Geoengineering: Planning for Plan B

An excellent brief reading on climate change geoengineering governance issues, deemed to be “the most serious governance concern that we’re going to be facing in the next couple of decades” according to Maria Ivanova, director of Yale’s Global Environmental Governance Project, has recently been published in Nature Climate Reports: Inman, Planning for Plan B, 4 Nature Reports Climate Change 7-9 (2010).

Among the take-aways from the article:

  1. The emergence of the private sector’s involvement in geoengineering schemes, including companies e.g. Climos and Planktos seeking to ultimately obtain credits for ocean iron fertilization, has raised the specter of “unregulated commercial scale-up;” a concern highlighted by a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of the Pennsylvania-based Mantria Corporation, which the SEC has charged with operating a $30 million Ponzi scheme in inducing people to invest in biochar sequestration;
  2. Deployment of geoengineering might be justified if the climate system crossed a tipping point, e.g. massive releases of methane from Arctic  permafrost. Moreover, another rationale for engaging in research in this context is that if a major State decided to deploy a geoengineering scheme out of desperation or out of cost considerations, the international community would be compelled to “fall back on a moral argument” if such research had not been conducted;
  3. While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change may be the logical regime to regulate geoengineering, negotiations could be extremely protracted; which could result in unregulated activities for a long time, or a moratorium until the regime could be set in place, both potentially undesirable scenarios;
  4. There are a number of other regimes that might play a regulatory role,including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the Montreal Protocol, the UN Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and the Environmental Modification Convention. However, since none of these treaties were designed to regulate geoengineering, there is a threat of a “governance trap,” i.e. lock in into a less than ideal regulatory approach.

The article also does a good job of summarizing current regulatory efforts under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention, as well as self-governance efforts.

Among the discussion questions that this article might generate:

  1. Would it be problematic to have a number of regimes potentially exerting regulatory control over geoengineering? If yes, are there international legal constructs that could limit jurisdiction to one or more regimes?;
  2. Do certain geoengineering schemes invoke more concern in terms of potential transboundary effects or unchecked commercial activities?
  3. What components should be included in an international regulatory framework for geoengineering?

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