Can solar geo-engineering fight climate change?, ET EnergyWorld

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Nearly four decades ago, the world was faced with one of its most astounding geophysical discoveries, perhaps a stitch in time: there was an ozone hole above the Antarctic ice sheet. This unprecedented phenomenon led to an equally unprecedented act of global cooperation. On this day in 1987, nations adopted the Montreal Protocol for Protection of the Ozone Layer, the first global treaty to attain universal ratification.

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of an even greater planetary crisis, and yet again in the need of defining acts of global cooperation for effective and science-based climate action. Experiencing record-breaking months of heat year on year, it is not surprising that in 2022, the UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report declared that the world is off-track from achieving the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 Degree Celsius. Given the growing challenge of reducing global atmospheric temperatures, many have been focusing on quick fixes such as reflecting the sun’s heat back. But unproven technologies such as solar geoengineering or solar radiation management (SRM) remain an illusionary smokescreen. Recently, the climate chief of the European Union also called for talks on SRM governance at the highest international levels.

SRM is a cohort of climate-altering technologies that seek to partly reflect the sun’s heat back into space to avoid further warming. But this may prove to be a double-edged sword. While it may temporarily help in reducing climate change-induced heat, the sulphate aerosols most frequently analysed for this technology are ozone-depleting and can damage the stratospheric ozone layer. It is precisely this inherent dichotomy that makes solar geoengineering a topical discussion for this Ozone Day, whose theme is ‘Fixing the Ozone Layer and Reducing Climate Change’ [1].

Other reasons that bring SRM, specifically a type called Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), into the spotlight are the scale and nature of
environmental and geopolitical risks – the ‘unknown unknowns’. SRM could lead to overcompensating climate change at a regional scale, redistribution of existing climate change impacts, and various adverse effects on people and ecosystems that science is yet to decipher. These risks are aggravated by the absence of any clear governance mechanism under international law, which endangers accountability.

While there is greater global consensus regarding the scientific uncertainty of SRM deployment, progress towards research and governance has been more at the national level. The Department of Science and Technology, Government of India has also sanctioned geoengineering modelling research under the National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change. These growing discussions and the sheer transboundary risk of potential deployment makes understanding some global developments necessary.

1. Montreal Protocol Panel re-confirms inherent risks: The Scientific Assessment Panel under the Protocol has for the very first time published a dedicated chapter on SAI in its quadrennial report last November. The report modelled different scenarios with varying results on the amount of cooling produced or ozone damaged, but did not account for socio-economic fallouts. The report clarifies that even after nearly five decades of research, we have more questions than answers, more risks than solutions.

2. UN says ‘deployment is not warranted’: UNEP convened a multidisciplinary panel of global experts to undertake a rapid review of SRM research. Published in February this year, the report reconfirms the uncertainties around large-scale deployment, and the possibility that efforts at aggressive decarbonisation may take a hit, thereby delaying as opposed to preventing the climate meltdown. The report proposes an international framework for governance of the stratosphere as a whole, which would also include governance of the research or deployment of SAI.

We additionally examined the congruence, institutional capacity, and relative jurisdiction of the Montreal Protocol to govern SRM technologies [2]. It was observed that due to its potential nonlinear impacts, an independent global body outside the Protocol is best suited to regulate SRM research and avoid
jurisdictional overlaps.

3. US Congress moves towards SRM governance: The US Congress passed a directive under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2022, to provide a governance framework for publicly funded solar geoengineering research and a plan that facilitates coordinated research between Federal and international agencies (USGOV 2023).

Various attempts at SRM research within and around its sovereign borders may have prompted this directive. While the Harvard SCOPEX project aims to release stratospheric aerosols through a mechanised balloon, the release of aerosol-carrying balloons by American start-up ‘Make Sunsets’ prompted the Mexican government to draft regulations prohibiting solar geoengineering.

Deploying SRM at a scale to prevent global warming will require billions of dollars per degree of cooling per annum, excluding the cost of socio-economic and ecological impacts. Ironically, the developed world, which has been leading efforts in SRM research, only provided USD 29 billion in adaptation finance to developing nations as opposed to USD 340 billion required annually. In the face of such alarming climate inaction and inequity, channelising limited resources from proven to risky solutions like SRM appears more of a distraction than an investment.

At a minimum, co-development of a global research governance framework with adequate North-South cooperation will be crucial to foster trust and ensure that countries with advanced research do not unilaterally determine the future SRM research. A functional meaning of transparency must be adopted by such a framework to mitigate the security risks from complete disclosure. Additionally, the legal maxims of trans-boundary harm, inter-generational equity, and the precautionary principle must form the pith and substance of such a governance framework to risk management and accountability in the case of any accidental, experimental, malicious, or unregulated deployment. We can’t risk the Ozone layer again.

[This piece was written by Bhuvan Ravindran, Research Analyst, and Shikha Bhasin, Advisor, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). Views are personal]

References:
1) It was discovered in 1985 that certain gases used in aerosols and as refrigerants for cooling applications were responsible for creating a hole in the ozone layer. As a result, the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was adopted on 16 September 1987 to phase-out such ozone depleting substances (ODS) globally and facilitate ozone recovery which protected the Earth from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun (UN 2023).

2) CEEW 2022

  • Published On Sep 16, 2023 at 06:26 AM IST

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