The Regulation of Geoengineering - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Research Councils UK (RCUK) (GEO 10)


  1.  Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership set up to champion the research supported by the seven UK Research Councils. RCUK was established in 2002 to enable the Councils to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities, contributing to the delivery of the Government's objectives for science and innovation. Further details are available at

  2.  This evidence is submitted by RCUK on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and represents their independent views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills.

  3.  The ESRC and the NERC have contributed to the main text of this response. NERC input was provided by Swindon Office staff, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and the Oceans 2025 programme. In the preparation of this submission it has been agreed that beyond the potential funding of high quality research there are no conflicts of interest to declare.


  4.  While the term "geoengineering" is useful to collectively refer to methods of large-scale intervention in the global climate, it is worth noting that technologies fall into two distinct categories; those which remove CO2 (or other GHG) from the atmosphere (Carbon Dioxide Removal techniques—CDR); and those that mediate the level of sunlight and heat that is absorbed by the Earth (Solar Radiation Management techniques—SRM). Different techniques offer different opportunities, have different effects and carry different risks which raise different questions about the regulation of geoengineering.

  5.  Given the limited geoengineering research undertaken to date, the major social, environmental and technological uncertainties associated with its developmental infancy, and the specificity of the various techniques and technologies collectively referred to as geoengineering, it is not yet appropriate to outline a definitive framework for its regulation. Indeed, given the levels of uncertainty it is essential that all mechanisms established to regulate geoengineering are able to adapt to the evolving technological, environmental, and socio-political context within which they operate.

  6.  Public confidence is an essential step towards generating appropriate and effective geoengineering regulation. Building knowledge amongst the public including regulators and law makers is conducive to establishing a genuinely participatory approach which must be sought if geoengineering is to be successfully applied.

  7.  To better understand public views and concerns, NERC is carrying out a public dialogue on geoengineering. This will assess public opinion and concerns, which will inform the direction, conduct and communication of future research in geoengineering. This activity, which is due to deliver by April 2010, is in partnership with Sciencewise, which supports public dialogue activities in government.

Is there a need for international regulation of geoengineering and geoengineering research and if so, what international regulatory mechanisms need to be developed?

  8.  Many, but not all, potential geoengineering schemes involve winners and losers both nationally and internationally. Given geoengineering will manipulate the climate at a global level, all global citizens should in principle be considered stakeholders in the development and implementation of geoengineering techniques and their regulation. Nevertheless, the expertise and tools required for the research and application of such techniques are likely to be within the direct control of relatively few while the positive and negative effects of geoengineering will be unevenly distributed, both geographically and socially.

  9.  The need for explicit approval-based regulatory mechanisms for geoengineering primarily arise when the actions of one stakeholder have or could have consequences for others. Where such action is not well-covered by existing legal or regulatory arrangements an initial framework for joint decision-making by all parties is required. This should be used to establish that a net (global) advantage and equitable distribution of those advantages from the geoengineering intervention can be achieved prior to any interventions.

  10.  Careful consideration is required of who is involved and consulted during the development of geoengineering regulation in order that an equitable consensus can be reached. Different countries and groups will have very different assessments of the balance of risks of unchecked climate change and the application of geoengineering, as well as the morality of intentional manipulation of the climate system. Any geoengineering activity will therefore bring a variety of ethical, legal and social, political and economic questions into sharp focus.

  11.  Irrespective of the regulatory controls implemented, geoengineering will entail costs (direct and potentially indirect) as well as benefits. This raises significant research questions about ownership of, and responsibility for, both negative and positive effects of geoengineering action which have an international impact. Approval-based mechanisms should, for example, include protocols for the assessment of fair compensation; should adverse impacts occur, who would meet the costs of such impacts—the country or countries carrying out the geoengineering, or the companies involved? In some cases it will be difficult to attribute climatic impacts to particular acts of geoengineering and new, early-stage research on how this should be done is essential. Such research will have to address how to measure and attribute any changes and how to value their impacts including, for example, effects on health, crops and economic well-being. This research will help inform judgements about impact and whether geographical areas or social groups merit compensation.

  12.  Geoengineering development involves several stages and regulatory frameworks must be flexible enough to cover the full cycle (eg from research through implementation through monitoring to evaluation). While knowledge of geoengineering techniques and the development of relevant technologies remain limited, interest is growing. It is therefore important at this stage that appropriate mechanisms for the regulation of research (as well as implementation) are established. Field-based research (such as method testing and small-scale trials) would for instance be expected to have much more limited impact than full-scale geoengineering interventions. Nevertheless, even small-scale actions could generate negative environmental, social and economic consequences if undertaken without appropriate controls in place or a sufficient level of expertise. For example, a field trial involving atmospheric SRM manipulations might temporally—but perhaps coincidentally—be linked to extreme weather events resulting in high economic consequences. Some highly controversial techniques could be applied at relatively low cost and with relative ease, opening up geoengineering as a feasible unilateral activity to a wide range of actors with different knowledge, skills and motivations. Such actions may be linked to political as well as, or even instead of, environmental concerns. This suggests regulation might be best monitored at the level of supra-national governance structures such as the UN.

  13.  An example highlighting the potential issues arising from the regulation of research on geoengineering is provided by ocean fertilization. Large-scale ocean fertilization is not currently allowed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Research is also restricted by the CBD, until a regulatory framework has been developed; this is in progress, via the London Convention and London Protocol (LC/LP). During 2009, the scientific basis for a framework to allow further research (via large-scale experiments outside territorial waters) was agreed, through discussions that involved a wide range of stakeholder interests. However, whilst representatives of the international scientific community were able to reach consensus relatively rapidly, eight different legal options were developed, covering the range from "light touch" to much more complex and demanding approval arrangements. Different legal options were favoured by different countries; overall agreement is needed for LC/LP decisions; and there is no early prospect for resolution of this issue to be reached. Thus it could be some time before a regulatory outcome is obtained and, once produced, it will apply only to research, not geoengineering per se.

  14.  In terms of research and the implementation of geoengineering techniques, the development of new national and international regulation mechanisms, and the feasibility of doing so, is highly dependent on the technique under consideration. This is shown in Table 1, Annex 1, grouping the need for new regulation as high, medium or low for 13 techniques considered by the recent Royal Society report.[3] This broadly shows that SRM techniques currently lack regulatory control, in comparison to techniques involving CDR. However, a more fundamental grouping relates to the different environments—space, atmosphere, ocean and land—in which the techniques are deployed, a function of the different jurisdictions applicable to different resource ownership arrangements.

  15.  The situation is most straightforward for land-based activities, since although there is potential for regional effects any adverse impacts are more likely to be experienced by the country carrying out the action. For the lower atmosphere above nationally-owned land and for territorial waters, any adverse impacts of geoengineering may be predominantly local and "self-inflicted"; for the upper atmosphere and open ocean, much larger adverse impacts are possible, potentially on a global scale (indeed, for geoengineering global-scale impacts are the intended outcome). The ocean has, however, been recognised by most countries as a global good requiring international stewardship, with three legal instruments for potential regulation of geoengineering in non-territorial waters: the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), LC/LP; and the CBD.

  16.  In the future, assuming geoengineering occurs, its implementation and monitoring are also likely to require a verification-based form of regulation. These stages are also potentially problematic. Assuming that geoengineering techniques are formally recognised as contributing to climate change mitigation (ie as part of national commitments to international climate change agreements), such techniques will need linking to emission trading schemes or other mechanisms that may evolve. Such regulation is essentially international standard-setting, to verify that the amount of carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gas) removed from the atmosphere, or cooling achieved by other means, is as claimed. This also raises the broader point that the development of geoengineering techniques should only be considered as complementary to other methods of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and that the regulation of geoengineering should therefore ensure that the aims of such methods are not compromised.

  17.  As noted above, it is essential that mechanisms for the regulation of geoengineering are imbued with a high level of flexibility. This will be necessary for a variety of reasons. First, regulatory controls will need to adapt to the evolution of environmental, scientific, technological, geo-political, economic and social risks. Major uncertainties remain about geoengineering and it is impossible to foresee how technologies will develop, their public confidence, and the measures that will be needed to shape and respond to such developments. In addition, environmental, geo-political, economic and social factors that will influence the development of geoengineering are also in a constant state of flux and must therefore be accounted for through flexible regulatory arrangements. For example, the low likelihood of being able to create and maintain the decadal-to-century political stability that will be required to manage some geoengineering projects on a global scale would need to be guarded against through sufficient flexibility of regulatory mechanisms. Research is required to both establish the extent to which such instability has been successfully incorporated into other regulatory frameworks and the degree of instability that might reasonably be expected to occur in the geoengineering domain.

  18.  The potential effects of geoengineering activity are transboundary in nature. Mechanisms must be flexible enough to regulate activity carried out in a wide range of locations and by a variety of people operating under different legislative, social and cultural environments. As a channel through which to trade in the carbon market, the private sector may become an important force in the development of geoengineering in some regions. It will therefore be vital that businesses are subject to the same stringent controls that are applied to other bodies.

  19.  It will be paramount that regulatory measures are able to respond rapidly, if necessary, following the application of geoengineering techniques. A key criterion for geoengineering to be taken forward is the ability for applications to be withdrawn quickly in case of negative consequences (where this action in itself does not entail further negative impact). Rapid agreement on such decisions will be challenging for many international bodies. A mechanism by which consensus could quickly be reached, and action taken without unilateral counter-action in response, would need to be incorporated into regulatory measures. Research can help inform policy makers about the sort of mechanisms and regulatory frameworks that have been able to successfully respond in such rapid ways.

How should international regulations be developed collaboratively?

  20.  The international mechanisms currently most applicable to the regulation of geoengineering activity have not been developed for this purpose. However, through modification and expansion, existing international governance mechanisms should be used as much as possible, subject to rigorous evaluation of their fit for purpose. IPCC could, for example, provide a framework to establish whether there is sufficient scientific justification for research on different techniques and, if so, where effort ought to be focussed. The international global change programmes, co-sponsored by International Council for Science (ICSU), (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP); World Climate Research Programme (WCRP); International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and Diversitas; grouped under the Earth System Science Partnership, (ESSP)) also have a role in coordinating relevant research and providing independent international assessments which could be adapted for the purposes of geoengineering research.

  21.  At the later stages of development, implementation and monitoring, it is unclear whether the regulatory measures and controls needed for geoengineering may be adequately incorporated into existing international, regional, and national regulatory structures and bodies. The Environmental Modification Convention (passed by the UN in 1977) banned the use of weather modification for hostile use and, on a broad conceptual level, therefore offers one channel through which new regulatory mechanisms may be enforced. Given the fundamental aim of geoengineering, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would also need to inform its development. Research of how these legislative frameworks should be amended would be valuable.

  22.  More specifically, the regulation of particular geoengineering techniques may logically fit into the remits of other international treaties and bodies. Ocean fertilisation for instance has direct relevance to the UNCLOS while the implementation of "space mirrors" may be monitored through the United Nations Outer Space Treaty. It has been suggested that the only major geoengineering technique being discussed that could not be managed within existing regulatory structures is the application of stratospheric aerosols.

  23.  Polar regions are likely to be at the forefront of future geoengineering debate, because of climatic feedback risks (relating to albedo change and methane emissions) and socio-economic risks (sea level rise due to ice-sheet loss). If SRM geoengineering could (mostly) be confined to these regions, its negative impacts with regard to crop production, natural productivity, economic development and social well being would be minimised. The Antarctic is, however, strongly protected through the Antarctic Treaty System, including the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Antarctic-Environment Protocol), whilst any geoengineering activities in the Arctic would be highly politically-sensitive, particularly in the context of recent new claims to undersea resources and the claims of indigenous peoples.

  24.  The cost, effectiveness, timeliness and risk of putative geoengineering approaches vary substantially. It is therefore important that international collaboration is sought at an early stage. An international geoengineering advisory group may well be an appropriate body to help address these challenges. With representation from the scientific, policy, commercial, regulatory and non-governmental communities, such a group would provide independent oversight of evolving regulatory issues concerning geoengineering. It would be tasked with the coordination of existing research, and the identification of a new research agenda, as well as the development of an effective and objective assessment framework to inform the regulation of geoengineering. This would involve making informed judgements about the weight of different environmental, social and economic costs and benefits and striking an appropriate balance between short-term and long-term effects.

What UK regulatory mechanisms apply to geoengineering and geoengineering research and what changes will need to be made for the purpose of regulating geoengineering?

  25.  UK-based terrestrial and atmospheric geoengineering and geoengineering research could be covered by existing national and regional planning and pollution control regulation, and, in part, by research institutes, funders and professional bodies, as well as civil society more generally. However, it is recommended that an early stage testing of these assumptions is undertaken by independent experts with a brief to address public engagement. Marine activities within the UK Exclusive Economic Zone should be covered by the newly-formed Marine Management Organisation (created under the 2009 Marine Act) and the equivalent body for Scotland Marine activities outside UK waters are primarily covered by LC/LP, with Defra as the national regulatory department.

Annex 1

  Table 1. Preliminary assessment of the need for geoengineering regulation for specific techniques, based on those identified in 2009 Royal Society report. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS); Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR); London Convention/London Protocol (LC/LP); Solar Radiation Management (SRM); UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD); UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

EnvironmentCDR or SRM Existing regulatory framework, if any Comment
1.   HIGH need for international regulation
1. 1 Cloud albedo enhancement (via ocean spray) Lower atmosphere, upper oceanSRM ?Potential effects on regional weather, ocean dynamics, marine productivity, food production, economic and social well being
1.2 Stratospheric aerosolsUpper atmosphere SRMLong-range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention? Antarctic-Environment Protocol? Global scale effects—but not direct reversal of CO2 warming. Reduced insolation, crop and plant productivity, economic, social and cultural well being
1.3 Space-based methodsSpace SRMOuter Space Treaty? Global scale effects—but not direct reversal of CO2 warming. Reduced insolation, crop and plant productivity, economic, social and cultural well being

2.   MEDIUM need for international regulation
2.1 Biomass burial in deep oceanLand and ocean CDRLC/LP (potentially); UNCLOS; carbon trading Land-grown crops/timber would be ballasted and sunk to deep ocean, could locally affect food availability and price
2.2 Enhanced weathering—oceanLand and ocean CDRLC/LP (potentially); UNCLOS; carbon trading Land-mined silicate rocks added to ocean, or carbonates used instead —to derive Ca(OH)2
2.3 Ocean fertilizationOcean CDRLC/LP: regulation in prep for research (with CBD); also UNCLOS Could be based on adding iron, other nutrients or enhanced mixing
2.4 Surface albedo—desertsLand SRMUNCCD?Might affect regional weather, crop production, economic, social and cultural well being

3.   LOW need for international regulation
3.1 Land use management, afforestation, reforestation & deforestation avoidance LandCDRCarbon trading under UNFCCC Not necessarily regarded as geoengineering
3.2 Bio-energy with carbon sequestration (BECS) Land (ocean?)CDRCarbon trading; CCS regulation Not necessarily regarded as geoengineering. (Ocean?) relates both to potential use of algae and sub seafloor CCS reservoirs
3.3 Biochar and terrestrial biomass burial LandCDRCarbon trading
3.4 Enhanced weathering—terrestrial LandCDRCarbon trading Land-mined silicate rocks added to soil
3.5 Carbon dioxide capture from ambient air Land , lower atmosphere (ocean)CDR Carbon trading; CCS regulation(Ocean) relates to CCS components
3.6 Surface albedo—human settlement LandSRM Limited effectiveness on global scale

  Whilst climate system modelling provides a "safe" means of investigating the effectiveness of different engineering approaches, it does not necessarily include all interactions and effects that will occur in the real world. Further investment in modelling techniques will enhance the accuracy of the models; however, large-scale field testing will be an inevitable intermediate step for any geoengineering techniques considered worthy of serious attention. Because of natural variability in weather/climate and biogeochemical processes, multiple studies are likely to be needed for adequate replication to achieve unambiguous effects. For some methods, large-scale field testing is likely to be an extremely fraught and controversial step; research on the potential social, economic and cultural effects, as well as how to mitigate these in advance of implementation, is essential.

December 2009

3   Royal Society (2009) Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty. RS Policy Document 10/09; Back

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