Switzerland calls on the UN to explore the possibility of solar geoengineering

This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climatic desk collaboration.

Switzerland has started a global debate on whether the “risks, benefits and uncertainties” of dimming the sun should be studied by a United Nations group of experts.

It proposes that the world body collect information on ongoing research into solar geoengineering and establish an advisory panel that can suggest future options for the controversial and unproven approach to reducing global warming, which would have implications for food supplies, biodiversity and global inequality. and security.

The Swiss proposal, presented to the United Nations Environment Assembly, focuses on solar radiation modification (SRM). This is a technique that aims to imitate the effect of a large volcanic eruption by filling the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide particles that reflect some of the heat and light from the sun back into space.

Supporters of the proposal argue that the research is necessary to ensure multilateral oversight of emerging, planet-altering technologies, which might otherwise be developed and tested in isolation by powerful governments or billionaire individuals.

Critics, however, argue that such a discussion would threaten the current de facto ban on geoengineering and lead to a “slippery slope” toward legitimation, integration and eventual deployment.

Felix Wertli, Swiss ambassador for the environment, said his country’s goal in submitting the proposal was to ensure that all governments and relevant stakeholders “are informed about SRM technologies, in particular about potential transboundary risks and effects.” He said the intention was not to promote or enable solar geoengineering but to inform governments, especially those in developing countries, about what is happening.

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen highlighted the importance of “a global conversation on GRS” in her keynote address to delegates at a preliminary meeting in Nairobi. She and her colleagues emphasized that the move was a precautionary measure rather than an endorsement of the technology.

But no matter how well-intentioned the proposal may be, some environmental groups are alarmed by the direction it will take. “There is a real risk that ordering UNEP to write a report and establish an expert group on GRS could undermine the existing de facto moratorium on geoengineering and inadvertently provide legitimacy to delay action to phase out fossil fuels “said Mary Church of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “There are some areas that the international community has rightly decided are simply off-limits, such as eugenics, human cloning and chemical weapons. “Solar geoengineering belongs on that list and needs to come together quickly before seemingly harmless conversations about governance take us down a very slippery slope toward implementation.”

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Swiss last proposed scrutiny of geoengineering at the 2019 UN Environment Assembly in 2019, but the topic was blocked by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Sources said this was because they wanted to conduct research on these technologies without the constraints of international oversight or regulations.

Since then, the debate over sun dimming research has intensified and expanded. In the past, this was an area partly financed by the fossil fuel industrybut in recent years more actors have become involved, including philanthropists, financiers and high-tech entrepreneurs, motivated by potential lucrative rewards and growing alarm about climate dangers. More money is flowing into the sector, particularly in the United States, where Bill Gates is among the supporters of the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Programand groups such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Environmental Defense Fundhe Union of concerned scientistsand the Natural Resources Defense Council have expressed support for new studies on sunlight reflection technologies. The sector sometimes displays a spirit of Wild West speculation, making up the rules as you go along and profiteering, most evident in the American startup. make sunsetswhich already sells “cooling credits” and claims to have conducted outdoor tests in Mexico.

Subsequently, the Mexican government banned such experiments in its territory. The European Parliament highlighted the need for restrictive governance and the application of the precautionary principle in a statement last year on solar geoengineering.

In 2022, some 500 scientists signed a call for a solar geoengineering non-use agreement which stipulated that there would be no public financing, no deployment, no patents, no experiments, and no support in international forums.

In scientific forums, SRM is a focus of growing concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted knowledge gaps and critical risks related to GRS in its Sixth Assessment Report. Last January, the Montreal Protocol reported for the first time on the damage that the SRM technique known as stratospheric aerosol injection could cause to the ozone layer.

Last year, the United Nations environment program was criticized for publishing an article on solar geoengineering, an atmosphere, which included contributions from SRM advocates and recommendations for further research, including outdoor experiments. CIEL said this helped the deployment of the technology.

UNEP chief scientist Andrea Hinwood said such accusations were unfair because her organization did not advocate for these technologies and emphasized that the priority was to reduce emissions.

“At the same time, we don’t want to be in a position where a few months or even years later we’re caught off guard and playing catch-up,” he said. “I know people think this is potentially creating a space where these technologies can be supported, but I also think not discussing them is more problematic.”

This article was corrected on February 22, 2024. An earlier version claimed that 400 scientists had signed the call for a solar geoengineering non-use agreement, and also said that SRM opponents had contributed to the One Atmosphere report. A further correction on February 23, 2024 clarified details about the research funding.

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