The latest IPCC report once again raises the possibility that the world cannot control climate change, so some may seek a solution in controversial geoengineering techniques
The world remains on track for more than three degrees Celsius of average warming by 2100. That will trigger calls for drastic measures to combat a climate emergency, including carbon removal from the atmosphere or solar radiation management. Geoengineering in this form or any other urgently needs governance — and transparency lies at its heart.
Undeveloped or untested geoengineering technologies are likely to have impacts on rainfall, the hydrological cycle, tropical forests, the ozone layer and the oceans. Uncertainties abound about the shock if solar geoengineering were deployed at scale and then stopped suddenly. The risk of unilateral action worries those unable to regulate independent scientists, or any country or alliances who choose to experiment or possibly deploy measures. Even if global average temperature were to be controlled, how could responsibility be assigned and liabilities imposed for adverse regional consequences?
There are also ethical concerns about intentions and legitimacy. By reducing incentives to mitigate emissions, geoengineering potentially creates a moral hazard. There is a related worry that investments in research could build momentum down a slippery slope toward deployment.
Another concern is the difficulty in ascertaining intent behind geoengineering research or deployment. The ostensible reason could be a response to climate emergencies. But adversely impacted countries or regions would claim a legitimate right to verify if there were malafide intentions. The legitimacy of any experiment or deployment would rest on who has a say over how transborder impacts are assessed.
The long list of risks and uncertainties generates the demand for regulating geoengineering. Answering these concerns implies that research must continue. But effective outdoor research may require large-scale testing, bordering on deployment. Imposing a moratorium only on deployment while permitting research would be challenging to enforce. Thus, not just deployment but also research needs to fall within the ambit of governance.
Transparency must occupy a central role in geoengineering governance. But toward what end? Transparency is needed to minimise public risk. Impacts at a planetary scale need governance arrangements that are more risk-averse than for technologies that have limited physical impacts. In the absence of national or international regulation, a code of conduct for geoengineering research could serve as a stop-gap to control public risks, until more formal governance mechanisms are established. Information on research proposals, risk assessments, and disclosure of research results would be essential components of such a code.
Transparency is also needed to build public trust. This is critical to the sequential unfolding of research stages, from laboratory to field research to large experiments. Academic networks and peer-reviewed journals are insufficient to effectively communicate scientific findings to the public. Research registries might contribute to building trust but cannot replace political processes. National scientific assessments and public and parliamentary hearings would be necessary to effectively engage the public about geoengineering, within the broader context of climate responses.
Making transparency work
In order to make transparency work for geoengineering, it has to be institutionalised, not ad hoc. A well- designed information system would perform three functions: disseminating information about national policies and research activities; promoting compliance with codes of conduct via peer pressure among research groups, member countries, explicit sanctions, or pressure from non-state actors; and evaluating the impact of geoengineering research and experiments.
Self-reporting is the most efficient way to disseminate but carries the risk that some information might come too late for regulation. Eventually, there should be mandatory state-to-state disclosure, via a globally negotiated agreement, to empower countries to make informed choices. Moreover, legitimate public engagement requires a bidirectional flow of information between project proponents and stakeholders. It can be long, hard, and sometimes inconclusive, but would be a necessary step in enforcing compliance with codes of conduct.
For overall assessments of geoengineering activities, progressively inclusive governance could be pursued. It would begin with national assessments and national-level consultations to yield governance and transparency templates for different stages of research and experimentation. Thereafter, national policies on geoengineering could be reported to international forums. A combination of government and nongovernmental entities could coordinate for independent peer reviews and international consultations. Accordingly, international assessments of the progress and risks of geoengineering research could be conducted in select multilateral forums.
If these steps increase public trust and minimise risks, an international geoengineering research programme could be envisaged, taking account of research capacities, funding, intellectual property, and rules for accountability and liability. Without transparency, there will be more contestation. With transparency, conditions of distrust could be marginally abated.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, based in New Delhi. Last May, he deposed before UN Environment’s Committee of Permanent Representatives on the governance of geoengineering
This article was first published by The Environmental Forum of the Environmental Law Institute.