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Engineering the climate: Understanding the technologies and policy implications

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Written by Marion Davis

Friday, 02 December 2011 17:12

One option being considered is pumping aerosol particles into the stratosphere to mimic the effects of a volcano eruption such as this one, of Sarychev Peak on the Kuril Islands, in 2009. FLICKR/NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

SEI research fellow Clarisse Kehler Siebert is a co-author of a UNESCO-SCOPE-UNEP policy brief that outlines key research questions and ethical, social and political challenges.

In the face of increasingly dire climate-change projections, and with carbon emissions continuing to rise, there is a growing interest in large-scaled, engineered interventions to remove carbon from the atmosphere and/or reduce the amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth and warms it.

So-called “geoengineering” is highly controversial, but that has not stanched interest in exploring the options – from “artificial trees” that can suck carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, to “ocean fertilization” (adding nutrients to the water to encourage algae to grow and absorb carbon), to pumping light-scattering aerosols into the stratosphere to mimic the effect of volcanic eruptions.

Aiming to foster a thoughtful and informed discussion of geoengineering, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hosted a workshop in Paris in November 2010 to explore both science and policy considerations.

Now, on occasion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, UNESCO has released a policy brief that builds on that discussion and on an ongoing research collaboration between SEI, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) on the science and governance of geoengineering.

Taking a global perspective
The brief was released after a side-event on 2 December that encouraged discussion of the implications of geoengineering for Africa in particular.

“We had identified a need to engage a global set of policymakers in this debate, not just those from countries where geoengineering research is taking place,” says Clarisse Kehler Siebert, an SEI research fellow who co-authored the policy brief and spoke at the side-event.

“There is definitely an information gap,” Kehler Siebert adds. “Although a recent Canadian study shows that a surprising number of people in the United States, Canada and Britain know about geoengineering, that is not a global sampling. The implications are global in nature, however, so information should be available and decisions should be made at the global level.”

Kehler Siebert stresses that the goal of the policy brief was not to gauge whether geoengineering is viable or scientifically feasible, but to demonstrate the social, ethical, environmental and political challenges that motivate a call for global governance of geoengineering research.

Solar and carbon geoengineering
The policy brief, released through UNESCO’s SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment) programme and the United Nations Environment Programme, distinguishes between two main kinds of proposed interventions: “solar geoengineering” or solar radiation management (SRM), and “carbon geoengineering”, which involves CO2 removal.

Within those broad categories, the brief identifies different technologies under consideration, and notes the social, ethical, legal and political challenges they raise. The authors do not take a position on which, if any, technologies are good or bad, but they do argue strongly for a global governance structure for geoengineering research, and they call for the engagement of people all around the world – not just in a handful of countries – in ongoing policy debates.

“While many of us wish no future role for geoengineering in addressing climate change, the fact is that the ideas exist and research will be pursued,” Kehler Siebert says. “And given the lack of progress in mitigating and adaptation to climate change so far, it may be irresponsible not to try to better understand geoengineering options – if only to learn they are not an alternative to mitigation and adaptation.”

As with nuclear weapons, she adds, “geoengineering can’t just be ignored, and it won’t disappear if we try to ban it. Therefore, developing a form of global governance of research seems like a more pragmatic response.”

Learn more and download the policy brie

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