Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cancun Agreements Underscore Need for Geoengineering

The outcome of the UNFCCC COP16 meeting held earlier this month in Mexico was a package of decisions known as the "Cancun Agreements." These include:
  • a "Cancun Adaptation Framework"
  • incremental progress on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, including conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks)
  • a "Technology Mechanism"
  • a "Green Climate Fund"

Taken together, these agreements keep the UNFCCC process on life support.

From the perspective of climate engineering, the most important result of the meeting was continued delay in negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. For years, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) has been working to reach agreement on binding emissions cuts to take effect after the first Kyoto "commitment period" expires in 2012. AWG-KP missed its original deadline at Copenhagen last year, and pushed back the deadline again at Cancun to a date uncertain. This is hardly surprising given the complexity of the issues and the stakes involved. Furthermore, any mitigation targets eventually agreed upon will almost certainly be insufficient in scale and scope to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic climate change. The results of Cancun underline just how sclerotic mitigation efforts have been up to now, and the necessity of augmenting emissions reductions with some form of climate intervention.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Friends of the Earth Steps Up

Friends of the Earth (England, Wales & Northern Ireland) has joined the growing ranks of environmental groups open to the possibility of geoengineering (see "NRDC and EDF Lead the Way," 12/2). In a recent report, FOE urges strong and swift action to reduce global carbon emissions, but acknowledges that the scale of cuts required to avoid "dangerous" climate change may not be feasible or even possible: "Urgent research and debate needs to be carried out - alongside urgent action to reduce emissions - to identify exactly how to share out the remaining global carbon budget and whether these reductions are technically possible and, if not, whether approaches using negative emissions or even geo-engineering are possible or acceptable." Like NRDC, EDF, and others, FOE has begun to recognize that mitigation alone is incapable of averting the likelihood of catastrophic climate change, and must be supplemented with some form of intervention.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where Do the Major Powers Stand?

Geoengineering is still in its infancy, and policies are nearly nonexistent, but given growing interest and gathering momentum, it is intriguing to attempt to assess the state of world opinion on climate engineering. More precisely, what are the views of the major powers of today (and tomorrow) on the subject of geoengineering? This exercise is inescapably speculative and subjective, and ultimately rests on nothing more than informed judgments. But since these powers would play essential roles in any international deployment scenario, it is worthwhile to try to elucidate their emerging positions.

US – The US is best regarded as guardedly open to the idea of geoengineering. Particularly over the last year, geoengineering has gained currency in influential policy circles, both liberal and conservative. The House Science and Technology Committee inquiry into geoengineering, starting in 2009, helped raise the profile of climate intervention and stimulated the production of multiple CRS, GAO, and Committee reports. Conservatives based at AEI are pushing the concept, and a growing number of leading environmental groups such as NRDC and EDF have begun to constructively engage with climate engineering. The bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy is preparing to release a report on geoengineering rumored to be sympathetic to intervention. For the moment, organized and effective opposition to geoengineering in the US is insignificant.

China – The opacity of China’s political system makes it more difficult to gauge internal views on geoengineering, but available evidence indicates receptiveness to climate intervention strategies. The majority of Chinese leaders are engineers by training, which suggests a mechanistic mindset comfortable with manipulative system frameworks. Large-scale public projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and Olympics weather modification demonstrate the predominance of this interventionist mentality. China was one of the few countries to resist adoption of the CBD moratorium, and spoke out strongly in favor of geoengineering research.

Russia – Russian opinion on geoengineering can be described as undecided. Many Russian elites believe that Russia will benefit from climate change, gaining from increased agricultural productivity, increased access to Arctic oil and gas resources, etc. However, the wildfires that engulfed the country over the summer appear to have checked such enthusiasm, with renewed vows to combat global warming coming from both president and prime minister. Given the hierarchical nature of Russian government, it is noteworthy that Yuri Izrael, former vice chair of the IPCC and the first scientist to conduct SRM field experiments, is an influential adviser to Prime Minister Putin. Russia was also one of the handful of states prepared to question the appropriateness of the CBD moratorium.

Europe – Europe is conflicted over climate engineering. The UK is at the forefront of geoengineering research and related policy considerations. The Royal Society has played a preeminent role in framing the public discussion of geoengineering, and leads the way on international regulatory issues with its SRM Governance Initiative (SRMGI). House of Commons hearings were held in conjunction with US House hearings, DEFRA and the Met Office have engaged the issue, and the government provides support to the IAGP and SPICE projects. In Germany, a strong Green Party is skeptical of climate engineering, yet the German government co-sponsored LOHAFEX. In France, a powerful neo-Luddite anti-globalization streak colors national politics, but this may be counterbalanced by the tradition of state dirigisme. The EU itself was divided on the recent moratorium, but continues to fund limited research on geoengineering.

India – India appears unresolved on climate engineering. Predictions that sulfate aerosol injections will disrupt seasonal monsoons have raised serious concerns among Indian leaders, and prominent activists such as Vandana Shiva have spoken out against geoengineering. However, India’s unique vulnerabilities to climate change, and anticipated high costs of adaptation, also affect national calculations. Rajendra Pachauri is held in high esteem, and Pachauri has signaled growing if circumspect openness to climate engineering. The Indian government was also a co-sponsor of the LOHAFEX project.

Japan – First indications are that Japan is amenable to geoengineering. Concepts of adaptive management and purposeful intervention, implicit in the idea of geoengineering, accord well with traditional Japanese constructions of nature and notions of environmental stewardship and instrumentality. The Japanese government voiced public worry about the potentially negative impact of the CBD ban. And Japan has a lively history of challenging Western environmental orthodoxy (e.g., bans on ivory trading, whaling, etc.), an orthodoxy which for now must be regarded as anti-geoengineering.

Comments on these characterizations are welcomed.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NRDC and EDF Lead the Way

The antics of ETC Group have attracted a lot of (negative) attention over the past few weeks, but other environmental groups are displaying exemplary openness to the idea of geoengineering. NRDC just released an excellent report titled "Biochar: Assessing the Promise and Risks to Guide U.S. Policy." The report is cautiously supportive of biochar, declaring that "biochar production systems clearly merit further investigation and support as one of many promising technologies in the global energy-climate mix." The authors advocate a $107.5-$145 million US federal research program over eight years. NRDC was also an active participant at Asilomar. EDF, for its part, is a co-sponsor (along with the Royal Society and TWAS) of the SRM Governance Initiative, or SRMGI. This initiative is currently considering a range of governance options for SRM research, and will host a major conference on the subject in March 2011.

Contrast these positive contributions to the clownish behavior of ETC Group. Earlier this year it launched a bizarre assault on biochar (see "Attack on Biochar," 9/1). Then came the infamous CBD moratorium. Two days ago ETC Group staged a press conference titled "False Solutions to Climate Change: Nuclear, Coal, Geoengineering and CDM Funding." ETC Group may be getting the press, but it is thankfully becoming marginalized in the process.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Geoengineering at Cancun

In his opening statement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Rajendra Pachauri brought geoengineering front and center. Referring to the Fifth Assessment Report, he stated that "The scope of the AR5 has also been expanded over and above previous reports, and would include, for instance, focused treatment of subjects like clouds and aerosols, geo-engineering options, sustainability and equity issues, and much greater focus on the economics and social implications of climate change." Geoengineering was largely relegated to sideshow status at Copenhagen just last year, now it is figuring in opening remarks by the head of the IPCC. It will be very interesting to see what happens at the IPCC Expert Groups' discussion of climate engineering in Peru later this month.