Geoengineering the climate may be possible, but who decides?

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The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon release an important report on the impacts of climate change around the world, including potential responses to adapt to the significant risks presented by a rapidly changing climate.

According to the IPCC, tucked into that report will be a small section addressing the potential impacts of climate engineering (“geoengineering”) technologies. When the IPCC released their last report on the science of climate change, it also included a brief mention of the science of geoengineering, in the last paragraph of the IPCC’s 36-page “Summary for Policymakers.”

What is 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 solar radiation management 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, and three things are clear from the IPCC’s brief analysis:

  1. Carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management 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 solar radiation management 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 solar radiation management technologies were to be used.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, solar radiation management 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 solar radiation management would be to serve as a temporary tool to manage some temperature-related climate risks.

The way forward

No one can predict how solar radiation management 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.

Recognizing these needs, The Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund, and The World Academy of Sciences launched in 2010 the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) an international NGO-driven initiative to explore how solar radiation management research could be governed. SRMGI is neither for nor against solar radiation management. Instead, it aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary, and international discussion on solar radiation management 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 solar radiation management research being handled responsibly, equitably, and cooperatively.

But it’s worth remembering that the IPCC devoted only one paragraph of its last 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 we need to work together to find the best ways to reduce that pollution.

This post is adapted from an earlier entry on our Climate Talks blog.

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Alex Hanafi

Alex Hanafi

Alex is an attorney in our International Climate program, where he coordinates a range of research and advocacy programs designed to promote effective, innovative policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the globe.

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Comments

I am totally opposed to modifying the atmosphere by poisoning the people. If that was such a good idea why is it secret and there is no public debate? Some day you all will answer to a higher power for what you are doing.

" 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 we need to work together to find the best ways to reduce that pollution."

Two proven ways for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (CDR):

The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet - http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/07/man-planted-trees-lost-groves-champi...

Sustainable Land Development Goes Carbon Negative - http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/sldi-project-carbon-negative/

Any denial that SRM is already underway, and has been for a while now, is either ignorance or deceit. Our skies are periodically laced with particulates which seed clouds. The results of the research are already understood, and it is now just a means of asset-grabbing, land clearance and probably population control.

Allowing private corporations to fund and profit from the project was, and is an act of criminality.

The scientific community and global governments are talking about SRM and Geoengineering as if they are not ALREADY doing it. They have been doing it for several years!! And while it may be a "cheap and easy" temporary solution,as it is dimming the sun, it is having enormous consequences on human health and the overall environment!!! Spraying aluminum, barium and numerous other toxins into the air to comat pollution is NOT THE ANSWER!!!! They arr only making the problem worse!!! And polluting every aspect of life on earth!!!!! Go to geoengineeringwatch.org for a list of patents and documents that verify all this!! And look up!!!!

Alex - it's a pleasure to see an article on Geo-E that is more thoughtful than the usual hatchet-jobs on this subject.

While I fully agree the need for rapid global emissions control as the primary requirement, there are some points where I'd differ with your post above.

First, with regard to SRMGI, while the need of UN governance is patently clear, the idea of applying SRM without CDR is evidently impractical - as it would leave us dangerously addicted to SRM - whose interruption for any reason would then cause a massive temperature swing within 2 or 3 years even with effective emissions control keeping CO2 below 500ppm. From this perspective, CDR is inevitably required alongside SRM to gradually cleanse the atmosphere of anthro-CO2 and to recover that re-emitted by the oceans. This in turn means that it is not SRM that requires a Governance Initiative but the broader practical goal of applying both modes of geo-engineering. At what point SRMGI will acknowledge this evident need by taking a new title - such as "Geo-Engineering Options Governance Initiative [GEOGI] - remains to be seen.

Second, the terms used for both modes of Geo-E seem notably suboptimal. Carbon Dioxide Removal is vague in its goal (removal to where ?) and of doubtful accuracy - it is the carbon component of CO2 that is problematic, not the oxygen, and attempting to recover CO2 rather than carbon multiplies the vast tonnage involved by a factor of 3.664. With regard to SRM, the aim is to restore planetary albedo by some means to a previous natural level sufficient to offset the warming from anthro-GHGs, and the effort to advance rational discussion of this needs the term 'radiation' in its title like a hole in the head. From this perspective, reviewing the two modes' titles could be very helpful in framing the discussion constructively - I'd suggest that at best they should be termed 'Carbon Recovery' and 'Albedo Restoration'.

Third, while there is robust evidence that even together Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration could not avoid catastrophic effects from continued or rising GHG emissions, there is robust and mounting evidence that the conventional view that they would function as a 'safety net' in the event of a future failure to mitigate emissions is sorely mistaken. Taking a best case of Emissions Control as being a global near-zero GHG output by 2050, we should then see timelagged warming continue at least to the 2080s (due to the oceans' thermal inertia), exacerbated by the loss of the cooling 'fossil sulphate parasol' with the ending of our fossil sulphate emissions. This would allow at least 70 years of continuous warming to drive the eight Major Interactive Feedbacks [MIFs] that are observed to be accelerating to advance well beyond the point of their outputs fully offsetting our Emissions Control.

For the record, those eight MIFs can be listed as Water Vapour Increase, Albedo Loss, Fertilized Peatbog Decay, Ocean Sink Decline, Permafrost Melt, Forest Loss, Soil Desiccation and Methane Hydrates Melt. All of these are non-linear in their acceleration except Water Vapour Loss which rises proportionately to surface air temperature [SAT] warming at 7% per 1.0C.

All of them are interactive not only via delayed SAT warming but also via the three main 'driven amplifiers' as well as by very numerous direct driver couplings with little or no timelag. (An example of the latter is the Albedo Loss from arctic sea-ice decline causing warmer winds to blow from the ocean whose signature has been recorded in the raised rate of Permafrost Melt 1500kms from the coast).

In terms of their present outputs Albedo Loss appears the most advanced of the MIFs, with the recent PNAS paper reporting that its CO2 equivalent warming [CO2_eq] due to arctic sea-ice decline between '79 and 2012 was equal to 25% of that from anthro-CO2 emissions for the period - which amounted to about 64ppm. Given that there was only marginal Albedo Loss prior to 1979, this implies that its present rate of increase of Albedo Loss is roughly on a par with a new China's-worth of annual emissions - with the difference being that there is of course no prospect of constructive negotiation with natural phenomena.

When the best case of Emissions Control is seen from the perspective of the MIFs' present and potential CO2_eq impact, it is very clear that we are actually already past the point where mitigation by Emissions Control alone could resolve the problem of AGW. The application of both modes of Geo-E is thus inevitably required, meaning that the development of UN governance of the options' research and potential accreditation via a mandated scientific agency is an urgent priority, and should be agreed at the Paris Conference in 2015.

That urgency is underlined not only by the uncertainty of how many years research will be required for an Albedo Restoration option to warrant accreditation for its application to be considered by the UN member states -
(the Carbon Recovery option of native afforestation for Biochar soil-fertility enhancer is relatively well proven in trials in dozens of countries)
but also by the period of the oceans' thermal inertia meaning that warming of seabed methane hydrates would continue for around four decades after the start of Albedo Restoration, and we have no means of telling how great an output of methane (with a CO2-eq of 86 over the crucial 20yr horizon) that will generate. We cannot tell how great an acceleration of this feedback we are already committed to and so from a precautionary motivation the application of Geo-E, and so the development of its requisite governance, is surely of the highest priority.

Regards,

Lewis Cleverdon

Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful response, Lewis.

Your post brings up important scientific questions about the warming to which we have already committed the planet, and the risks associated with possible thresholds or “tipping points” in the climate system. In addition to the regular reports on climate science and policy from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), The Royal Society’s report on geoengineering tackles some of the questions you pose, and is a useful resource on the science of geoengineering.

You are right to suggest that definitions of “geoengineering” and its associated technologies continue to be debated, and probably will be for some time. While SRMGI focuses on governance of research into solar geoengineering (“solar radiation management” (SRM)), other initiatives examine governance of a wider range of geoengineering approaches, including CDR. Since CDR and SRM differ in their techniques and potential impacts, it’s worth considering how the governance regimes needed for them may differ.

You also bring up key questions about the appropriate forums and timing for governance of geoengineering research (and possible deployment). Who participates, who decides, at what time, and based on what criteria?

The current patchwork of international institutions does not provide a comprehensive governance framework for geoengineering research or deployment. For a survey of the existing landscape of institutions, and treaties that may be most relevant to SRM governance, see Appendix III of SRMGI’s report “Solar Radiation Management: the governance of research.

International governance regimes for geoengineering research and (if decided at a later date) deployment may be desirable, but are more likely to be effective if the groundwork is prepared by informed discussions among diverse constituencies at the local, sub-national, national, and regional level. That’s why SRMGI focuses on expanding the conversation about SRM research governance to regions and where public engagement with geoengineering science and policy is currently low, but potential impacts from any geoengineering activities and climate change might be high. Engaging with key stakeholders in these settings should help create the conditions necessary for a considered and cooperative future international dialogue on more formalized systems of governance.

For instance, SRMGI has collaborated with academic and non-governmental organizations to host a series of regional workshops about SRM research governance, including in Singapore, India, China, and Pakistan. In 2012 and 2013, SRMGI and the African Academy of Sciences hosted workshops in Senegal, South Africa and Ethiopia. Participants in SRMGI workshops in Africa are exploring the possibility of establishing expert working groups and SRM research governance “centers of excellence” in African universities. You can read more about the African workshops here.

Efforts to build local capacity will help developing countries to make their own decisions about SRM research governance, informed by their own experts and stakeholders. In turn, linkages among well-informed local efforts focused on establishing appropriate research governance mechanisms may assist with the cooperative development of a set of “Model Governance Guidelines” or other more formalized systems at the international level.

The next report from the IPCC, scheduled to be released next week, will focus on mitigation of climate change, and should shed more light on some of the questions you pose. It will assess “all relevant options” to reduce emissions and enhance removal of carbon from the atmosphere. While it is expected to include further analysis of geoengineering technologies, it will focus on the global community’s options to tackle the key challenge that we face: reducing our climate pollution.

Thanks again for your post, Lewis.