Geoengineering Research: Walking on thin ice

20 September 2012

Portrait of Tim Kruger

by Tim Kruger
Programme Manager, Oxford Geoengineering Programme

Tim leads a group across the University of Oxford exploring proposed geoengineering techniques and the governance mechanisms required to ensure that any research in this field is undertaken in a responsible way.


Calls for geoengineering research in the open environment must be resisted until we have adequate governance in place.

We are walking on thin ice – physically and metaphorically. This year the extent of arctic sea ice minimum has been shattered - it is some 18% lower than the previous record low. To put that in context, it would be as if someone had smashed the record for running the 100m from its current 9.58 seconds to just 7.86 seconds.

And the predictions are that it will shrink still further in the years ahead, and in so doing will significantly change the amount of energy that arctic regions absorb from the sun – light ice-covered sea reflects most of the sun’s heat back into space, dark open waters absorb most of it. This positive feedback loop is anything but positive when it comes to the stability of our climate.

Some have called for the deployment of geoengineering techniques to increase the planet’s albedo – the proportion of light reflecting back into space – as a way of countering the retreat of the arctic sea ice. Such techniques are many and varied, from mirrors in space, to particles in the upper atmosphere, to making clouds brighter. They may hold promise to counter at least some of the problems that we have inflicted on the planet through our emissions of greenhouse gases, but one thing they have in common is that they are poorly researched.

So calls for more research are sensible – indeed essential – to understand whether these techniques could work and if so, to what extent and with what side-effects. But what should such research involve?

The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative was set up by the Royal Society, TWAS (the Academy of Sciences for the Developing Word) and the Environmental Defense Fund (a US-based environmental NGO) to examine just this issue. While the purpose of the initiative was to open up the discussion by interacting with stakeholders around the world, rather than closing it down into firm decisions, the report details what is seen by many, if not most, of those stakeholders as the line which should not be crossed without clear governance guidelines being in place: research in a controlled setting, okay – research in the open environment, not okay.

So what is meant by a ‘controlled setting’ and by the ‘open environment’? Is an experiment involving innocuous ingredients conducted in a contained pool of water open to the air in a controlled setting or in an open environment? Most researchers would not be unduly concerned as it is patently clear that such an experiment could have no material adverse impact on the physical environment. Such deliberations, they might argue, are not really concerned with such trifling niceties – there is plenty of leeway before we reach the tricky questions of whether to deploy these techniques at scale that really do need some hard thinking.

But while such experimentation may not impact the physical environment, it will impact the social environment. Belief - promoted by some who would wish away the challenges of climate change - that such techniques might provide a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card, could be bolstered by such research and be used by the unscrupulous as an excuse to delay action to reduce emissions. And the establishment of research on a fuzzy edge of acceptability would erode the edge of what is acceptable.

We need to define what that edge is now, before experimentation takes place. We need to define the line in the sand - the Rubicon that must not be crossed - before it is crossed. The time to shut the stable door is before the horse has bolted. And let us consider the intended end-point of this research – to deliberately alter the planet’s climate to counteract some of the effects of global warming. Do we really envisage effective deployment in the absence of international consultation and governance? I would argue that the time to start down that path is before experimentation occurs in the open environment –to put in place structures before less cautious researchers create ‘facts on the ground’.

And there’s an example of how this can be done – the London Convention and London Protocol (LCLP) governs what can and cannot be disposed of in international waters. They have created a set of rules for potential geoengineering experiments that would impact the marine environment. It provides for a review of proposed experiments prior to any permission being granted and the decisions made have legal standing. But while one great global commons – the oceans – is governed by a body which has legal teeth – the other great global commons – the skies – is not.

Some would argue that, in the absence of such an international body governing what can and cannot be placed in the atmosphere, researchers need only refer to their national agencies for permission – and that this is no bad thing as it will expedite important research that could otherwise get snarled in arcane bureaucracy. But I think this would be short-sighted. It would almost inevitably create a backlash against research – as has been seen in other areas of new technology such as nuclear power and GM crops.

Devising a legal instrument to regulate geoengineering research in the atmosphere is no simple task and international lawyers throw up their hands in horror at the prospect of trying to negotiate a new treaty. But if any geoengineering technique is ever to be deployed then such a treaty needs to be in place. The time to start developing it is now, before experiments unregulated at an international level are undertaken. Wait and we destroy the trust required to create such an instrument.

Many researchers ask “What is the most I can do without needing special permission?”, but really researchers need to ask – and answer – “What is the least I could do which would not require special permission?”

From the perspective of the physical environment it seems that there are clear minimum limits – environmental impact assessments can be used to decide whether or not the benefits of research outweigh the potential risk of harm. But with regard to impacts on the social environment there may be no such minimum limit when it comes to geoengineering research in the open environment. That is not to say that such research should not go ahead, but that any such research should be subject to international scrutiny and control, as in the framework devised by the LCLP. In the absence of such a system of control, research should be restricted to controlled settings and the demarcation line between what constitutes controlled settings and the open environment needs to be determined before the line is inadvertently crossed.

When you are walking on thin ice it is only prudent to tread warily.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.