We need a global geoengineering watchdog, researchers say
- 14 Aug 2013, 15:00
- Mat Hope
Credit: Hugh Hunt
A new international organisation will be needed to
help nations manage geoengineering efforts,
new research predicts, because trying to deliberately alter the
planet's climate raises a raft of tricky issues.
Climate engineering (or geoengineering) technologies aim to
manipulate the earth's climate, generally either by taking carbon
dioxide out of the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight away from the
Most of the technologies work
in theory and some have been
tested on a small scale. But at the moment, issues of cost,
unforeseen consequences and politics mean geoengineering remains a
largely untried area.
Nonetheless, the new study's authors from the Berlin Social
Science Research Centre are convinced such climate engineering will
play an important role in future efforts to address climate change.
With that in mind, they're thinking about not just which
technologies could work, but what systems of governance will be
needed to make geoengineering happen.
Climate engineering paradox
The researchers concentrate on two technologies which they say
could have a big impact on global temperatures, and which could be
cheap enough for a single or small group of countries to implement:
'stratospheric particle injection' and 'marine cloud
Stratospheric particle injection requires spraying tiny airborne
particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the
earth, and reduce warming. The system works by attaching a pipe to
a balloon that is tethered to a boat, as the picture below shows.
Not totally sci-fi, then, (although it would be the largest
man-made structure in the world).
Source: Cambridge University, Stratospheric Particle
Injection for Climate Engineering press
The second option is also relatively low-tech. Cloud brightening
involves spraying sea water into clouds to scatter micro-droplets
which reflect more sunlight, and reduce warming. The main piece of
kit is a ship that can spray water high into the sky.
Both of these methods are relatively cheap - certainly within
the range of governments to carry out. That makes them worth
thinking about, the authors say. They also argue - perhaps because
they would be relatively easy to implement - that these are the
technologies most likely to meet political opposition.
Both techniques raise some tricky legal and political questions.
The technologies need to be sited in international waters, which no
one country has control over. That makes it harder for any nation
take the leap to fund the research and construction and deploy the
technologies, the researchers say. And the potential side-effects
of the technologies are also still uncertain, meaning environmental
campaigners and governments not involved in building the
technologies may object to their use.
So even if the technologies work in a technical sense, there
could be political obstacles to rolling them out on a
International climate engineering agency
The researchers suggest the answer to these issues is to create
a new international climate engineering agency. The agency's job
would be to coordinate countries' efforts and manage research
The researchers suggest the agency could put climate engineering
regulations in place through the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which currently oversees the
Kyoto protocol and other international climate treaties. It also
suggests the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - which is
currently tasked with amalgamating climate science research - could
help bring the best climate engineering research together, and the
papers authors point out to us that the IPCC is expected to include
a chapter on climate engineering in its upcoming Fifth Assessment
Some climate policy wonks may shudder at the thought of giving
responsibility for geoengineering to either of these bodies. But
creating a new institutional structure isn't easy. The UNFCCC has
been criticised for being
ineffective, and the IPCC has a narrow remit to synthesise
climate science research.
But one of the paper's authors, Stefan Schäfer, argues that in
the absence of any concrete guidance on climate engineering
practices, this institutional setup is the most likely to work. He
"The triangular set up between UNFCCC,
IPCC and climate engineering agency is intended to address the
expected resistance to climate engineering by providing a
governance structure that can deal with the many worrisome issues
associated with this topic. Setting up such an agency from scratch
would be difficult, but this would not necessarily have to be the
case; it could also evolve from existing structures".
Setting up rules and regulations to guide government actions is
always a tricky business. So when a new issue comes along, it's
worth looking ahead.
This study considers future political obstacles now in the hope
it will prevent climate engineering solutions being shot down
before they've even got off the ground. Creating a new
international agency could be one way to keep the plans alive.