Photo: AP

In the pantheon of climate change solutions, some are more fraught than others. Reducing carbon emissions? Not so risky. Blocking the sun or banking on sucking carbon out of the air? Pretty dicey.

Yet in a seemingly bizarre move last week, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) tabled a resolution to study the state of knowledge about these riskier techniques, which fall under the banner or geoengineering. That means that while research will continue around the world, the biggest intergovernmental organization on the planet won’t take a centralized look at it and will continue to fly at least partially blind.

Advertisement

The UNEA meeting happens every two years and basically sets the agenda for what the UN Environmental Program will look at. As part of the meeting in Nairobi last week, the Swiss delegation put forward a resolution to assess geoengineering technology that would either block the sun to cool the planet or suck carbon out of the air.

“The intention of the resolution by Switzerland, which was supported by Burkina Faso, the Federates States of Micronesia, Georgia, Liechtenstein, Mali, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Niger and Senegal, was to request UNEP to collect information on risks, potential and governance challenges of the different geo-engineering technologies,” Franz Xaver Perrez, head of the Switzerland’s Office for the Environment International Affairs Division, told Earther.

Advertisement

“The fact that Switzerland introduced this resolution is really good,” Janos Pasztor, the head of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, told Earther. “It was courageous because it is controversial, and it seems to indicate there are quite a few countries that like the resolution. However, the bad news is the resolution didn’t pass.”

Indeed, despite the diverse group of countries backing it, the resolution was ultimately withdrawn because delegates failed to reach consensus. As Climate Home reported on Thursday, it was blocked by a coalition led by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. The former are two of the largest fossil fuel exporters in the world while Brazil’s new president has pushed for more logging in the Amazon, which would increase emissions. The U.S. is also the second-biggest carbon polluter and under the Trump administration, has been seemingly hellbent on increasing fossil fuel production and rolling back power plant, methane, and car emissions regulations.

Advertisement

The resolution included language that geoengineering, including carbon dioxide removal, “should not be seen as an alternative to mitigation efforts.” That was a sticking point for the bloc that opposed the resolution, according to an anonymous source who was at the negotiations and spoke with Motherboard’s Sarah Emerson. The source also indicated that the countries worried even doing a cursory analysis of the state of play could lead to “constraining geoengineering research and development far more than other countries feared that it could enable geoengineering.”

That means that geoengineering won’t be something that UNEP considers directly for the next two years. That’s problematic, because the longer countries continue to ignore the safe bet of reducing emissions, the higher the odds are that a rogue nation or group of countries could turn to unproven planet-cooling technologies, or that the world will require a large-scale deployment of technologies to suck carbon out of the air. Putting together a report assessing these technologies so all countries are on the same page could conceivably reduce the odds of those outcomes.

Advertisement

At the same time, not all is lost. The UNEP is one of the myriad of groups at the UN with a toe in the geoengineering pool. Pasztor pointed to the Food and Agriculture Organization as another UN group that could provide a fruitful home for looking at the risks and benefits of using plants to hoover up carbon dioxide. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—which convenes climate talks every year—could also be another place to explore technology and nature-based carbon dioxide removal fixes, but Pasztor said “there’s no obvious home” for centralizing knowledge about dimming the sun, the other side of geoengineering.

Putting them together was another potential shortcoming of the Swiss resolution.

“I welcome this wider conversation, but I think it was a mistake to lump carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management together as ‘geoengineering,’” Andy Parker, the project director of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, told Earther. “They are two different ideas with different applications and implications.”

Advertisement

It will be two years before the UNEA convenes again and it’s possible there could be a more clear proposal on geoengineering when that happens. By then, it could be even more urgent.

“We’re in pretty bad shape on climate change as a whole,” Pasztor said. “There is no other reason why somebody would want to talk about geoengineering. Who would want to build a solar shield and play around with the one atmosphere we have unless we are in a really bad situation?”

Advertisement