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4 December 2011

Geoengineering research: Call for coordinated action

TWAS joins an international consortium, including the Royal Society and the Environment Defense Fund, in a call for coordinated action on geoengineering research.

Geoengineering research: Call for coordinated actionNations, nongovernmental organizations and individuals should engage in a dialogue to explore the potential risks and benefits of solar geoengineering and to help establish effective governance for research.

That is the conclusion of a new report, Solar Radiation Management: The Governance of Research, prepared as part of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI). The initiative was convened by the UK's Royal Society, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and TWAS.

SRMGO Report coverSRMGI was established in March 2010 to explore how to govern the developing research area of solar radiation management (SRM), a type of geoengineering that would cause a small percentage of inbound sunlight to be reflected back into space to reduce global warming.

TWAS Fellow Paulo Artaxo, head of the Department of Applied Physics at the Institute of Physics, University of São Paolo, Brazil, notes: “Like the effects of global warming, the effects of solar radiation management deployment are likely to have greater impacts in developing countries. As a result, developing countries need to be involved in the discussions to develop such governance arrangements from the beginning.”

Interest in SRM technologies has increased rapidly in recent years. SRM may reduce temperatures quickly and relatively cheaply. However, these technologies could also have significant unanticipated side effects. Moreover, they would not affect the rising levels of greenhouse gases and could conceivably be implemented unilaterally without consultation or agreement from individuals and nations that could be affected.

SRMGI has brought together diverse opinions and expertise from the natural and social sciences, governance and law, as well as NGOs, industry and civil society organisations. The report summarises opinions gathered and issues raised at a major conference held in March 2011 and other meetings. It includes input from experts and organisations in 22 countries.

Key conclusions include:

  • Nothing now known about SRM provides any justification for curbing efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases. This should remain a global priority.  
  • Concern about geoengineering, and particularly SRM methods, is significant. It is important to ensure that all perspectives and interests can be expressed and discussed. In addition to misgivings regarding potential side effects, concern is often expressed that geoengineering could provide an escape route from the impacts of climate change, reducing the incentive to reduce emissions.  
  • SRM would take effect relatively quickly and their cost could be comparatively low, and they could reduce some of the most significant effects of climate change.  However, the technologies are poorly understood, can be potentially dangerous and carry risks associated not only with deployment but also medium- and large-scale research.
  • Appropriate research will make it easier to assess the feasibility, risks and impacts associated with SRM, and reduce the uncertainties. A lack of information about SRM technologies and their potential impacts are making the issues more difficult to debate and resolve.  
  • The range of SRM research runs from computer simulations and laboratory studies to potentially risky, large-scale, real-world experiments. While most SRMGI participants were comfortable with low-risk research, there was much debate over how to govern research outside the lab.  
  • Governance arrangements for managing potentially risky research are mostly lacking and must be developed. Initial discussions suggest that the wide differences among the types of SRM technologies and research make a “one size fits all” approach inappropriate. A differentiated regulatory and governance approach is likely to be more effective.  
  • Considering the actual deployment of SRM techniques would be inappropriate without, among other things, adequate resolution of uncertainties concerning the feasibility, advantages and disadvantages. No future technology should be implemented without a thorough characterisation of its potential environmental and social impacts and appropriate governance arrangements. 
  • The SRMGI convening organisations neither support nor oppose solar geoengineering. But they share a conviction that additional international debate and deliberation, reflecting a range of views and informed by the best scientific advice, must be undertaken to develop effective governance to ensure that any future research can be carried out in a safe, transparent and socially acceptable way.

John Shepherd, Fellow of the Royal Society and co-chair of SRMGI, observes: “Unless the apparent lack of political will to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions changes soon, geoengineering may be needed and SRM methods could be used in unregulated and possibly reckless ways by individuals, corporations or countries. These actions would have consequences beyond national borders that are as yet unknown. We must also work outside our national borders, bringing together interested parties from around the globe to debate the issues of geoengineering, agree on appropriate governance structures and ensure that any research is undertaken in a safe, transparent and socially acceptable manner. The question of whether solar geoengineering will prove to be helpful or harmful will largely depend on how humanity can govern the issue and its political implications, and avoid unilateral action.”

Steve Hamburg, Chief Scientist for Environmental Defense Fund and co-chair of SRMGI, says: "Solar Radiation Management might sound, at first, like something from science fiction - but it's not. There are already serious discussions beginning about it, and that's why we felt it was urgent to create this governance initiative. Solar radiation management could be a Plan B to address climate change, but first we must figure out how to research it safely. Only then should we even consider any other steps."

SRMGI is being supported by a range of funders and partners, including The Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (FICER), Carbon War Room and Zennström Philanthropies.

For additional information about SRMGI and to download the report (post-embargo) please visit:
http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/solar-radiation-governance/ 
http://www.srmgi.org/

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