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?