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Action needed now to govern climate engineering technologies

Release Date 01 October 2018

SRM is intended to cool the planet by reflecting solar radiation away from Earth

Action to govern research into climate engineering technology to address global warming must start now to avoid potential environmental harm in the future, a new report has warned.

In the new ‘Governing Solar Radiation Management’ report, leading international experts have set out a list of recommendations they believe must be put in place to govern research into solar radiation management (SRM) technologies.

SRM aims to cool the atmosphere by spraying particles into the atmosphere or whitening clouds to reflect some solar radiation away from the Earth. Many moral, political and environmental concerns exist around research into the technology, yet some experts state it could be ready for deployment by mid century.

Professor Catriona McKinnon, Director of Reading’ Centre for Climate and Justice, and a member of the Academic Working Group that wrote the report, said: “We must take seriously the possibility that SRM research will move forward, and we must keep mitigation as our priority. There is presently a vacuum of governance in this area which could be filled by our report’s recommendations.

“There were many disagreements between us on the desirability, ethics, and feasibility of SRM. But we agreed on the concrete, actionable steps detailed in the report that should be taken now to govern research into SRM technologies in the near term. Whatever you think about SRM, stepping into the future with no governance in place is unacceptable.”

The report, launched at American University Washington DC on Monday 1 October, was produced by 14 experts who formed the Academic Working Group on Governance of Climate Engineering. They conducted two years of workshops and discussion to produce four objectives and 12 governance recommendations for national governments and agencies, regional and international organisations, and civil society groups. These are aimed at striking a balance between protecting against reckless research into of SRM technologies that could harm society and future people, and not too heavily shackling such research. They ensure that research into SRM is always only in the public interest.

The potential to use technology to counteract climate change, known as ‘climate engineering’, has been the focus of research for several years. Climate engineering refers to methods that both remove carbon dioxide from the air and SRM techniques that reflect solar radiation away from Earth. The working group, however, chose to focus solely on SRM to provide clear, implementable recommendations on how it could be governed.

The four objectives laid out in the report call for:  SRM research to always remain subsidiary to climate change mitigation efforts; a thorough and transparent assessment of the potential risks, burdens and benefits of SRM; a requirement for all SRM research to respond to societal needs and concerns; and the establishment of governance SRM before any consideration of deployment.

The list of 12 policy recommendations include establishment of a World Commission on SRM, creation of a Global Stakeholder Forum to ensure all voices are heard in any debate about SRM, the IPCC to continue to assess SRM in its work, making funding streams for SRM research a matter of public record, the science community establishing codes of conduct for SRM research, and prioritising international and interdisciplinary collaboration in SRM research projects.

Concerns about the use of SRM include potentially catastrophic environmental harm if the technologies were to be withdrawn suddenly, and the risk of distracting from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The working group’s report is an agnostic consensus statement, as individuals within it have significant differences of opinion on the use of the technologies.


Report reference:

Chhetri, Netra, Dan Chong, Ken Conca, Richard Falk, Alexander Gillespie, Aarti Gupta, Sikina Jinnah, Prakash Kashwan, Myanna Lahsen, Andrew Light, Catriona McKinnon, Leslie Paul Thiele, Walter Valdivia, Paul Wapner, David Morrow, Carolyn Turkaly and Simon Nicholson. 2018. Governing Solar Radiation Management. Washington, DC: Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, American University. doi: 10.17606/M6SM17

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