Fast Company

Fair Weather Foes: UN Bans Geoengineering Research

So much for our vision of cloud-spraying ships scattered in oceans around the globe. Future research into geoengineering, or the deliberate manipulation of the Earth's climate, has been banned by the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)--at least until a strong scientific basis for said activities can be established.

According to the Washington Post, the UN's measure reads, "that no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small-scale scientific research studies." That's a ban that covers many of the geoengineering techniques we explored in a recent slideshow on the subject, including algae-lined buildings, spraying sewater into clouds, and painting glaciers white. Carbon capture and storage will, however, still be allowed.

The ban also won't affect countries who haven't ratified the CBD (193 countries did ratify the convention)--and that includes the United States, which last week released the first congressional report on geoengineering. The report (PDF) leaves room for future geoengineering research:

A research moratoria that stifles science, especially at this stage in our understanding of climate engineering’s risks and benefits, is a step in the wrong direction and undercuts the importance of scientific transparency. The global community is best served by research that is both open and accountable. If climate change is indeed one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare, then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat to biodiversity and human welfare.

So geoengineering proponents can relax; research won't end entirely anytime soon. But without the whole world on board, large-scale geoengineering projects could prove difficult. Let's hope the CBD eventually decides to leave its options open. That's the least we could to do to secure the planet's future.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • David Le Page

    Apart from the fact that geo-engineering for cooling won't stop ocean acidification, the problems with the whole concept were probably best expressed by Gavin Schmidt of NASA a few years ago: he was quoted in an article in Rolling Stone:

    Schmidt quote begins:

    That, of course, is the fundamental problem with geoengineering -- it doesn't even attempt to address the root source of global warming. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, offers a simple analogy to illustrate the point. "Think of the climate as a small boat on a rather choppy ocean," Schmidt wrote recently. "Under normal circumstances the boat will rock to and fro, and there is a finite risk that the boat could be overturned by a rogue wave. But now one of the passengers has decided to stand up and is deliberately rocking the boat ever more violently. Someone suggests that this is likely to increase the chances of the boat capsizing. Another passenger then proposes that with his knowledge of chaotic dynamics he can counterbalance the first passenger and, indeed, counter the natural rocking caused by the waves. But to do so he needs a huge array of sensors and enormous computational resources to be ready to react efficiently but still wouldn't be able to guarantee absolute stability, and indeed, since the system is untested, it might make things worse.

    "So," Schmidt concluded, "is the answer to a known and increasing human influence on climate an ever more elaborate system to control the climate? Or should the person rocking the boat just sit down?"