In the pantheon of global climate change remedies, many are more troubled than other people. Decreasing co2 emissions? Not so high-risk. Constricting the sun or banking on sucking carbon out of the air? Fairly dicey.
Yet in an apparently strange move last week, the United Nations Environment Assembly brought up a solution to examine the status of information about these riskier strategies, which fit into the banner of geoengineering. This means that while research is going to continue throughout the world, the largest intergovernmental company in the world won’t take a centralized look at it and continues to fly at least partly blind.
The UNEA meeting takes place every two years and fundamentally sets the agenda for what the UN Environmental Program will look at. Included in the meeting in Nairobi last week, the Swiss delegation put forward an answer to assess geoengineering technologies that would either block the sun to cool the planet or suck carbon right out the air.
“The intention of the resolution by Switzerland, which was supported by Burkina Faso, the Federated States of Micronesia, Georgia, Liechtenstein, Mali, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Niger, and Senegal, was to request UNEP to collect information on risks, potential and governance challenges of the different geoengineering technologies,” Franz Xaver Perrez, head of the Switzerland’s Office for the Environment International Affairs Division, told Earther.
“The fact that Switzerland introduced this resolution is really good,” Janos Pasztor, the head of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, told Earther. “It was courageous because it is controversial, and it seems to indicate there are quite a few countries that like the resolution. However, the bad news is the resolution didn’t pass.”
In fact, regardless of the diversified group of countries supporting it, the decision was eventually pulled because delegates failed to reach an agreement. As Climate Home reported on Thursday, it was obstructed by a coalition directed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. The former is a couple of the most well-known fossil fuel exporters in the world while Brazil’s new president has pressed for more logging in the Amazon, which will boost emissions. The U.S. is also the second-biggest carbon polluter and beneath the Trump administration, remains outwardly hellbent on raising fossil fuel output and rolling back power plant, methane, and car emissions limitations.
The resolution involved language that geoengineering, particularly, carbon dioxide elimination, “should not be seen as an alternative to mitigation efforts.” That was a sticking point for the bloc that opposed the decision, as reported by an anonymous source who was at the discussions and spoke with Motherboard’s Sarah Emerson. The source also revealed that the countries worried even carrying out a cursory analysis of the state of play might lead to “constraining geoengineering research and development far more than other countries feared that it could enable geoengineering.”
This means geoengineering won’t be an element that UNEP takes into account for the next two years. That’s bothersome because the longer countries continue to disregard the safe bet of lowering emissions, the greater the odds are that a rogue nation or group of countries could resort to unverified planet-cooling technology, or that the world will require large-scale deployment of technologies to suck carbon out of the air. Setting up a report assessing these technologies so all countries are on the same page could perhaps lessen the odds of those results.
But then again, not all is lost. The UNEP is one of the countless organizations at the UN with a toe in the geoengineering pool. Pasztor indicated to the Food and Agriculture Organization as an additional UN group that could supply a productive home for examining the risks and advantages of choosing plants to hoover up carbon dioxide. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which convenes climate talks every year—could also be another location to discover technology and nature-based carbon dioxide elimination fixes, but Pasztor said: “there’s no obvious home” for centralizing information about dimming the sun, the other side of geoengineering.
Putting them together was another possible shortcoming of the Swiss resolution.
“I welcome this wider conversation, but I think it was a mistake to lump carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management together as ‘geoengineering,’” Andy Parker, the project director of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, told Earther. “They are two different ideas with different applications and implications.”
It’s going to be a couple of years before the UNEA convenes again and it’s possible there might be a more clear proposal on geoengineering if that happens. At that time, it could be a lot more vital.
“We’re in pretty bad shape on climate change as a whole,” Pasztor said. “There is no other reason why somebody would want to talk about geoengineering. Who would want to build a solar shield and play around with the one atmosphere we have unless we are in a really bad situation?”