Global Warming and Geoengineering

A blog by Beatrice Oluoch, SI UN Representative, Nairobi

“A pre-UNEA 4 event, hosted by The Carnegie Climate Engineering Governance Initiative (C2G2), was held on 6 March 2019. The topic for discussion was Learning to govern geoengineering: insights from different experiences on environmental governance.

When I first looked at the topic, I was hesitant to attend the event because, one – it sounded really technical, and two – I had no idea what ‘geoengineering’ was all about. However after checking with the guru of all information i.e. ‘google’, I decided it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the topical issues concerning climate change and global warming.

The effects of climate change and global warming are all around us. Extreme temperatures are being recorded around the globe.

We experienced this first hand during the UNEA 4 Conference. In the span of only one week (11 – 18 March), coinciding with UNEA4, thousands of lives were lost in disasters related to climate change. For instance 58 people perished in Indonesia’s Papua floods, and 500,000 others were displaced and relocated; over 300 people died in the Tropical Cyclone Idai that hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawim leaving a trail of devastation in its wake, particularly in Mozambique and Zimbabwe; current extreme weather conditions in Kenya have caused famine in some regions, and pose a big threat to both human and animal life.

March 11, 2019. Nairobi Kenya. Opening of UNEA Plenary Session. Left to right : Keriako Tobiko, Minister of Environment and Foresty, Joyce Msuya, Assistant Secretary General and UN Environment Acting Executive Director. UNEP/CYRIL VILLEMAIN Link

I was not disappointed and at the end of the 2-hour session had leant a thing or two from the various presenters, panel and audience including:

  • Geoengineering aims to alleviate the impact of climate change through the deliberate large scale intervention or manipulation of the earth’s climate system, usually with the aim of mitigating the adverse effects of global warming;
  • There are various geoengineering options, however the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), makes reference to 2 geoengineering approaches under review; these include mitigation measures such as large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and remediative measures known as Solar Radiation Modification(SRM);
  • Whereas CDR aims to reduce atmospheric concentrations of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, through processes that remove it from the atmosphere by either increasing biological sinks of CO2, or by using chemical processes to directly bind CO2; SRM aims to reduce global warming by reflecting more solar radiation into space, or by allowing more heat to escape the earth’s atmosphere;
  • Over the past decade, the idea of intentionally trying to engineer the earth’s climate has began to receive increasing attention from academics, national institutions, governments and intergovernmental organisations;
  • Both approaches mentioned face big uncertainties around feasibility, acceptability, sustainability and governance;
  • There are deep concerns that deployment of the technologies on a large scale could have significant impact in many areas. These include natural ecosystems; food systems; biodiversity and other ecosystem functions and services; competition for agricultural land;  biodiversity loss and ground water pollution; changes in precipitation patterns and the ecological balance of the oceans, and more. All this would therefore require governance systems;
  • The technologies pose risks to humanity, as well as environmental and geo-political risks of unilateral action if a country or group of countries decide to act on their own; risk of termination impact if the technologies are commenced and then stopped; risks in storing e.g carbon dioxide and transporting it to places where it can be stored;
  • There are concerns about the potential impact of technologies on vulnerable communities; concerns that their initiation could potentially divert interest or investment away from green house gas emissions mitigation, and concerns around a technological race that might emerge in this area;
  • There is ethical opposition to interference with nature;
  • Substantial knowledge gaps exist around the feasibility, costs, and benefits of different geoengineering approaches, including whether or not they would be effective at alleviating the negative impacts of climate change, and how they might affect delivery of sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These gaps will need to be addressed if discussions of governance are to be sufficiently well informed;
  • There is a need to understand the cost benefit of each technology in each situation given that even though the technologies resolve some problems, they also create other problems, for instance reducing emissions through energy passage (via SRM) has the adverse effect of reducing productivity and affecting biodiversity and changing the conditions which affect ecological balance and its diversity;

The biggest uncertainty is the lack of consensus on what should be governed.

However, governance is key to providing the means for deciding, managing, implementing and monitoring policies and measures, and in this regard governance of large-scale CDR and SRM would therefore primarily provide the means for deciding whether or not to engage with such options.

Governance of large scale CDR or SRM will have to be designed to ensure its support for sustainable development to substantially reduce the risk of negative impacts, and include the possibility to prevent or ban use. As the effects of global warming become increasingly apparent, a precautionary approach – whether or not to consider large-scale CDR or SRM as part of broader risk management response to climate change – is becoming a serious governance issue. A governance mechanism that evolves in parallel to scientific research is needed in view of the uncertainties and knowledge gaps. Members of the international community need to consider the policy issues that large-scale CDR and SRM raise, with a view to developing international governance.

An inclusive approach to such deliberation will require the engagement of various levels of government, non-governmental and civil society actors, ensuring sufficient alignment to establish societal legitimacy for any proposed governance framework and decisions taken within it. This could be achieved through a process of learning and knowledge-sharing within and between governments and other actors (in particular those representing less developed countries, indigenous and local communities) to increase understanding and inform future decision-making on governance.

 

During UNEA 4, Switzerland submitted a draft resolution for consideration, approval and adoption under the heading ‘Geoengineering and its Governance’. The draft resolution proposed a global assessment of potential risks and benefits of geoengineering technologies. However due to a lack of consensus and agreement, Switzerland withdrew the draft resolution during the final Committee of the Whole (COW) plenary on Wednesday, 13 March 2019.

The concerns, risks, uncertainties, knowledge gaps, lack of consensus and issues outlined above, highlight the complex issues under discussion in relation to geoengineering, and probably informed member states reluctance to push through Switzerland’s draft resolution.

At the UNEA 4 closing plenary, some member countries expressed regret that the draft resolution was not endorsed and urged further engagement on the same.

Relevance to Soroptimist International:

Soroptimist International (SI) as a stakeholder has a huge constituency (women and girls) that would be impacted by any policy decisions made in regard to thedeployment of geoengineering technologies.

SI must therefore of necessity identify and align itself with partners who will fight for/defend and push through resolutions that advance sustainability through sustainable practices that do not adversely expose and endanger the lives and livelihoods of its constituents.

(This report is also informed by a paper prepared and published by the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2) which is an initiative of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs).

 

29.3.2019

Lead Image: Nairobi Kenya. The 4th United Nations Environment Assembly UNEA 4. © NATALIA MROZ/ UNEP: Link

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