Geoengineering on a Desperate Planet — UN Declares Global Moratorium

By Stephen Leahy

NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 25, 2010 (Tierramérica)

[Update 30 October 2 am. Global moratorium passes.]

Delegates to the world summit on biodiversity here are calling for a moratorium on climate engineering research, like the idea of putting huge mirrors in outer space to reflect some of the sun’s heating rays away from the planet.

Climate engineering or geoengineering refers to any large-scale, human- made effort to manipulate the planet to adapt to climate change.

Representatives from Africa and Asia expressed concern about the negative impacts of geoengineering during the opening week of the 10th Conference of Parties (COP 10) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Oct. 18-29. They were joined by civil society organisations in calling for a moratorium on geoengineering experiments.

The geoengineering proposals include installing giant vertical pipes in the ocean to bring cold water to the surface, pumping vast amounts of sulphates into the stratosphere to block sunlight, or blowing ocean salt spray into clouds to increase their reflectivity.

The geoengineering proposals include installing giant vertical pipes in the ocean to bring cold water to the surface, pumping vast amounts of sulphates into the stratosphere to block sunlight, or blowing ocean salt spray into clouds to increase their reflectivity.

Broadly speaking, there are two main geoengineering approaches: solar radiation management and carbon sequestration, in other words, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the concentration of this greenhouse-effect gas.

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To manage the sun’s rays, there are ideas like releasing sulphates into the atmosphere or placing giant mirrors in outer space. For absorbing carbon, the possible approaches include ocean fertilisation, in which iron or nitrogen is added to seawater to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton to sequester the carbon deep in the ocean.

“Some of the proponents of these technologies think it’s easier to ‘manage the sun’ than get people to take a bus” to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organisation headquartered in Canada. [etc “Geopiracy” report]

“Politicians in rich countries see geoengineering as ‘Plan B’ so they don’t have to make the hard choices of reducing emissions causing climate change,” Mooney told Tierramérica.

No longer the realm of crackpots, geoengineering is fast becoming the subject of serious scientific discussion and commercial interest.

In 2007, Tierramérica broke a story that a U.S. company, Planktos Inc., was going to dump 100 tonnes of iron dust into the ocean near Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands — a sanctuary for studying unique species and their evolution — without the consent of the Ecuadorian government.

If it was able to prove that the technique absorbed carbon dioxide, Planktos hoped to sell carbon credits for the carbon it sequestered. The project was stopped and the company soon ended its research in this area.

The following year the CBD agreed to a moratorium on further ocean fertilisation attempts.

Earlier this year, the CBD’s scientific body proposed a ban on all climate- related geoengineering activities.

However, given the ongoing failure to reach an international agreement to curb emissions of the gases causing climate change, there has been renewed scientific and political interest in these experiments.

Britain’s Royal Society, a highly respected global network that includes the world’s most eminent scientists, now defends geoengineering research.

“We oppose a moratorium because we don’t want to restrict scientific research into geoengineering,” said John Shepherd, a climate scientist at the National Oceanography Centre of the University of Southampton, and Royal Society fellow.

“Climate change could get to the point of ‘desperate times requiring desperate measures’ and therefore we should be ready with some good research on what might help,” said Shepherd, author of the 2009 Royal Society report on geoengineering.

That report concluded that such technologies may well be necessary to cool the planet if efforts to reduce carbon emissions fail.

Research is needed to determine the hazards and effectiveness of any geoengineering idea, he told Tierramérica in an interview.

“Deployment of any geoengineering now would be incredibly premature,” he said, and noted that this is the current opinion of the Royal Society as well.

In November, the Royal Society will hold a symposium in London entitled “Geoengineering: Taking Control of Our Planet’s Climate.”

Injecting sulphates into the atmosphere is attractive to policy-makers because its costs are much lower than reducing carbon emissions, writes Clive Hamilton, of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Australian National University.

While acknowledging that no country advocates geoengineering, these schemes “avoid the need to raise petrol taxes, permit yet more unrestrained growth, and pose no threat to consumer lifestyles,” stated Hamilton, the author of a new book on climate change titled “Requiem for a Species.”

The ETC Group documents progress on various ideas to control the climate in its report, “Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering,” presented Oct. 19 in Nagoya. The report asks, “Who has the right to set the global thermostat?”

“Developing countries understand that they can’t trust the rich countries that have failed to reduce their emissions to control the global thermostat,” said Mooney.

The potential impacts on the global weather system of such attempts to cool the planet are impossible to assess, he added.

In his opinion, what is needed is a moratorium on open-air experiments in geoengineering to allow time for an international discussion about the potential biodiversity, social, and economic impacts.

Delegates in Nagoya are hotly debating the wording of a moratorium. A representative from Brazil told Tierramérica that it has become a big issue for countries like Canada that are firmly opposed to any ban or moratorium on geoengineering experiments.

Stumping for the moratorium is the ETC Group’s Silvia Ribeiro, who asserted in a Tierramérica interview: “Geoengineering is not a solution to the problem of climate change. It could only be considered in an emergency and therefore can never be for-profit or part of any carbon market.”

via CLIMATE CHANGE: Geoengineering for a Desperate Planet – IPS

3 thoughts on “Geoengineering on a Desperate Planet — UN Declares Global Moratorium

  1. While a moratorium on the deployment of Albido Restoration options is plainly essential, (they are mostly under-researched, some are potentially dangerous, and all lack effective global governance)
    such a delay on Carbon Recovery options is patently non-sensical.

    To the extent that people are planting trees, and ensuring the regrowth of harvested woodlands, and increasing the rotational grazing of livestock, etc, carbon recovery is already under way. Plainly the more rapidly it can, sustainably, be accelerated, the better.

    The core issue regarding Geo-E (that is almost entirely ignored in debates thus far) is that even a radical termination of global GHG outputs, of say 98% by 2040, is patently insufficient to avoid the airborne stocks of anthro-GHGs driving the diverse interactive accelerating feedback loops past the point of causing irreversible catastrophic climate destabilization.

    In light of this observation, Geo-E is not optional but requisite to maintaining a habitable global climate. And, given the many decades required for Carbon Recovery to cleanse the atmosphere, effective Albido Restoration will be necessary in the interim as a temporary measure.

    Thus the fear of corrupt wealthy nations’ abuse of Geo-E (as a plan B to avoid the duty of ending GHG outputs) should not be allowed to obstruct the research of both Geo-E approaches, nor the equally urgent development of the global governance capacity that individual technologies’ selection and deployment will require.

    Until the opponents of Geo-E get their heads around the need for focussed opposition to specific untenable technologies and motivations, they will continue IMHO to be doing at least as much harm as good.



    • Lewis, the article makes the point that the moratorium allows research into Geo-E to continue. It is not an outright ban but a time-out to have a global discussion to sort out all of the issues, upsides and downsides.

      surely that makes good sense. And Geo-E may be needed as you suggest, but only as a last resort one hopes.

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