so as to prioritise communities most vulnerable to the misuse of geoengineering as well as future people. Governance will need to walk a thin line between allowing appropriate research and testing while avoiding policy and technological ‘lock-in’ to a geoengineered future, or a particular technology. Lock-in could go unnoticed and is potentially very dangerous. I would hope these conversations make the necessary distinctions between carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management, which operate in very different ways. Responsible and effective governance of research is likely to look very different in each domain.

Duncan McLaren

Research Fellow, Lancaster University, UK

Duncan McLaren

The Swiss motion at the UN Environment Assembly is a significant step. Those fearful of geoengineering will likely have concerns about the motion as an enabling step – greasing the slippery slope. Those advocating research and even deployment may fear additional constraints designed by ill-informed politicians.

In this respect, the wording and the venue are probably well-judged. The text is (deliberately, I’m sure) ambiguous and open. The choice of the UN Environment Assembly distances the debate from the fraught politics of the UNFCCC and IPCC (which can be seen as endorsing carbon geoengineering, while rejecting solar, and still trying to walk a tightrope between climate denial and the urgency of action). It also avoids the CBD, which many scientists in this space perceive as having been captured by anti-geoengineering interests (I would disagree with this characterization, but have heard it too often to ignore). The UNEA offers the possibility of a more inclusive, and hopefully even more respectful debate, couched largely within a context of sustainable development (which for all its shortcomings offers a better starting point than the otherwise generally implied preservation of current economic and political regimes).
This setting also holds out the prospect that any recommendations for governance will not necessarily be enabling. The reasons civil society organizations distrust self-regulatory proposals for emerging technologies, while scientists and researchers seem to like them, is that they tend to be enabling, rather than constraining – and where they constrain, they have no teeth. Developing governance at the UNEA offers at least the prospect of constraint, and of teeth, maybe even of a meaningful moratorium on particular techniques or particular forms of research or deployment. Such possibilities need to be on the table – but only as possibilities at this stage, if discussions are to merit good-faith participation by a full range of stakeholders.

However, in one respect I believe the proposal is too open. All serious stakeholders agree that geoengineering should not be permitted to deter or delay emissions reduction or adaptation. The text declares that this should be so, but offers no means to ensure it. Such declarations have been ineffective so far. This text should be amended so that governments agree to “investigate and develop forms of governance that would best ensure that geoengineering does not deter or delay emissions reductions or adaptation.” No good-faith stakeholder could argue against this, even if they might consider it unnecessary.

Edward A. Parson

Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, School of Law, University of California, Los Angeles

Ted Parson

This is an important step, and a highly constructive one. The Swiss are to be commended for bringing this very helpful resolution forward, and for the obvious care that went into crafting it.

A comprehensive assessment of geoengineering at the senior inter-governmental level is urgently needed, and assuming the assessment puts together an appropriately knowledgeable, balanced, and impartial team to do it – the devil is of course in the details – doing it under the authority of the UNEP Executive Director is a great place to situate it. Putting it here promises to achieve two important aims: getting some serious engagement with political and government leaders in both industrialized and developing countries; and allowing a reconsideration of some of the unexamined assumptions and points of doctrine that have persistently characterized the treatment of this issue under the IPCC.

Moreover, at the broadest level, the proposed broad mandate for the assessment is good: in including both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management; in jointly considering science, technology, impacts, governance and politics; and in considering governance implications of both geoengineering research and its potential future deployment.

My only significant reservations are that if the language of the mandate is subsequently interpreted as being restrictive – which it expressly is not, but people will surely try – then there are a few problematic elements.

  •  Technologies are only discussed in the context of “criteria to define them.” While it is reasonable to include this, it is far from the most important matter, and it presents the risk that discussions may get held up by extended, not-very-useful discussions of the form, “carbon dioxide removal is (or is not) mitigation”, or “carbon dioxide removal is (or is not) geoengineering.” At the same time, it is a little troublesome that the mandate does not expressly include an inventory, characterization, and assessment of relevant technologies and approaches and their prospective developments.
  • OP1 point c, on “the actors and activities” is rather clumsily worded, so it is difficult to tell precisely what is meant. I would find it stronger if the passage was made more capacious and more explicit: e.g., identification of significant present activities underway in CDR and SRM, actors supporting and conducting these activities, and potential actors and interests associated with further research and development, and with potential future deployment.
  • The leap between OP1 points e. and f. is a bit head-spinning: “Current state of governance frameworks” would be a very short report, as the “current state” of these is limited to two non-binding decisions in the CBD, the provisions of the London Convention/Protocol for ocean fertilization, plus various proposals in academic papers. This section thus risks being a rather unhelpful recapitulation of existing work, except insofar as the assessment body interprets the words “including challenges,” quite elastically, to include potential additional governance needs, identification and analysis of current challenges, and potential activities to address these challenges.
  • Moreover, precisely this activity – detailed elaboration of prospective governance needs, international challenges that might call for governance, and potential ways to address them, principally regarding potential future expansion of the scale of research and potential future calls for deployment – which presently only finds a home between “current state” and “conclusions” in the weak words “including challenges,” is the highest-priority near-term need other than getting more small-scale research funded and underway. I would hope that a body like this could both map out governance needs in somewhat greater detail, and would itself undertake some beginning steps toward the needed collective work to identify and elaborate these governance needs and potential ways to meet them.
  • Without a strong emphasis on these high-priority intermediate steps, I would worry that item f., “conclusions on potential governance frameworks”, risks reporting back hasty, weakly supported recommendations on matters that require some serious deliberation to start building — at worst, capture by one or another present view, faction, or institutional interest: e.g., “There should be an expansive moratorium on geoengineering, including outdoor research”, or … “UNEP is the right institutional setting to take charge of governance of geoengineering.” Outcomes such as these would be premature, and would risk further obstructing rather than advancing the needed governance debate.

Finally, please note that none of these unhelpful outcomes is specified or determined by the present language: my concern is merely that these are possible within the present language and it is important to avoid them – whether by small adjustment of the mandate language, or by skilled and prudent leadership of the resultant assessment.

Jesse Reynolds

Emmet/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy
Emmett Institute of Climate Change and the Environment, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law

Author, The Governance of Solar Geoengineering: Managing Climate Change in the Anthropocene, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press

Jesse Reynolds

Some geoengineering methods have the potential to greatly reduce climate change but pose physical risks and social challenges. Dedicated governance will eventually be warranted, and given the global stakes, some governance should be international. After more than a decade of conversations among scholars and others, the current UN Environment Assembly resolution could be a positive development, yet important details remain.

A central challenge is the “who, when, and where” of developing effective international geoengineering governance that would facilitate potentially beneficial research, prevent various undesirable outcomes, and assuage concerned constituencies. The countries that are vulnerable to climate change might be understandably skeptical that such efforts are a distraction from multilateral emissions reductions, adaptation, and finance. Furthermore, geoengineering and its governance have steep learning curves, with numerous aspects that seem counterintuitive and contrary to current climate change and environmental politics. Indeed, some experts have argued that any international discussions could lead to unhelpful restrictive language, especially when negotiators have a weak knowledge base. That was the case when the parties the Convention on Biological Diversity prematurely addressed geoengineering governance in 2010, producing a poorly worded and widely mischaracterized decision.

The current resolution shows some good signs. First, the time might be appropriate. The IPCC reports have made clear that preventing dangerous climate change through emissions cuts alone is highly unlikely, and the scientific evidence that some forms of geoengineering – both carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management – could effectively reduce climate change is now substantial. Second, UN Environment is the right forum, with its mandate to catalyze international environmental governance. Third, the draft’s language is open, calling only for an assessment report from an ad hoc expert group. Fourth, the resolution’s supporters are diverse, including developing and vulnerable states. This last point is especially important, as there is an increasingly voiced yet unfounded claim that geoengineering is being pushed by industrialized countries and opposed by developing ones. Instead, opinions differ – and remain largely inchoate – in both groups. What is certain is that those countries that are vulnerable to climate change have the most to gain and lose in geoengineering’s ultimate fate. Their participation is thus essential.

If the resolution passes, then the selection of the expert group’s members will be pivotal. They must represent the world’s diverse interests in climate change and the responses to it. The members will also need to invest in climbing the learning curve in a terrain that is characterized by some trenchant voices and – unfortunately – persistent and inaccurate claims.

Shuchi Talati

Geoengineering Research Governance and Public Engagement Fellow, Union of Concerned Scientists

Shuchi Talati

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the impacts of 1.5°C is a stark reminder of the incredibly massive scale of the climate crisis. Understanding carbon removal and solar geoengineering approaches is an important component of a strategy to limit harm, but come with immense uncertainty and risk. We are in an era of hard choices, and the resolution submitted for consideration to the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) is a positive development in advancing the international community’s understanding of these complex approaches and potential governance frameworks to manage them.

A limited number of international bodies have begun to explore the issue and addressed some aspects of geoengineering governance, but there is not yet a cohesive framework that would unify the range of multilateral fora. These different entities, including UNEA, should not only commit to understanding the issue and their capacity to manage geoengineering risks, but also begin collectively working towards a comprehensive and unified governance structure. This resolution offers the opportunity for UNEA to determine their role in this broader context.

The resolution directs the UN Environment Programme to prepare an assessment of both the technologies and potential governance frameworks by creating an expert group to lead the effort. While the resolution is a major step forward in engaging new entities that might not otherwise be part of the discussion, the makeup of the independent expert group and the process by which the assessment gathers information will be critical to establishing a fair and inclusive process. With a broad mandate, this assessment provides a unique opportunity to welcome an expansive range of voices, including civil society organizations and academia, into the conversation.

With a timeline remarkably close to that of the National Academies report on developing a research agenda and research governance approaches for solar geoengineering, this assessment would contribute to a growing repertoire of valuable analyses.