Originally published at Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Blog as part of a collection on “Perspectives on the UNEA Resolution.”
The dominant explanation in the news media for the fate of the UN Environment Assembly geoengineering resolution is that the US led a few states in blocking it and that they did so in order to prevent international oversight. Claims of the US’s intransigence are true and unfortunate. Its insistence that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) serve as the sole assessment site is ironic (at best) given the Trump administration’s cold reception of the IPCC’s work and its general hostility to climate change science.
However, the US’s obstinance is not the entire explanation of the resolution’s fate. Substantively, the resolution was too expansive along two dimensions, fracturing a potential supportive coalition. It addressed both carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM), although these two categories of “geoengineering” are more different than alike. The resolution also called for evaluating the current states of both the science and governance, which raised questions of institutional fit. In fact, the US’s position – however cynically it may have been deployed – that geoengineering’s scientific assessment is within the IPCC’s scope was a reasonable one (whereas the current state, challenges, and potential frameworks of governance would be best appraised within UN Environment).
Moreover, other countries may bear some responsibility. Although it is unclear whether the US would have supported the original resolution, Bolivia and some European countries pushed for changes in its preamble, adding a reference the precautionary principle and further emphasizing a 2010 decision by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) parties. Yet the US’s opposition to each of these was entirely predictable. It is thus unclear why Bolivia and the European countries would alter the resolution in ways that were likely to lead to its failure.
Some explanation may be found in the activities of advocacy groups that oppose geoengineering and that lobbied in Nairobi. They have called for a prohibition on geoengineering and criticized past assessments as unduly giving the endeavor legitimacy and credibility (see here [PDF] and here
[PDF]). In Nairobi, the groups both reiterated their demand for a ban while also calling for any decision to emphasize the precautionary principle and the CBD decision. If they indeed influenced some states toward greater skepticism of geoengineering — as they did at the 2010 CBD meeting [PDF] — then the advocacy groups achieved their second best: reinforcing their (poorly evidenced and misleading) narrative that geoengineering is the project of fossil fuel interests.
Despite the stalemate, the debate could have some positive consequences. The IPCC leadership might get the message and in its next scientific Assessment Report increase the attention given to CDR and especially SRM, which it has largely neglected to date. Likewise, the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change could consequently address CDR, a topic within the agreement’s scope that they too have been avoiding. That leaves the governance of SRM without a clear institutional home. This could be a fitting subject of a future UN Environment decision.