Scientists and advocates are alarmed that a global panel of experts has left the door open for research on geoengineering the planet’s climate—even as the panel called for a global moratorium on such efforts.
The Climate Overshoot Commission—an advisory group of senior former diplomats, policy experts, and scientists addressing global warming past the 1.5°C limit—recently published a report that “called on governments to phase out fossil fuels, put more resources into adapting to the impacts of extreme weather, and start using technologies to remove carbon dioxide, such as carbon capture and storage and the capture of carbon directly from the air,” reports the Guardian.
The panel also said governments “should adopt a moratorium on the deployment of solar radiation modification (SRM) and large-scale outdoor experiments that would carry risk of significant transboundary harm, while expanding research, and pursuing international governance dialogues” around SRM technologies.
SRM aims to reduce sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and can involve techniques like deploying space mirrors or using fleets of planes to release stratospheric aerosols that scatter sunlight. Critics have warned that such disruptions to the atmosphere can alter rain patterns, causing droughts over some areas while flooding others.
The panel warned governments not to embark on these techniques, but also suggested SRM research must continue within guidelines that allow for testing in some jurisdictions that have “an effective environmental regulatory regime.”
But critics say even this slightest nod to SRM will divert necessary resources from more effective solutions, like reducing emissions and expanding renewable energy technologies.
“Dangerous distractions that hinder meaningful action must be rejected, as well as any report that promotes their development and use,” Lili Fuhr, director of the fossil economy program at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), said in a statement. “The world is burning, and there is no time to waste with false solutions.”
Fuhr also alleged the commission is not the independent body it claims to be—rather, it is “a private initiative set up and advised by prominent solar geoengineering proponents.”
The commission, which includes Laurence Tubiana, a former French diplomat and one of the main architects of the Paris climate agreement, warned that the likelihood of global warming exceeding the agreement’s 1.5°C goal is “alarmingly high and continues to rise”. So it said policy-makers “should urgently address the escalating risks of climate change, particularly those impacting vulnerable countries, by considering the full spectrum of approaches.”
The priority must always be reducing emissions, but within a strict moratorium on large-scale SRM, the approach “should be researched, and its governance discussed,” the report stated.
Such recommendations leave an unacceptable opening for SRM development to continue, says CIEL, noting that on top of its environmental threats, solar geoengineering is at odds with international law and would require unprecedented global governance. The centre adds that Indigenous peoples have repeatedly rejected and opposed solar geoengineering, such as when the Saami Council voted to shut down a planned stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment (SCoPEx) at Harvard University, which would have tested stratospheric aerosols.
Other critics of the SRM recommendation, like Chukwumerije Okereke, professor of global climate governance and public policy at Bristol University, said the moratorium is poorly defined and called for a total pause on experiments.
“What does large-scale mean? This could lead to rogue researchers making a test at a time when we don’t even know the full effects,” he said. “This is not a position that is ethical, sensible, and recognizes the dangers.”
The commission focused on SRM “because that is one of the most controversial and dangerous ideas,” writes the Guardian. Regrowing trees is usually regarded as safe, but putting mirrors in space or seeding clouds to reflect more rays could have huge impacts that would be impossible to confine within country borders.
“As well as the risks inherent to changing the climate in one place, there could be a ‘termination shock’—the concern that if emissions continued to pour into the atmosphere while geoengineering was used, stopping use of the technology would cause severe disruption to the climate as the underlying heating effect took hold again,” the Guardian explains.
“Geoengineering, like direct air capture, is a deeply uncertain techno-solution that fossil fuel executives love to push to take pressure off their core business of selling oil, gas, and coal, which, as more and more people are realizing, is causing rapid and irreversible destruction of our planet’s habitability,” said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory speaking on his own behalf. “Fossil fuel elites will use geoengineering as an excuse to continue business-as-usual.”
“As a climate scientist, my worst nightmare is continued fossil fuel expansion accompanied by solar geoengineering followed by termination shock,” Kalmus added. “This would be game over for human civilization and much of life on Earth.”