New Reading on Geoengineering Governance

A couple of days ago, I suggested some potential readings for students on geoengineering, and I just ran across another excellent piece today by Professor Albert Lin at UC-Davis’s School of Law, Geogineering Governance, 8(3) Issues In Legal Scholarship (2009).  Lin initially does a nice job of introducing the recognized suite of potential geoengineering options, and ultimately chooses to focus on proposals to release sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to modify albedo, which he cites as the cheapest and easiest of geoengineering schemes.

However, Lin correctly notes that there are a number of risks associated with aerosol release proposals, including the spectre of drastic changes in climate should such projects be suddenly halted, and potential adverse impacts on clouds, some of which help to ameliorate radiative forcing. Moreover, albedo modification projects of this nature would do nothing to address the frightening implications of ocean acidification, and might detract from a focus on developing pemanent mitigation solutions.

Despite these concerns, Lin contends that we  should not wholly abandon research on geoengineering solutions since it broadens the tools available to us to address climate change and provides a potential stop gap as we work to develop long-term mitigation responses. However, he also maintains that we need to develop a mechanism to effectuate collective decisions on deployment of geoengineering technologies since the possibility exists that a State could unilaterally choose to deploy such technologies, which could have substantial implications for other States and the global commons. Thus, he advocates the establishment of  “Geoengineering Governance” regime.

While the UNFCCC is an obvious choice for governing geoengineering schemes, Lin argues that the agreement doesn’t directly address the issue (and arguably passes over geoengineering as a viable response) and the UNFCCC establishes only general commitments that may not ensure adequate multi-lateral regulation of geoengineering schemes. Ultimately, however, Lin contends that the UNFCCC is the most viable fora for addressing this issues given its focus and the expertise it would bring to the table. To ensure adequate governance by the UNFCCC, Lin suggests that following steps:

  • The COP should explicitly address geoengineering quickly, including by initiating a research program;
  • The COP should confront the risk that geoengineering or similar climate modification techniques might be used as weapons by States, drawing upon the Convention for the Prihibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) as a template;
  • The COP should consider developing nonconsensus procedures to make decisions in this context; the development of a protocol that focuses on geoengineering solutiosn as a series of adaptive management decisions might help foster support for this radical departure in decisionmaking for the UNFCCC’s parties.

This could be a very good reading for a climate course because it fulfills a number of purposes: it provides a good overview of geoengineering solutions (though I would suggest supplementing it with at least one other piece that discusses potential ramifications in a bit more detail); it emphasizes the fact that all potential responses to climate change involve tradeoffs and opportunity costs; and finally, it provides a good case study of how governance issues are an important component of implementing the UNFCCC, as well as other MEAs.

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