Sunday, May 22, 2011

Biochar Community Pledges Sustainability

The US Biochar Initiative, in association with Pacific Northwest Biochar, has begun work on a set of "Biochar Sustainability Protocols" designed to ensure that the fledgling biochar industry develops along a sustainable environmental and social trajectory. The first product of this effort is a draft "Declaration of Sustainability for Biochar Production," which sets out a number of guiding principles and accompanying sustainable "baseline practices." These principles are wide-ranging, encompassing issues as varied as intergenerational justice and long-term soil quality, and this heterogeneity is manifested in a long, expansive list of recommended practices. This particular protocol is focused on biochar production, and the US Biochar Initiative plans to develop additional codes to govern biochar energy, carbon sequestration, and biochar soil amendments.

This project can be read, at least in part, as a reaction to accusations made by NGOs last year that biochar represents an unjust and unsustainable carbon reduction option (see Attack on Biochar, 9/1/10). It is ironic that proponents of a technology widely regarded as epitomizing sustainability feel pressed to shore up their green credentials. Past experience, unfortunately, suggests that no amount of effort will be adequate to meet the concerns of those most vocal in their opposition to biochar and geoengineering more generally.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Uphill Battle in the Arctic

Despite the recent release of an Arctic Council report on climate change and regional collapse (see Alarming New Study from the Arctic Council, 5/5), the past week has witnessed discouraging developments on the Arctic front. On Thursday, the Arctic Council held its seventh Ministerial Meeting in Greenland, with attendees including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The focus of the meeting was not regional deterioration and possible mitigation, but rather the accelerating scramble for Arctic resources made possible by global warming. The main purpose of the gathering was to sign a new Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement, necessitated by increasing traffic resulting from intensified oil and gas exploration and regional shipping.

Prior to the conference, WikiLeaks released a series of US diplomatic cables detailing the quickening rush to carve up newly accessible Arctic mineral resources. In one cable, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller is quoted as saying (with reference to US failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and consequent difficulty establishing claims in the Arctic), "if you stay out, then the rest of us will have more to carve up in the Arctic." Another cable quotes the Russian Ambassador to NATO remarking that "The twenty-first century will see a fight for resources, and Russia should not be defeated in this fight ... NATO has sensed where the wind comes from. It comes from the North."

The Arctic is in a grave state, but the reality is that many national and corporate interests stand to gain considerably from a thawing Arctic. Mineral resources, fisheries, superior shipping lanes--climate change is creating a resource bonanza for extractive and other industries. The irony, of course, is that the region most sensitive to global warming, and therefore most likely to benefit from expeditious geoengineering, is the same region giving rise to some of the most powerful incentives to acquiesce in, or even hasten, climate change.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bolivia Fights On

After hosting the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Nature and helping engineer the CBD moratorium last year (see Update on CBD COP10, 10/21/10), the Bolivian government stepped back into the geoengineering debate in April on the occasion of the UN General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature in New York. During a speech deploring capitalism and advocating for the rights of nature, the Bolivian ambassador declared "It is time to stop and reaffirm the precautionary principle in the face of geo-engineering and all artificial manipulation of the climate. All new technologies should be evaluated to gauge their environmental, social and economic impacts. The answer for the future lies not in scientific inventions but in our capacity to listen to nature."

There is, of course, ample evidence that nature is asking for help (see, for example, Alarming New Study from the Arctic Council, 5/5/11). There is also a strong case to be made that the precautionary principle requires geoengineering rather than precludes it. In any case, Bolivia has clearly established itself as a leading critic of geoengineering on the international scene. The geoengineering community is wise to follow its next steps closely.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Enter the Vatican

Last month, the Vatican convened a working group under the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to examine the retreat of mountain glaciers driven by climate change. The results of that meeting have now been released, and include a surprising recommendation:

"It may be prudent to consider geo-engineering if irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts cannot be managed with mitigation and adaptation. A governance system for balancing the risks and benefits of geoengineering, and a transparent, broadly consultative consensus decision-making process to determine what risks are acceptable must be developed before any action can be taken" (p. 14).

This is based on an acceptance of climate science, acknowledgment of our Anthropocene epoch, an ethic of environmental stewardship, and concern for the poor who are most vulnerable to global warming. While this report does not represent the official policy of the Holy See, it was organized and produced under Vatican auspices, and its authors include some unexpected names (Rajendra Pachauri, Alan Robock). The report and its recommendations may have a small effect on geoengineering debates in predominantly Roman Catholic areas (parts of Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, etc.), and may also influence evolving views on climate intervention within other religious traditions and institutions.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Alarming New Study from the Arctic Council

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) of the Arctic Council has released a troubling new assessment titled "Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic" (SWIPA), the Executive Summary of which is available here. The report depicts a regional ecosystem in rapid decline due to global warming: "The observed changes in sea ice on the Arctic Ocean and in the mass of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic ice caps and glaciers over the past ten years are dramatic and represent an obvious departure from the long-term patterns" (p. i). "Key findings" include record warm temperatures, accelerating feedback mechanisms, decreasing snow cover and sea ice, thawing permafrost, melting glaciers and ice caps, a retreating Greenland Ice Sheet, and widespread economic and social disruptions across the region.

These changes are attributed unequivocally to climate change, and AMAP expects worse to come, for instance, "Average Arctic autumn-winter temperatures are projected to increase by between 3 and 6 degrees C by 2080, even using scenarios in which greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be lower than they have been for the past ten years" (p. v). Despite this outlook, the study's authors call for nothing more than mitigation and adaptation, evidently resigning themselves to the collapse of the Arctic cryosphere. The potential of geoengineering to halt this collapse is ignored, without explanation or even acknowledgement.

Over the years, many observers have pointed to the Arctic Council as an ideal forum for organizing and conducting geoengineering research, in particular SRM. The Arctic is already suffering disproportionately from climate change, and member states all experience the negative effects of global warming in similar ways. Arctic Council membership is restricted and small, which simplifies bargaining and negotiation among governments. All members are developed countries, which avoids the familiar specter of North-South climate conflict. And the Council incorporates indigenous peoples of the region as "Permanent Participants," representing the interests of those most vulnerable to Arctic decline. So far the Arctic Council has ignored repeated entreaties to consider the possible benefits of climate engineering. Perhaps the results of its own research will now spur the Council to alter its position.