The Regulation of Geoengineering - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (GEO 13)

  This submission provides written evidence for the Committee's enquiry into:

    — The regulation of geo-engineering, particularly, international regulation and regulation within the UK.

  It addresses the three questions contained in the Terms of Reference for this enquiry.


    — Geo-engineering is an emerging policy area and there are at present no international treaties or institutions with sufficient mandate to regulate the broad range of possible geo-engineering activities. Thus there are no regulatory frameworks in place aimed specifically at controlling geo-engineering activities. The risk consequently exists that some methods could be deployed without appropriate international agreement or regulation.

    — The 2009 Royal Society report has concluded that, "while it is likely that some existing national, regional and international mechanisms may apply to either the activities themselves, or the impacts of geo-engineering, they have yet to be analysed or tested with this purpose in mind".

    — We agree with the Royal Society that appropriate governance mechanisms for regulating the deployment of geo-engineering methods, whether large-scale or contained (ie within national boundaries), should be established before they are needed in practice. Any regulatory framework for geo-engineering will need to be flexible, so it can be adapted to take account of new findings and developments in this emerging area of technology.

    — We therefore consider that there is a need for international regulation of geo-engineering research and deployment, in particular for those technologies that have trans-boundary implications or take place beyond national jurisdiction, as soon as possible. There is currently insufficient information to be specific about the tools and regulations that would need to be implemented. Regulation of some of the technologies may be feasible by employing or amending existing treaties and protocols of international law. However, others (such as atmosphere and space-based methods) may require new international mechanisms.

    — We suggest that international regulations should also seek to differentiate between research and deployment activities, and that regulations concerning research should be developed first. We agree with the recommendation of the Royal Society report that a de minimis standard should be established for regulation of trans-boundary research. The appropriate level would need to be decided collectively, according to the type and scale of research.

    — We do not have a clear view at this stage as to whether existing national regulatory controls are likely to be sufficient for geo-engineering technologies where the activities and their impacts are confined within national boundaries.


  The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was created in October 2008, to bring together:

    — energy policy (previously with BERR, which is now BIS—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), and

    — climate change mitigation policy (previously with Defra—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

  This new Department reflects the fact that climate change and energy policies are inextricably linked—two thirds of our emissions come from the energy we use. Decisions in one field cannot be made without considering the impacts in the other.

  DECC has adopted seven specific objectives to help focus efforts towards a low carbon future:

    — to secure global commitments that prevent dangerous climate change;

    — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK;

    — to ensure secure energy supplies;

    — to promote fairness through our climate and energy policies at home and abroad;

    — to ensure the UK benefits from the business and employment opportunities of a low carbon future;

    — to manage energy liabilities effectively and safely; and

    — to develop the Department's capability, delivery systems and relationships so that we serve the public effectively.


  1.  Geo-engineering[2] solutions have been proposed as an emergency strategy to cool the planet. However, it is clear that geo-engineering technologies are currently incompletely understood, undeveloped and untested, and at present they remain a long way from being practical solutions to an urgent problem. It is, however, recognised that geo-engineering may have a possible role to play in aiding our mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future. Thus, it is essential that full and considered investigation of the risks and feasibility of geo-engineering solutions is performed before implementation.

  2.  This submission is informed by the Royal Society report "Geo-engineering the Climate", published in September 2009 which represents the most extensive study of geo-engineering issues to date and provides an initial assessment of a range of proposed geo-engineering solutions.

Q.   Is there a need for international regulation of geo-engineering and geo-engineering research and, if so, what international regulatory mechanisms need to be developed?

  3.  The intended impact of any geo-engineering technique is, by definition, global and, as such, international agreement is crucial to ensure clarity and common understanding of the scientific, legal and ethical issues surrounding geo-engineering. While there may be benefits, there are also considerable associated risks. More specifically, there may be significant undesirable environmental effects of geo-engineering solutions, particularly solar radiation management techniques or those that interfere with ecosystems. These factors point to the need for some form of international regulation of geo-engineering techniques.

  4.  International coordination is necessary to develop strategies to ensure that both research and development, and deployment of technologies are pursued responsibly. The Royal Society report highlights a number of specific issues of concern that should be considered in any future discussion of geo-engineering and with which we agree:

    — There are a number of proposed geo-engineering technologies that may be sufficiently low cost that they could be implemented by a single nation or wealthy individuals and, therefore, there needs to be agreement on how to guide their activities and guard against risky and irresponsible action.

    — Distribution of the environmental impacts of geo-engineering solutions may not be uniformly beneficial across the globe and full consideration of unique national or regional sensitivities to these solutions will need to be made. Some countries may experience detrimental effects due to geo-engineering solutions despite net global benefits. The legal and ethical framework for possible compensation arrangements are unlikely to be straightforward.

    — A geo-engineering action taken by an individual country might be seen as an infringement on the territory of other nations. This may be particularly relevant to techniques that entail atmospheric manipulations, which affect national airspace and need to be large-scale to have significant effects.

    — Regulation of technologies is generally developed on the basis of existing research and evidence. In this case, however, knowledge and understanding of the risks of these technologies is still at a very low level and any research must be conducted responsibly and with caution. While initial research on the risks and feasibility of different solutions will focus on modelling studies and small-scale field or laboratory experiments, the extent to which these adequately answer questions of unintended and negative consequences is limited and plans should be in place to prepare for large-scale experiments.

    — As geo-engineering technologies are presently at a very early stage of development, any regulatory framework must therefore feature flexible characteristics to allow for developments in light of new knowledge and evidence and evolving social and political perspectives.

  5.  Furthermore, different geo-engineering technologies may need different governance arrangements for research and deployment. The technologies can be broadly classified into two groups: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) techniques which seek to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and solar radiation management (SRM) techniques which act to reflect sunlight out of the atmosphere. SRM is likely to offer lower cost options than CDR where the investment lead-times are longer and the capital costs are far higher, but SRM entail significant risks and uncertainties. It is also is particularly subject to issues of reversibility and termination.

  6.  To formulate an overarching governance framework covering all geo-engineering research and deployment will be challenging. A possible approach is to disaggregate technologies and take into account the range in approaches, separating those technologies that focus on CO2 reduction from SRM solutions, for example. Some solutions, such as injection of sulphate aerosol into the stratosphere, will require detailed discussion and development of specific regulations but for others, existing treaties may be applied, for example the Montreal Protocol. There are also existing international treaty instruments in place that may cover the broader issues relating to the trans-boundary impacts of many geo-engineering approaches, for example, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

  7.  A specific example of the use of existing mechanisms to address geo-engineering research or deployment is the application of the London Convention and its Protocol to ocean fertilisation. At the October 2008 meeting of contracting parties (which includes the UK) to the London Convention and Protocol, a non-binding resolution on the regulation of ocean fertilisation was adopted. Under the Protocol, the disposal of wastes or other matter into the sea is considered "dumping" and is regulated. Where the intention is for a purpose other than mere disposal, such an activity is considered to be "placement" and is permitted provided that such placement is not contrary to the aims of the Protocol.

  8.  The resolution agreed that the scope of the London Convention and Protocol includes ocean fertilisation activities, and that in order to provide for legitimate scientific research, such research into ocean iron fertilisation should be regarded as placement of matter for a purpose other than mere disposal.

  9.  The resolution also agreed that, given the present state of knowledge, ocean fertilisation activities other than legitimate scientific research should not be allowed, and should be considered as contrary to the London Convention and Protocol. Contracting parties to the London Convention and its Protocol are considering all the available options identified, and have been requested, following the meeting of governing bodies in October 2009, to deepen understanding of the implications of legally binding options to enable informed consideration and discussion on this issue by the governing bodies in 2010. A moratorium has been placed on large-scale ocean fertilisation research under the Convention for Biological Diversity while a regulatory agreement is being developed under the London Convention/Protocol.

  10.  The UK supports the precautionary approach towards ocean fertilisation. Any change to the London Protocol to enable all forms of marine geo-engineering for research purposes needs careful consideration before certain techniques that might usually be considered to be "placement" are prohibited as "dumping". Thought needs to be given to whether the London Protocol is the right instrument for this purpose (ie to regulate all forms of marine geo-engineering).

  11.  There are already many international bodies that may have an interest in geo-engineering, for example, the World Meteorological Organisation, and the IPCC. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report will begin to explore the scientific issues and risks surrounding geo-engineering approaches. While this is not expected to discuss governance directly, we consider this work will be a useful contribution in helping to inform international discussions on the mechanisms and strategies that are needed. This would also help develop an international framework for consistently assessing the risks, benefits, costs and feasibility across different geo-engineering approaches and technologies, as currently individual studies apply their own assessment criteria.

Q.   How should international regulations be developed collaboratively?

  12.  We suggest a suitable organisation needs to be identified, whose mandate would enable it to take the lead in facilitating the collaborative development of international regulations.

  13.  The Royal Society have suggested that an international consortium is formed to explore the safest and most effective geo-engineering options while building a community of researchers and developers, and we consider that this is worth pursuing. It would also be necessary to address the non-technological issues surrounding geo-engineering, including the legal, social and ethical dimensions, and agree a precautionary principle. One example of a successful group which seeks to address the regulation of an ethically contentious area is the Human Genome Project.

  14.  We agree that further research is required to understand the risks and feasibility of geo-engineering approaches. We also recognise that this research must be carried out in parallel with discussions on the legal, social and ethical implications, and regulation and governance. To this end, DECC proposes to set up a Working Group to explore and develop proposals for governance structures relating to geo-engineering research from Spring 2010.

Q.   What UK regulatory mechanisms apply to geo-engineering and geo-engineering research and what changes will need to be made for the purpose of regulating geo-engineering?

  15.  The Royal Society report notes that issues of liability for some contained activities that remain within State jurisdiction such as air capture or surface albedo enhancements, under public or private initiatives, could largely be covered by domestic law. There is a range of existing national land-use planning and environmental controls that are likely to be applicable to geo-engineering and geo-engineering research.

  16.  At this stage, further work is needed to identify what, if any, existing regulations can be used to regulate geo-engineering research. This issue will be considered by the Working Group.

January 2010

2   This submission draws upon Royal Society report published in September 2009 to define geo-engineering as "the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system" in order to moderate global warming. Back

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