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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 earth.

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 brightening'.

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).

SPICE atmospheric particles
Source: Cambridge University, Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering press release

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 large-scale.

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 funding.

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 Report (AR5).

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 says:

"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".

Thinking ahead

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.

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