Why The UN Moratorium On Geoengineering Is A Good Thing, Maybe

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photo: Kevin Dooley/Creative Commons

Late last week at the Convention on Biodiversity a resolution was adopted which places a moratorium on geoengineering unless it can be proven that the method in question can be shown to not have an adverse effect on biodiversity. Opponents of geoengineering cheered, TreeHugger's John Laumer loudly jeered, and Fred Pearce, writing in New Scientist shrugs his shoulders. Who's right? And is the ban really even a ban at all?Research Still Permitted, Deployment Requires Precaution
Let's look at the crucial part of the text:

Climate-related geo-engineering activities [should not] 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.

Furthermore, "small-scale scientific research studies" are specifically exempted from the ban.

So, no one is saying you can't do basic research on any geoengineering method, no matter how potentially risky or benign, effective or ineffective it might be, but if you want to take that research beyond that small-scale you have to be able to prove you're not going to radically screw up the environment that previous human activity is already screwing up.

Perhaps that's too glib a phrasing of the precautionary principle, but it frankly doesn't seem an unreasonable standard to set for activities design to affect the global climate.

Impact of Ban, What Methods Get Approval, Unclear
In practice the impact of all this isn't exactly clear--though it's not, as my colleague alleges, an anti-science eco-moralist crusade straight out the 1600s, playing into the hands of libertarian small government proponents.

As Pearce points out the definition of geoengineering here includes pretty much everything under the sun, anything that reduces solar heating or increases carbon capture from the atmosphere. Under that banner are a wide range of methods, with varying degrees of efficacy and risk. He's also right in that almost any activity that humans do can affect biodiversity, including (prominently) not taking action to stop climate change.

Complicating matters, as Mongabay points out, the moratorium doesn't apply in the United States, as it is not a member of the Convention on Biodiversity.

International Oversight & Cooperation Essential
When it comes down to it though (vague wording aside), is something that is both critically important and agreed upon by vocal anti-geoengineering activists and the more sober voices of the Royal Society alike: There needs to be international oversight of geoengineering schemes.

It's Getting Hot In Here quotes ETC Group executive director Pat Mooney:

This decision clearly places the governance of geoengineering in the United Nations where it belongs...Decisions on geoengineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving 'voluntary guidelines' on climate hacking.

Perhaps the most important issue in all this is, as the Royal Society pointed out in their assessment of geoengineering, the first and foremost thing we have to do to stop climate change is radically limit greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity--stopping burning fossil fuels and stopping deforestation are at the top of list for how to do that.

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More on Geoengineering:
UN, Biodiversity Experts Want to Ban Geoengineering Research
Geoengineering Unable to Fully Stop 21st Century Sea Level Rise: Report
Royal Society Says Geoengineering Humanity's Last Hope - But Emissions Reductions Must Be Top Priority
Geoengineering Inspired by Volcanoes? Not If You Want to Avoid Destroying Our Lakes
Reforestation & Biochar: Two Geoengineering Methods That Won't Cause More Harm Than Good

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