The Regulation of Geoengineering - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by John Virgoe (GEO 05)


  1.  Technical research into geoengineering techniques should be accompanied by consideration of regulatory, legal, and decision-making frameworks, and potential distributional and political impacts. Techniques to remove CO2 from the atmosphere could usefully supplement conventional mitigation activities, and it is probably unhelpful to describe these as geoengineering. Solar radiation management techniques ("true" geoengineering) raise much more difficult issues, including the potential to foster international tension, but may provide a useful emergency response to dangerous climate change. No existing international legal instrument exists which clearly regulates or prohibits such activities, though there are relevant international legal principles. An international regulatory regime will need to address a number of important issues. Work should begin on such a regime as early as possible, but it will need to be approached in a careful manner.


  2.  I conducted research into geoengineering governance and regulation at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, in 2006-07. I subsequently entered the employ of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but this evidence is submitted in my private capacity and does not represent HMG policy.


  3.  I support early discussion of the complex regulatory, governance and legal issues thrown up by geoengineering. Calls for some sort of geoengineering intervention are likely to grow as climate disruption becomes more apparent, and particularly if mitigation efforts prove inadequate. It is important that we start thinking through the consequences of such an intervention as early as possible if we are to take mature, informed decisions. Moreover, the development of an international regulatory regime would help reduce the risk that an individual country (or sub-national actor) might decide to deploy geoengineering techniques on a unilateral basis.

  4.  The opposing argument—that even raising the possibility of geoengineering creates a moral hazard, reducing the incentive to cut emissions—is not without merit. But geoengineering is already being touted by some as a magic bullet. I believe serious analysis will actually underscore what a problematic option it is—for a range of technological, ethical and political reasons—and show that there is no attractive alternative to radical emissions cuts. Equally, we are so far from achieving climate stabilisation through conventional mitigation that it would be unwise to ignore any serious option, even at the risk of creating a degree of moral hazard.

  5.  There was an important new contribution to the debate in September, in the form of a report from the Royal Society "Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty". This is an excellent evaluation of technological options. In particular, the report highlights a key distinction between two broad types of geoengineering: those which remove CO2 (or other greenhouse gasses) directly from the atmosphere; and those which seek to balance the warming effects of excess greenhouse gasses by blocking a proportion of solar radiation reaching the earth ("Solar Radiation Management"). Apart from their technological differences, the two have quite different non-technological characteristics, with implications for their regulation. Indeed, they are so different in nature and implications that it is questionable whether it is helpful to describe both as geoengineering. Broadly speaking, the former might form an element within a package along with mitigation and adaptation, while the latter might be deployed as an emergency response in the event of highly disruptive climate change.

  6.  Removing CO2 from the atmosphere—eg through enhancing natural weatherisation processes or biochar—is arguably not wholly distinct from accepted mitigation approaches. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) from the atmosphere is conceptually similar to CCS from power stations; biochar is really an extension of reafforestation. As such, it could conceivably be managed through a similar regime, as a supplement to conventional mitigation action. The carbon price would determine whether countries decide to meet their emissions targets though energy efficiency, changing their energy mix—or CO2 removal. But this would require the rules on carbon trading to permit the creation of offsets through such activities; alternately, they would need to be treated as credits in national greenhouse gas accounts.

  7.  In practice, CO2 removal on a large scale may prove expensive and environmentally destructive— the Royal Society report suggests that it would be necessary to mine, process and transport silicate rocks at a volume equivalent to twice the current rate of global coal mining to remove all the CO2 currently emitted by human activity. In some countries, there may be room for such techniques to take place at scale. But it is likely to remain a niche contribution to global mitigation, and one which only makes a difference over a long period.

  8.  I can see no good reason not to encourage (carefully supervised) research in these techniques, and to ensure carbon accounting/trading rules are crafted in a way which might include such activities (once issues of safety, verification etc are taken into account).

  9.  Looking at Solar Radiation Management techniques, the most widely discussed is injecting sulphur particles into the stratosphere. We know this works—it is why large volcanic eruptions cool the climate for a year or two. But there are potential environmental side effects (eg on the ozone layer). These techniques only address the warming effect of increased CO2, not ocean acidification. So it is not easy to equate them to a carbon price). The cooling effect does not necessarily cancel out global warming equally strongly in every part of the globe—the poles could still warm, for example. That is just one of several reasons why they will be internationally controversial. They are also hard to test—by its very nature, an intervention is global. On the positive side, sulphur injection seems to be relatively low-cost, to be straightforward from a technical perspective, and would have an immediate effect—making it the prime choice for an "emergency" intervention.

  10.  Solar Radiation Management techniques raise complicated political, ethical and regulatory issues, and are the main subject of my article "International governance of a possible geoengineering intervention to combat climate change" (Climatic Change, 2009, 95:103-119), which was, I think, the first discussion of the international politics of geoengineering from the perspective of international relations theory.

  11.  My article identifies non-technical characteristics of geoengineering which might influence regulatory models, and then discusses three broad approaches to managing a geoengineering intervention: through the United Nations, by one state unilaterally, and through a consortium of states. Rather than repeat my analysis here, I attach a copy of that article. However, I would draw attention to my conclusion that no existing international instrument exists which clearly prohibits or regulates geoengineering research or activity. It has been suggested that the 1977 UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (the ENMOD convention) would make geoengineering illegal. However, article 3.1 specifically preserves the right to use such techniques "for peaceful purposes". It is true, however, that the international regimes for governing the atmosphere and the oceans might have an interest in specific geoengineering techniques—for example, injecting sulphur compounds into the stratosphere might affect the ozone layer, the concern of the Montreal Protocol.

  12.  International law does suggest principles which might be used in developing a regulatory regime for geoengineering, including the precautionary principle (Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration), the requirement to inform or consult, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (Rio principle 7) and the polluter pays principle (Rio principle 16).

  13.  I should also like to highlight the potential for geoengineering interventions to lead to international tension, bearing in mind the likely distributional impacts. It is unlikely that the use of a Solar Radiation Management technique would exactly counter the effects of global warming in every part of the world. It is more likely that some regions would experience relative warming and others would see relative cooling. Side effects would also be likely to impact differently in different regions. Any freak weather event could be blamed, plausibly or not, on the intervention. Countries or groups which felt they were being harmed by the intervention could seek legal recourse or exert diplomatic pressure. The risk of this would be reduced, though not eliminated, if a consensual international regulatory regime were in place.

  14.  There are a lot of international bodies with a potential interest, including the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), and—on specific techniques—the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the Montreal Protocol and other parts of the atmospheric governance regime. The Royal Society report suggested that the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) might be the appropriate body to lead on geoengineering governance, but the remit and working practices of the CSD seem unlikely to make it a preferred option.

  15.  I draw attention to pages 114-115 of my article, which set out the key elements which would need to be addressed by an international regulatory regime for geoengineering.

  16.  It will be necessary to be cautious in the way international debate on geoengineering is initiated. It is so far from the current mitigation-adaptation paradigm, and raises so many concerns, that a premature discussion might well see geoengineering banned in line with the precautionary principle. Already, in June 2008, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity cited the precautionary principle in calling for a moratorium on ocean fertilisation activities. I have sympathy for that decision on the specific issue of ocean fertilisation, but it is important that genuine research into geoengineering techniques are subjected to an appropriate, cautious regulatory regime rather than a blanket ban.

  17.  In terms of international regulation, the first step might be to develop guidelines to govern such research. These might cover, for example, refraining from field experiments until certain conditions have been met. In all cases, it is important that research is conducted in an open fashion, to minimise suspicion.

  18.  The Royal Society report called for government funding for research into geoengineering techniques. I agree; but it is important that scientific/engineering research is accompanied by work on non-technical aspects. Those non-technical aspects should include the appropriate legal, regulatory and decision-making frameworks, and the distribution of risks and benefits.

December 2009

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