UN calls for urgent geoengineering research, warns against deployment

Illustration of a fan blowing on the Earth to cool it down.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists are deliberately slowing down to disrupt the climate to temporarily counteract global warming until the benefits and drawbacks are more fully known.

What’s up: In the meantime, they advocate a comprehensive research campaign studying the field – known as geoengineering – and its potential.

  • This is happening just as commercial enterprises are starting to plow ahead with their own geoengineering plans, with a profit-seeking motive.

Why it’s important: Who sets the rules of the road and what they contain, especially when it comes to the type of geoengineering known as solar radiation modification (SRM), could change the very course of global warming and affect billions of people.

  • SRM would involve injecting particles into the atmosphere to deflect incoming solar radiation, cooling the planet temporarily.

Zoom in: In a new report released on Monday, an expert panel convened by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) pours cold water on the notion that the SRM is almost ready.

  • “Even as a temporary response option, large-scale SRM deployment is fraught with scientific uncertainty and ethical issues. The evidence base is simply not there to make informed decisions,” UNEP chief Inger Andersen wrote in a cover letter accompanying the document.
  • Andersen notes that the SRM may be necessary since the world is currently off course from meeting its Paris temperature goals.

The panel rang for more research. But until then, it tries to close the door to deploy SRM.

  • “This expert panel considers that the scientific, technical, social and environmental aspects of a large-scale deployment of SRM have not been fully assessed and deployment is not warranted at this time,” it said.

The intrigue: The UN panel notes that the direct costs of deploying it without considering all possible negative impacts could be in the tens of billions of dollars annually per 1°C (1.8°F) of cooling.

  • And to be effective, SRM would need to be sustained for decades to centuries, depending on emissions cuts and carbon removal rates, the report finds.

The big picture: Also on Monday, more than 60 scientists from three continents signed a new letter supporting extensive research into SRM.

Between the lines: Recent plans by a geoengineering startup, Make Sunsets, to test SRM and ultimately earn climate credits have alarmed but not surprised many scientists working on this issue.

What they say: Veteran climate scientist and diplomat Janos Pasztor, who heads the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative and consults global governments on their views on geoengineering, told Axios that both the UNEP report and the scientists’ letter are major developments.

  • “A lot of the community that works with or against SRM is very critical of (Make Sunsets), but the fact remains that they exist, and they do things in a governance vacuum,” Pasztor said. “Partly they are provocative, precisely because of the governance vacuum.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *