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Research on Geoengineering

Research on Geoengineering

28 June 2010

Dr. Camilla Bausch and Benjamin Görlach (Ecologic Institute) along with Dr. Susanne Dröge German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik hosted the 15th Climate Talk in June 2010 on ‘Research on Geoengineering’ and the necessary framework for or limitations of such research activities. Ralph Bodle (Ecologic Institute), Elmar Kriegler (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) and Friederike Herrmann (Environment Protection Agency, UBA) opened the discussion with key statements on the issue.

‘Geoengineering’ describes a set of measures for changing climate conditions. Such activities can change natural CO2-cycles, e.g. through artificial photosynthesis or ocean fertilization, or cool the atmosphere (solar radiation management), e.g. through sulphur injection into the atmosphere, artificial clouds or changing the albedo effect from white surfaces (from roofs or from large-scale land use changes). All of these measures are currently being considered or tested and are subject to large uncertainties and potential risks that can potentially already occur during the experimental testing stage. The Climate Talk took up the debate on whether research activities on geoengineering should be limited and/or subject to a legal framework at various governance levels and discussed the kind of framing that would be necessary and useful in this regard.

Ralph Bodle (Ecologic Institute) outlined the reasons for considering regulating geoengineering research. First, such research can have transnational consequences for nature and natural phenomena, including ethical issues. Second, researchers could have an interest in such regulation due to their wish to separate different large-scale tests in order to properly evaluate the results, needing clearly defined coordination. In part, this could contradict the demand for having freedom in research. To date, there is no regulation for geoengineering in place; instead, a number of relevant general principles and rules exist, e.g. environmental liability law or space law. Some of these rules are, however, retrospective and are enforced after the damage has already been done. Thus, a major challenge would be to implement ex ante rules to prevent irreversible damages. Rules for nuclear engineering research or genetic engineering could serve as guidelines. If there is no option to define geoengineering as such, a regulation needs to be technology-based, including ex ante and ex post elements. Last but not least, there needs to be an international institutional setting for a regulatory approach.

Elmar Kriegler brought up that geoengineering should be put in the context of massive human interventions into the climate system already caused by past emissions, which are – contrary to geoengineering activities– not intended. Moreover, the debate should focus on whether geoengineering is another option parallel to mitigation and adaptation activities. He observed an often underlying assumption in the US debates that the climate challenge will be manageable only if geoengineering is part of the plan. This assumption should be challenged. A first concept for defining geoengineering could focus on separating the targeted interventions in the Earth system, which address the already accumulated GHG, from those activities which try to mitigate GHG. From a technical point of view, major differences amongst the various methodologies stem from the costs incurred, the intensity of their effects and their duration. Short-term effects coud create a need to repeat interventions, thus creating additional risks. Research on different techniques could be conducted using computer simulations, which would create only minor risks. The challenge therefore would be with measures that need to be undertaken in "real world" conditions, if small-scale experiments are not sufficient. Accordingly, international regulation is needed; such regulation is even more important in terms of enabling third countries to raise their voices. Kriegler also pointed out that regulation could help to prevent a technology race with unforeseen effects for third parties.

Friederike Hermann elaborated on the uncertainty about the applicability of and knowledge about geoengineering and its effectiveness. All of the concepts aiming to stop climate change by using engineering methods are at an infant state. Most tests which have been conducted thus far have illustrated the dimension of the unknown as well as the uncertainties. In order to evaluate geoengineering research, she supports using criteria relating to impacts on human beings and the environment. Last but not least, she highlighted the risk that a rising political acceptance of geoengineering as a solution to climate change would lead to a certain demand for such tools, even though the actual impacts remain unknown. Moreover, there is a need to bring up the societal consensus and discussions about the ethical dimension. For an international setting, a pooling and registration of research activities could be a first step. At the national level, some risk assessment should be part of that research in coordination with impact research projects.

The Climate Talk debate addressed a large number of issues, including the question of timing for a general public debate on geoengineering and the related research. Many participants highlighted the triangle of policy, civil society and research beyond closed circles as an adequate format. Moreover, the lack of critical debates on new and risky technologies was brought up, including the different perceptions of the US and the EU on such issues. A general hint that there is a high risk in doing geoengineering research will serve as an argument for researchers to do more, not less research in this field. Some saw the potential of having a further ‘ideological’ division of climate policy and geoengineering discussions.

The interactions between geoengineering research and mitigation and adaptation were part of the exchange at the Climate Talk. Geoengineering as such is part of a debate on system transformations, e.g. of the energy system. Given the limited availability of research funds, there could be trade-offs between the different climate research activities. Regulation could thus also serve to prioritise the research agendas. As a first step, national research rules seem to be useful; such rules would then need to be part of an international consensus. Germany and the EU face the challenge of influencing the activities of other large countries.

Elmar Kriegler (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research)
Friederike Hermann (Federal Environment Agency)
28 June 2010
Berlin, Germany
Number of Participants
Geoengineering, climate engineering, international law, regulation, research, climate change, climate policy, innovation, international affairs, precautionary principle, liability, chemicals