This piece is part of the essay series, Towards a Low-Carbon and Climate-Resilient World: Expectations from COP26
As delegates gather for the 26th
Conference of Parties (COP26) at Glasgow, a series of challenges stand in the way of effective decision-making with regard to achieving the Paris Agreement goals. With ‘net zero’ becoming the new norm in global climate governance, more and more national governments and other stakeholders are jumping on this bandwagon – primarily for gaining legitimacy in the international climate order, but also for bringing in long-term structural changes domestically to transition the economy towards greener path. These targets have invariably put the focus on negative emission technologies (NETs) and other geoengineering techniques such as Solar Radiation Management (SRM).
At the same time, the latest challenge is the global energy crisis that has engulfed the entire world
, particularly the large emitters, including the United States (US), European Union (EU), and China. In the past few months, the rhetoric of “post-COVID green recovery” has been feverishly peddled
by various international and regional organisations as well as national governments and corporations. However, the ongoing global energy crisis has put the focus back on fossil fuels – more coal, oil, and gas. This has serious implications for future climate action. Under these circumstances, the reliance on geoengineering is expected to grow, as countries attempt to achieve their net-zero targets. It is imperative that at COP26, developing countries demand greater action from the developed countries in mitigation and adaptation. They should also set the agenda for discussing and implementing an equitable governance structure to regulate the use of these technologies on a large scale.
The worsening of the climate crisis and the use of ‘climate emergency’ frames have led to reinvigorated appeals for more emboldened action under the Paris Agreement.
Action Beyond Mitigation: Promises and Risks
Climate mitigation (emission reduction technologies) is the most traditional form of climate action that countries have historically made high investments for. However, the worsening of the climate crisis and the use of ‘climate emergency’ frames
have led to reinvigorated appeals for more emboldened action under the Paris Agreement. Therefore, discussions on climate engineering–for example, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) or SRM (large-scale interventions in the climate and environment)–are gaining momentum
, particularly in the industrialised countries. After all, the research and development (R&D) in this field is heavily dominated by North American and Western European institutions.<1>
Emerging economies such as China
have also begun to look into these options more seriously.
Along with the well-publicised benefits, the risks associated with the use of these technologies are numerous. For instance, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a NET, if used on a large scale could have adverse repercussions on land use (including land grab and associated conflicts), and food and water security. It is also less energy efficient in comparison to fossil fuels
and involve collateral emissions from transportation, land use change, and other activities. Similarly, marine geoengineering techniques such as ocean iron fertilisation (OIF) – on which the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has imposed a de facto moratorium based on the precautionary principle – could result in eutrophication, which can have long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems
. In another case, stratospheric aerosol injection, one of the most controversial geoengineering techniques involving reflection of sunlight back into space
by reflective particles, could have uncertain, unintended effects on global and regional climates.
Geopolitics of Geoengineering
Whatever may be the existing risks and perceptions about the above-mentioned and other geoengineering methods and technologies, the likelihood of their deployment on a large scale is extremely high. Besides, as decisions on carbon credit mechanisms to achieve Paris Agreement goals (2°C or 1.5°C) are still being worked out by countries
, some of these technologies and methods (other than the more common reforestation and afforestation) may ultimately be used to offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Paris Agreement provides ample scope for the use of CDR-related technologies
“in order to achieve the long-term temperature goal…so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity.” Nevertheless, in the past, several countries including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil have thwarted efforts to introduce a resolution in the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA)
on geoengineering governance.
Across the globe, concerns with regard to fairness, equity, and justice are inherent in the adoption of geoengineering technologies. Indeed, the dominance of the industrialised countries in both technological R&D and discussions on futuristic governance frameworks raises apprehensions about the fair representation of the positions of the developing and least developed countries. Some of the most vulnerable countries such as Pacific small island states have consistently called for greater focus on mitigation efforts, transparency into geoengineering R&D, and governance structures (“regulatory and enforceable”) before testing and implementation.<2> Indian policymakers have also expressed their concerns about potential unilateral action by the developed countries
in terms of the development and deployment of these methods, which could jeopardise the interests of developing countries.
Several countries including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil have thwarted efforts to introduce a resolution in the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) on geoengineering governance.
The geoengineering methods and technologies could further widen the North-South divide
, by dividing the world into haves and have-nots or winners and losers. The existing asymmetry in the international climate order–a result of the innumerable “broken promises” of the wealthy countries on emission reduction, finance, and technology–will work to the disadvantage of the developing countries. The developing world would not be in a position to steer consultations on geoengineering due to the lack of knowledge, capacity, and legitimate multilateral forums. Interestingly, there are also cases of how geoengineering have often been showcased by a few scientists as a means of instilling equity into the international climate regime as it is purported to have the ability to reduce temperatures faster than climate mitigation and may be relatively cheaper than adaptation over a longer period. According to this perspective, rich countries should focus on these technologies in connection with “their responsibilities to the global poor
in dealing with the inequities of climate change.”
The prospects of geoengineering are equally marred by fears around the potential militarisation of these technologies. SRM for example, has been linked with potential military use by adversarial countries. Today the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), signed in 1977 and enforced in 1978, may be in a position to prevent the use of such technologies for military purposes. However, this convention does not address “peaceful” use of environmental modification techniques. Therefore, there is no mechanism yet to enforce compliance and accountability when countries deploy geoengineering technologies
within their national boundaries to tackle climate change, but may have cascading negative effects on the neighbouring countries.
In effect, there have also been attempts to design security frameworks to govern geoengineering based on “just geoengineering theory”. This, in turn, is based on deployment of geoengineering by legitimate, competent authorities
(to prevent rogue actors from using them); and outweighing of negative ecological impacts by positive ones.
The Future of Geoengineering Governance
In the past few years, the international community has moved from debating whether or not to conduct geoengineering research (particularly solar geoengineering) to discussing how such research can be more representative, interdisciplinary, multicultural, transparent, and legitimate. There is also a palpable shift from merely considering geoengineering as a ‘last resort’ to a technology that may be regarded as complementary to traditional pillars of climate action
–i.e., mitigation and adaptation. However, since the complexities of risk and uncertainty are yet to be resolved, ethical considerations continue to dominate the anti-geoengineering debates.
There exist a few arguments that question the role of regulations in restricting geoengineering research. These voices, mostly from the scientific community, are against politicisation of the debate
, which according to them could delay genuine and effective means of preventing runaway climate change. While one may argue that there is still not enough scientific evidence to villainise geoengineering, the international community cannot dismiss the potential risks associated with it based on incomplete information and several unknowns. Diplomacy is the best way forward for tackling these shortcomings.
There is still not enough scientific evidence to villainise geoengineering, the international community cannot dismiss the potential risks associated with it based on incomplete information and several unknowns.
Any future use of geoengineering technologies would have to take into consideration the foundation principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)–including the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC). A consensus-based UNFCCC can potentially aid the establishment of an equitable regulatory governance mechanism to lay down the norms, principles, and rules to guide the governance of these technologies, while countries deliberate upon their net-zero targets. So far, there has been pushback against the introduction of various geoengineering technologies under the UNFCCC, thereby opening room for other multilateral frameworks such as the CBD, International Court of Justice (ICJ), London Protocol on the Prevention of Marine Pollution, and UNEA.<3>
Accountability, oversight, and transparency are critical to geoengineering governance. There is an urgent requirement to integrate the principles of equity and justice into multilateral and regional frameworks to address geoengineering-related concerns
, as well as re-emphasise anticipatory governance with respect to certain technologies such as solar geoengineering.
Developing countries that already have put in place a research base in this field (such as India) should be at the forefront of demanding a governance framework based on an inclusive approach. Developing and least developed countries can build a common stance on the issue through joint efforts to understand the risks and benefits associated with geoengineering, uncertainties and costs, environmental and socio-economic implications, and geopolitical repercussions. On many issues such as long-term impacts on climate, feasibility and unintended effects, there are gaps in research that need to be filled. With sustained efforts targeted at knowledge production and capacity-building, these countries can recommend governance mechanisms, involving formal processes and instruments.
Download the PDF of the report here.
Frank Biermann and Ina Möller, “Rich man’s solution? Climate engineering discourses and the marginalization of the Global South,” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics
19 (2019): 151–167.
K. Beyerl and A. Maas, Perspectives on climate engineering from Pacific small island states
(Potsdam: Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, 2014).
Janos Pasztor et al., Geoengineering: The need for governance
(New York: Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, 2019).
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