Climate Change

Must assess ethical, social and cultural risks of climate engineering along with climate action: UNESCO report

Urges countries in a geographic region to make agreements to avoid risks of unequal spatial distribution of effects

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Wednesday 29 November 2023
Photo: iStock

Vulnerable, neglected and marginalised individuals, as well as women, youth, and indigenous people must be key stakeholders in policy decisions for the highly controverisal climate engineering, said a recent report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

Climate engineering — a set of technologies that deliberately modify the climate — has been gaining traction after recent Emissions Gap Report warned the world would breach the warming mark of 2 degrees Celsius over the preindustrial era, even if the existing nationally determined contributions are delivered by 2030.

Read more: Modelling study shows how controversial geoengineering may affect global food production

“Climate engineering techniques are gaining policy attention due to the current gap between climate policy targets and the necessary reductions in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations needed to prevent catastrophic climate change impacts,” read the UNESCO report on the ethics of climate engineering.

The report, which included recommendations, was published before the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates beginning November 30, 2023 till December 12, 2023.

“The report called for an assessment of the ethical, social, and cultural implications of climate engineering for global deployment and governance of such technologies in tandem with international dialogue on climate action,” Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem, chair of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, said at a press briefing.

These reflections, she added, are specifically pertinent going into COP28, where the first Global Stocktake — which will evaluate progress on the implementation of the Paris Agreement — will be concluded. 

Climate engineering is classified into two groups of techniques: Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which removes and stores the emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and solar radiation modification (SRM), which reflects sunlight back to space.

Read more: Why geoengineering is still a dangerous, techno-utopian dream

CDR, which is expensive, involves five approaches. These include direct air capture, land-use management through afforestation / reforestation, sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by biomass that may also be used as an energy source, increasing the uptake of CO2 by the ocean and enhancing natural weathering processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

So far, new CDR technologies have performed only about 0.1 per cent of carbon removal — around 2.3 million tonnes per year — according to a report in the journal Nature.

SRM approaches include increasing the surface reflectivity of the planet by painting structures with reflective paints, planting crops with high reflectivity, enhancing the reflectivity of marine clouds to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the surface and removing infrared-absorbing clouds from the atmosphere to reduce trapped heat.

Injecting aerosols into the lower stratosphere to mimic the cooling induced by volcanic eruptions and lowering the solar radiation reaching the Earth by placing reflectors or shields in space are some more SRM techniques.

Some SRM methods, according to the report, presently appear to be relatively inexpensive. This means the technology could be accessible to private entities, such as commercial enterprises, non-state actors and others such as contractors without international coordination and consensus, the report warned.

Read more: US government considers controversial solar geoengineering to counter global warming: Report

Gabriela Ramos, assistant director-general for social and human sciences at UNESCO, highlighted there are several areas of great concern with climate engineering. “First and foremost, they are being developed by a very small group of countries, firms and academics. Climate is global and a global conversation is needed,” she said.

The second point, she noted, are the unknown and unintended consequences of these technologies. “The risks need to be measured thoroughly,” the expert said.

UNESCO recommended its Member States to introduce legislation that regulates climate action while also considering the transboundary impact of their decisions on all human beings and ecosystems.

The report also urged countries belonging to a geographic area to make regional agreements to avoid risks of unequal spatial distribution of effects. 

It called for a ban on using climate engineering techniques as a weapon (weaponisation). Also, it added that political or economic interests should not interfere with scientific research on climate engineering. “Sharing of scientific knowledge and research data is a global responsibility for anyone involved in climate research including climate engineering, in order to ensure informed policymaking and public debate on climate change,” read the report.

Read more:

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.