The Emerging Politics of Geoengineering

Published on
May 10, 2021

As climate change accelerates and the world scrambles to meet its net-zero targets, geoengineering is receiving more attention in the media. The US National Academy of Sciences recently recommended the initiation of $100-200 million research programme on reducing incoming sunlight. A related experiment in Sweden was postponed after resistance from local stakeholders. In a seminar at the Sciences Po in Paris, Dr Ina Möller will present her research on the politics of planetary interventions.

Möller has studied the politics around introducing geoengineering as a policy option since 2014, and she is a Postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University. She co-chairs a working group on the politics of geoengineering under the international Climate Social Science Network, engaging with scientists, advocates and policy makers to highlight the social dynamics that come hand in hand with proposing large-scale, technological interventions into the climate system. “Although we have inadvertently changed the climate in the past, geoengineering means active coordination at scales we have not yet encountered”. By definition, the term alludes to intentional interventions at planetary scale that aim to slow or counteract the effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

A Plan B to fix the climate?

Geoengineering is often presented as a ‘Plan B’ that we should prepare for in case things go wrong. Unexpected developments such as climate tipping points represent emergency situations in which a global sunshield could be used to cool the planet and buy some time. But how much time are we talking about? Once a technology like stratospheric aerosol injection is deployed and the upper atmosphere is covered in a veil of tiny particles, temperatures are sure to stabilize. But if humans continue emitting carbon dioxide and methane through transport, industry and agriculture, that veil needs to become thicker and thicker to compensate for the resulting greenhouse gas effect. Every few years, balloons or planes would need to spread aerosols across the planet to keep the veil intact. If they stop, temperatures would rise steeply in a very short amount of time, with drastic consequences for life on Earth.

geoengineering is not just a set of technologies – it is an idea with political consequences

While preparing for emergencies is one part of the geoengineering narrative, another idea is to buy time for emissions cuts by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Addressing climate change has been defined as a matter of balancing carbon sources with carbon sinks, and these sinks – forests, peatlands, wetlands – are catching the attention of major emitters. Energy companies like Shell and Eni have announced plans to be carbon neutral by 2050, but rely on massive amounts of offsetting to do so. Shell for example has not committed to a cap on total emissions, but plans to offset 120 million tonnes of carbon per year by 2030. Following the numbers of the IPCC, just one company could thereby claim up to a quarter of the amount of forest that is globally available for sustainable carbon removal. Meanwhile, there are a multitude of other sources that intrinsically depend on offsetting, such as emissions from rice production in the global South or emissions from forest fires.

Effects on politics

Möller argues that geoengineering is not just a set of technologies – it is an idea with political consequences. There are few rules at international level that address geoengineering techniques, but while the institutional landscape is sparse, scientific authorities play an important role in shaping the conversation. In a research paper, Aarti Gupta and Ina Möller (both from Wageningen University) explain the effect of ‘de facto governance’, summarizing the power exercised by authoritative scientific assessments. Reports published under the banner of established scientific organizations are seen as legitimate sources of information, and contribute substantially to defining the concepts and priorities that shape subsequent scientific and political engagement. Yet many of the authors involved in writing such reports are based at well-financed institutions in highly industrialized countries, and often fail to address the concerns and perspectives of people in less privileged positions. Frank Biermann (Utrecht University) and Ina Möller have thus called geoengineering a ‘Rich man’s solution’ in a research paper published in International Environmental Agreements.

Going beyond scientific reports, geoengineering is also entering the domains of national and international politics. In 2019, a consortium of countries led by Switzerland proposed to investigate the science and governance of geoengineering under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). Their proposal was rejected by the United States and Saudi Arabia, who opposed language around the precautionary principle and the condition that geoengineering could not serve as a replacement for emissions cuts. In a perspective on the event, Möller analyses why Switzerland tabled the resolution. Based on interviews with government officials in different countries, she explains that geoengineering is a difficult topic to broach publicly, and that countries with a stake in international environmental policy making are concerned about facing reputational damage if they seem too positive about the idea. At the same time, science is presenting geoengineering as a necessary add-on to conventional policies of cutting emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change. In this situation, policy making requires a careful navigation of problem definitions and institutional fit to address the topic. This also requires recognizing that there are conflicting rationales for governing geoengineering, ranging from enabling its research to restricting any further consideration.

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Recent developments

Several events recently brought geoengineering technologies to the attention of international media. Most prominently, the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) published a report on the science and governance of solar geoengineering, calling on the US government to invest up to $200 million into a coordinated research programme. In anticipation of its release, the CSSN working group prepared a list of critical questions that journalists could ask of the report, thereby addressing the political consequences that such a research programme might imply. Working group members Kevin Surprise, Prakash Kashwan, Jennie Stephens and Aarti Gupta were subsequently cited in the New York Times, the Earther, and the Huffington Post, thereby adding a much needed critical perspective to the global coverage of this event.

Another recent event concerned the postponement of an outdoor experiment on solar geoengineering scheduled to take place in June 2021, at the site of Kiruna in northern Sweden. Researchers from the SCoPEx project at Harvard University had planned to test equipment for dispersing calcium carbonate in the stratosphere. In response, environmental organisations and representatives of the indigenous Sami community expressed their concerns at having an environmentally conscious country like Sweden host such a controversial experiment, and at the fact that foreign scientists were conducting an experiment without any consultation of local authorities or stakeholders.

Finally, though mostly under the radar of public engagement, a working group in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has been engaging with the idea of standardizing ‘radiative forcing’ as a way to measure climate footprints. The US-based initiators of the standard suggested the possibility of integrating projects that increased the Earth’s reflectivity into carbon markets, making it possible for companies to earn carbon credits by increasing the brightness of clouds or landscapes. This suggestion encountered substantial pushback from countries like Germany, Canada and France, who eventually succeeded in downgrading the suggestion to be a ‘technical report’ rather than a full standard. Möller has written an analysis of the ISO negotiations in a briefing note under the CSSN network.

Dr Möller will present these recent developments and her work on the emerging politics of geoengineering at an online seminar at the Sciences Po in Paris on May 18th, 17-18h European Central Time. The seminar is part of a series on Environment and International Relations. Attendance is free of charge.

Register here