Convention Considers Ban on Global Sun-Blocking Schemes

Next week's meeting of the 193-nation Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, will tackle such controversial issues as funding for the Global Environment Facility, hard-to-reach biodiversity targets, and controls on the access of genetic material in plants. If time allows, delegates to the CBD may also debate the first-ever international blanket prohibition on research related to geoengineering, the deliberate tinkering with the climate to reverse global warming.

On page 145 of the 195-page agenda for the conference is the declaration that no:

Climate-related geo-engineering activities [should] 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.

It's unclear, however, what that prohibition would mean were it to pass. Would it bar computer studies, or simply large-scale deployment of climate-altering schemes after they've been tested? The United Kingdom and the European Union are currently funding a handful of projects involving physical, atmospheric, and social research on sun-blocking techniques using particles in the sky, for example. They're on paper, in the lab, or being simulated on a computer. Would this broadly written bar apply to that work?

Concerned that the language, if passed, could prevent research that prominent scientific institutions say is important, a handful of scientists are trying to table or defeat this language. (Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund is among them.) Currently, the text is bracketed, which means that delegates at a meeting last May in Nairobi, when this text was proposed, lacked consensus on its inclusion. Delegates from Canada who opposed the ban insisted on the brackets but have not explained their actions. The CBD process can be mysterious, with text appearing and disappearing at the last minute.

The ETC Group, a Canadian environmental group which has led opposition to geoengineering research in the past, supports a ban. "Rather than nurturing and protecting biodiversity, geoengineering aims to create conditions that will allow us to sustain the excesses that brought on the current ecological and social crisis," the group says.

Scientists and some prominent environmentalists have questioned the ability of CBD to make pronouncements on complex topics, and geoengineering is one area where the Convention's record is mixed. In 2008, CBD passed language that barred one type of geoengineering approach: the fertilization of the ocean with iron or other substances to encourage the growth of algae. But that language limited the studies to coastal areas—just the places with sensitive ecosystems where iron fertilization would be unwise.

Scientists with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission called that step a "new, arbitrary, and counterproductive limitation" and ETC activist Jim Thomas agreed that the specific language was a "mistake." Yet the ETC Group says that this work on iron fertilization is evidence that CBD has "shown leadership" on geoengineering by its bar on iron fertilization.

What would be the effect of passage be? The Convention is not considered a powerful regulatory treaty per se, though it has pushed countries to work to preserve their biodiversity. (The United States signed the agreement but has never ratified it.) The 2008 bar on iron fertilization caused a rift within the German government over a fertilization experiment the following year called Lohafex in the Southern Ocean. The fight, between the environmental and science ministries, forced the scientists to halt their plans temporarily until the proper paperwork was filed.

Geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, a geoengineering research advocate, fears that further pronouncements from CBD on the issue could chill other areas of climate engineering research:

We need to do the research to understand whether [geoengineering] approaches could indeed protect biodiversity. A ban on this research as proposed by ETC prevents us from developing tools that could be applied to protect biodiversity.