A Misplaced Ban

The recent UN Convention on Biodiversity passed a ban on geoengineering. The journal Science gained access to the draft text of the protocol prior to its official release, parts of which they quoted in a recent news article. Here are the relevant passages:

Ensure…in the absence of science-based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach…that no climate-related geoengineering 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 would be conducted in a controlled setting…and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment.

Any technologies that deliberately reduce solar insolation or increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere on a large scale that may affect biodiversity (excluding carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels when it captures carbon dioxide before it is released to the atmosphere) should be considered as forms of geoengineering which are relevant to the Convention on Biological Diversity until a more precise definition can be developed.

The implications of this ban are staggering. As the Science article notes, it could “broadly affect a whole field of research still taking shape”, a field that could end up being vital to our survival. Nobody wants to have to use geoengineering before we do all we can to reduce fossil fuel emissions (well, except for some U.S. politicians, I’m sure). But if it’s 2100 and we’ve virtually eliminated fossil fuels but it’s still not enough, the planet still hasn’t reached radiative equilibrium, and the sea keeps rising and the temperatures keep going up and up…drastic measures to counteract the damage we’ve already done might be our only hope. I’ve heard geoengineering described as a tourniquet: the worst possible option, except for bleeding to death.

The convention leaves the door open to small-scale research, but what if small-scale isn’t enough to improve our understanding of geoengineering’s impacts? I believe that it’s more prudent to take small risks now so that we understand our future options, rather than jump blindly into full deployment when the time comes – and unless we get our act together in the next few years, a prospect that looks more unlikely by the day, that time might easily come sooner than we’d like.

Science interviewed Ken Caldeira, one of the world’s top environmental scientists, on the geoengineering ban, and he made some good points. He argued that “may affect biodiversity” is such a weak statement that it could be used to prevent almost any field research into geoengineering. Additionally, failing to specify negative effects could also prevent studies that aim to increase biodiversity for geoengineering – for example, increasing the productivity of an ecosystem in order to expand its capacity as a carbon sink.

I am also at a loss as to why expanded carbon sinks are given the same status as solar insolation techniques, such as giant mirrors in space or sulfates in the stratosphere to scatter sunlight. It was my understanding that the latter was seen to be riskier. However, I haven’t read much geoengineering research – does anyone have recommendations for good papers?

The Chemical & Engineering News article on the subject interviewed Bart Gordon, the outgoing chair of the U.S. Congress Science & Technology Committee. (I’m really scared to find out who the Republicans are going to replace him with. Initial prospects don’t look good.) He issued a geoengineering report the same day that the UN ban passed, and also had some great words to say:

A research moratorium 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. 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.

Science and knowledge isn’t the threat. What we do with that knowledge is the threat. Since the possibility of geoengineering is already out there, how could increasing our understanding around the topic be anything but the most proactive option?

19 thoughts on “A Misplaced Ban

  1. “or increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere on a large scale that may affect biodiversity”

    My guess is that this was aimed at iron fertilization of the oceans, which is a solution which is rather dubious in quality as well as risky in terms of ecosystem impacts. Though, giant carbon sink forests of really fast-growing trees, harvested and buried every few years, would be a kind of terrestrial sequestration which might also legitimately raise some eyebrows.


  2. As I understand it, “small scale tests” of geoengineering are of only very limited use in improving our understanding. Any test worth doing might need to be at a scale that could have serious unforeseen consequences on global climate. But I’m quite ready to stand corrected on that point.

  3. I have to say that it is a well placed ban.
    Research is justified but it isn’t appropriate to carry out large scale experiments.

    The UN has got it right.

    If we can’t control our GHG emissions, it might be appropriate to face up to the consequences of our failure and let the Earth sort out a new balance. There is only so much we should be doing, beyond that, maybe our fate is whatever nature imposes on us.

  4. Another reason the world should ban geoengineering.

    Putting potentially destructive new technologies into the hands of the affluent, just so they can retain their god-given houses, cars, food, luxuries, and wealth, could be much more devastating to the world than cluster bombs.

    Imagine this scenario: Emerging geoengineering science allows the affluent to create local microclimates by rejecting heat to and extracting moisture from surrounding areas as needed to maintain ideal living and growing conditions for them. Morally speaking, we know they wouldn’t do that, but to be safe, the UN is being proactive.

  5. In my opinion concerns over stifling of research are overblown.

    Parties did indeed agree a restriction on geoengineering, but they included a tightly worded exception for small-scale scientific research “in a controlled setting”. My understanding is that it is a moratorium rather than a ban. A moratorium is by definition temporary, and the text calls for it “in the absence of a science-based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism”.

    So it seems to me an eminently sensible stop-gap until a proper regulatory regime is in place – this could presumably be drawn up later, and not necessarily under CBD.

    One interesting snippet is that Russia called for all text on geoengineering to be deleted during negotiations. Brazil and the Royal Society both called for an exception for research. There was some discussion over the scope of research, whether in a “controlled” environment or “confined”, whether within national jurisdiction and so on. The final text refers to “controlled setting” and also to CBD Article 3 on ensuring activities do not cause damage to the environment of other states or beyond national jurisdiction (this is important for the high seas).

    You can access all the Nagoya outcome documents here:

    The text on geoengineering is in here:

    *text on geoengineering

    (w) Ensure, in line and consistent with decision IX/16 C, on ocean fertilization and biodiversity and climate change, in the absence of science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach and Article 14 of the Convention, that no climate-related geo-engineering activities[1] 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 would be conducted in a controlled setting in accordance with Article 3 of the Convention, and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment;

  6. Two thoughts,
    If you are banning things that reduce the amount of sunlight that would naturally reach the ecosystem, doesn’t that put all but rooftop solar power plants in peril?

    Wasn’t Ken Caldeira against geoengineering, and this was the issue with the Superfreakonomics authors’ misquoting him?

  7. I’m not sure what they had in mind with respect to carbon cycle geoengineering. But M could be right about iron fertilization being one motivation for being cautious. (I presume they’re not thinking of radical proposals like Dyson’s genetically-engineered carbon sequestering trees…)

    As Byron said, a “small scale geoengineering test” might not be very informative about the actual impacts of geoengineering. See Robock et al. (2010). Doug MacMynowski of Caltech also has a paper in submission about this (with Caldeira and Keith). It studies how big, and how long, of a test is necessary before we can say we’ve statistically ascertained its effect.

    Some various references on geoengineering:

    Click to access 20Reasons.pdf


  8. There were numerous other issues with Superfreakonomics besides the Caldeira misquote.

    What you’re likely thinking of wasn’t technically even climate-change related: Steve Levitt (main author of the book, economics background) went on the Diane Rehm show and claimed that ocean acidification wasn’t a big deal because we knew how to deal with it, namely, “pour a bunch of base into it“. This is geoengineering, yes, but not in a climate context (still related due to acidification being caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions, though). The issue was, the Royal Society had already dismissed this in an earlier report, published in 2005. It’s impossible that Dubner was unaware of it – as Ken Caldeira, their sole scientific interviewee in their climate chapter, was a lead author on that report, and it’s his research cited throughout the section addressing that:

    It has been suggested that some of the chemical effects of
    CO2 addition could be mitigated with the addition of
    alkalinity to the oceans (Kheshgi 1995; Rau & Caldeira
    1999). However, this mitigation would be at best partial. If
    enough alkalinity were added to restore the mineral
    saturation state of ocean carbonate, only half of the pH
    change would be mitigated (Annex 1). If enough alkalinity
    were added to restore ocean pH, the oceans would
    become more saturated with carbonate minerals (Caldeira
    & Wickett in press). This in itself could potentially lead to
    ecosystem level changes. A major concern relating to this
    approach is the ecological damage from the amount of
    limestone mining that would be required (see below).

    (Page 37, or 45 of that PDF.)

    The issue was far more than a misquote (though they did that too). They flat-out ignored his research when it didn’t support their Chicago-school-of-economics worldview. (Of course, they ignored their own research as well…. the whole point of Freakonomics was that market incentives matter and can effect behaviour change, but the whole point of their climate-change chapter in the sequel was that market incentives didn’t matter and we couldn’t change our behaviour, so we should just adapt.)

    RealClimate put it best (in their spectacular smack-down of some of Levitt’s claims): “given the way Superfreakonomics mangled Ken Caldeira’s rather nuanced views on geoengineering, let’s keep [our meeting] off the record, eh?”

    Really, there’s very little redeeming qualities in Superfreakonomics. Take a peek at what I linked above in the first paragraph, especially the critiques that ignore the climate chapter.

  9. Two corrections on my previous comment.

    1) I mistakenly referenced Steve Dubner the second time when I meant Steve Levitt. My entire comment is actually referring to Levitt. (Dubner was the one who claimed ocean acidification was addressed in the book, when it wasn’t.)

    2) Lest the particular quote I chose suggest a simple view of pro- or anti-geoengineering on Caldeira, I must emphasize he’s one of the main researchers involved in determining the limits and practicality of geoengineering. He isn’t as gung-ho as the Superfreakonomics guys (who suggest it in lieu of actually dealing with the carbon problem – akin to prescribing a blood transfusion to a man with a lion gnawing on his leg, by the way), nor is he opposed to the idea. Thinking of things in such simplistic ways is a bit of a problem, even when you aren’t considering geoengineering.

    (For the record, and unsurprisingly, I’m with Kate here, although I openly admit I don’t know enough to accurately assess where we currently stand. Nathan’s excellent reference list will probably help with that. I’ll see if there’s video around for the lay audience of some of David Keith’s talks… he was pretty big on the presentation circuit last year.)

  10. Wowzers batman, Geoengineering and the UN. A brave new world. I have some very heavy reading to do just to begin to understand what the heck the UN is prattling on about this time.

    Many thanks Kate,

  11. akin to prescribing a blood transfusion to a man with a lion gnawing on his leg
    Now there’s an image that going to stay with me. What an excellent analogy – thanks!

  12. Elsewhere I have said that we inevitably geoengineer despite the horrendous consequences, that we will panic. That lion annnalogy is going to haunt me, because it is spot on.

    Despite that; I think the ban is entirely appropriate at this stage and now is the time to put the ban in place. We do not want one country geoengineering in a way that puts most of the disadvantage elsewhere, for there will be winners and losers. Nuance is required in an increasingly nuance free world.

    Yet I also agree with Kate that we need to study geoengineering in all its forms. We need to work out as soon as we can what the dangerous thresholds are.

    In due course the ban can be refined.

  13. The old law of unintended consequenses becomes involved on this topic. I am thinking that only misguided foolish people are going to see a pot of gold at the end of the Geoenginering rainbow. It is impossible to model the impacts that any of these proposed “solutions” would have.

    [citations needed – scientists have trouble predicting the weather, so climate models are a lost cause]

    And, lets say the U.N. bans this research. a few questions.

    How do you know this research is happening?
    How do you know that there isnt a project underway?
    How do you prove that any of this is happening?

    And last but not least, how in heavens name can you enforce this ban? And even better, who does the enforcing? Shades of 2002

    Just food for thought.

  14. [citations needed – climate models are simply a long-term extension of weather models]

    There is a good explanation of the difference here. -Kate

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