Memorandum submitted by John Virgoe (GEO
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
4. The opposing argumentthat even
raising the possibility of geoengineering creates a moral hazard,
reducing the incentive to cut emissionsis 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 isfor a range of technological,
ethical and political reasonsand 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
atmosphereeg through enhancing natural weatherisation processes
or biocharis 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 mixor 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
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 worksit 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
globethe poles could still warm, for example. That is just
one of several reasons why they will be internationally controversial.
They are also hard to testby 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 effectmaking 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 techniquesfor
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), andon specific techniquesthe
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.