International consortium of NGOs calls for coordinated action on geoengineering research

12 February 2011

Nations, NGOs and individuals must engage in a wide-ranging dialogue to explore both the potential risks and benefits of solar geoengineering and establish effective governance arrangements for research, according to a new report from an international collaboration of NGOs: the Solar Radiation Management Governance  Initiative (SRMGI).  SRMGI is convened by the Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world.

SRMGI was established in March 2010 to explore how to govern the developing research area of Solar Radiation Management (SRM), a type of geoengineering that would cause a small percentage of inbound sunlight to be reflected back into space, in order to reduce global warming.  

Interest in SRM technologies has increased rapidly in recent years, as their potential to be both useful and/or harmful to the planet has been recognised.  SRM methods may be able to reduce temperatures quickly and relatively cheaply.  However, these technologies could also have significant unanticipated side effects.  Moreover, they would not affect the cause of climate change, rising levels of greenhouse gases, and the associated threat of ocean acidification and could conceivably be implemented unilaterally, without consultation or agreement from all individuals and nations that could be affected. 

SRMGI has brought together diverse opinions and expertise from the fields of natural sciences, social science, governance and law, as well as environmental and development NGOs, industry and civil society organisations, from across the globe to discuss this issue.  Following a major conference in March 2011, the report released today summarises the opinions gathered and the issues raised from this and other meetings, including input from experts and organisations from 22 different countries.  

Key conclusions include:
• Nothing now known about SRM techniques provides any justification for reducing efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases and this should remain a global priority.  
• Concern about geoengineering, and particularly SRM methods, is significant and it is important to ensure that all perspectives and interests can be expressed and discussed.  In addition to misgivings regarding potential side effects, concern is often expressed that geoengineering could be seen to provide an escape route from the impacts of climate change, thus reducing the incentive to reduce emissions.  
• SRM technologies would take effect relatively quickly and their cost could be comparatively low, and they could reduce some of the most significant effects of climate change.  However, the technologies are poorly understood, have the potential to be dangerous and there are risks associated not only with deployment but also medium and large-scale research.
• Appropriate research will make it easier to assess the feasibility, risks and impacts associated with SRM, and to reduce the uncertainties.  A lack of information about SRM technologies and their potential impacts is making the issues more difficult to debate and resolve at present.  
• The range of SRM research runs from computer simulations and laboratory studies right up to potentially risky, large-scale experiments in the real world.  While most SRMGI participants were comfortable with low risk research, there was much debate over how to govern any research outside the lab.  
• Governance arrangements for managing any potentially risky research are mostly lacking and must be developed.  Initial discussions suggest that the wide differences among the types of SRM technologies and types of research make a “one size fits all” approach inappropriate, and a differentiated regulatory and governance approach is likely to be more effective.  
• Considering the actual deployment of SRM techniques would be inappropriate without, among other things, adequate resolution of uncertainties concerning the feasibility, advantages and disadvantages.  No future technology should be implemented without a thorough characterisation of its potential environmental and social impacts and appropriate governance arrangements. 
• The SRMGI convening organisations neither support nor oppose solar geoengineering, but share a conviction that further international debate and deliberation, reflecting a range of views and informed by the best scientific advice, must be undertaken to develop effective governance in order to ensure that any future research can be carried out in a safe, transparent and socially acceptable way.

Professor John Shepherd, Fellow of the Royal Society and a co-chair of SRMGI, said: “Unless the apparent lack of political will to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions changes soon, geoengineering may be needed and SRM methods could be used in unregulated and possibly reckless ways by individuals, corporations or individual countries.  These actions would have consequences beyond national borders that are as yet unknown.  We must also work outside our national borders, bringing together interested parties from around the globe to debate the issues of geoengineering, agree appropriate governance structures and ensure that any research is undertaken in a safe, transparent and socially acceptable manner.  The question of whether solar geoengineering will prove to be helpful or harmful will largely depend on how humanity can govern the issue and its political implications, and avoid unilateral action.”
Steve Hamburg, Chief Scientist for Environmental Defense Fund and co-chair of SRMGI, said: "Solar Radiation Management might sound, at first, like something from science fiction - but it's not. There are already serious discussions beginning about it, and that's why we felt it was urgent to create this governance initiative. Solar Radiation management could be a Plan B to address climate change, but first we must figure out how to research it safely. Only then should we even consider any other steps." 

Professor Paulo Artaxo, head of the Department of Applied Physics at the Institute of Physics, University of São Paolo, Brazil, and a Fellow of TWAS, said: “Like the effects of global warming we are currently facing, the effects of any solar radiation management deployment are likely to have greater impacts in developing countries that are less resilient and less able to mitigate and adapt to any adverse effects. Any deployment, even of medium to large-scale research initiatives, therefore, needs to be governed by an effective and transparent system. Developing countries need to be involved in the discussions to develop such governance arrangements from the beginning.”
SRMGI is being supported by a range of funders and partners, including FICER, Carbon War Room and Zennström Philanthropies.

Find more information about SRMGI and download the report.