Developing countries ‘need a say in geoengineering debates’

One geoengineering proposal involves painting buildings white on a massive scale, to reflect sunlight Copyright: Flickr/Steve H

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[LONDON] Decisions on whether and how to use massive technical solutions known as 'geoengineering' to mitigate or reverse climate change must involve developing countries, a session on geoengineering governance at the Planet Under Pressure conference agreed yesterday (28 March).  

Geoengineering proposals have included reflecting sunlight away from the Earth by spraying ocean water into clouds or loading the stratosphere with sulphate aerosols, bioengineering crops to be paler and more reflective of sunlight, managing solar radiation and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Although geoengineering research groups are emerging in Africa, China and India, the controversial discipline is dominated by a small number of organisations in North America and Europe, the meeting heard.

"It's very important that people with knowledge and understanding of science and the climate change challenges faced by developing countries are involved in setting the agenda for research," Jason Blackstock, a visiting geoengineering expert at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, told SciDev.Net.

The issues faced by vulnerable populations "should be front and centre in the conversation about the technologies and the governance structures that are going to evolve," he said.

Andy Parker, a senior policy officer at the Royal Society of London, the UK's science academy, which issued a report on research governance for managing solar radiation in December, said the effects of deploying such technology "will not be localised" and that there are many unknowns. For example, he said, scientists do not know how geoengineering could impact rainfall patterns around the world.

And while the Royal Society's report did not make specific governance recommendations — "it is too early" for these, Parker said — it did highlight the need for open and inclusive dialogue.

Parker added that meetings held over the past year in China, India and Pakistan had registered a "general and healthy scepticism" in geoengineering, and had not regarded geoengineering as a useful or quick technical fix.

He said these meetings had also been characterised by a "genuine desire to cooperate" on research and governance and a wide appreciation of open discussions on geoengineering, rather than "being told what to think" by the developed world.

The Royal Society is now funding a geoengineering meeting in Africa, in association with the African Academy of Sciences and TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world. It is expected to be held later this year in Ethiopia.

Kathy Jo Wetter is a researcher at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), a non-governmental organisation based in Canada which has held workshops on new technologies in Ethiopia, South Africa and Uganda.

She told SciDev.Net: "The technology that people in our workshops were most interested in was geoengineering, because they say, 'we never hear about this … we don't want our first experience of this to be when it's there at our doorstep'."

Although there are mechanisms in place that govern how people use technologies, Blackstock said, there are no international research frameworks in place to assess early stage technologies and the best way to develop them.

He suggested that the International Council for Science (ICSU) or the Future Earth alliance may be able to develop such a framework.

Gordon McBean, a climatologist at the University of Western Ontario and president elect of ICSU, agreed that the organisation could address this issue, and told SciDev.Net that he was involved in discussions at the conference to consider this.

Although governance of new technologies has not been included in the first draft of the outcome document for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the latest negotiating draft for the June meeting does refer to technology assessment, said Wetter.

If that reference stays in the final draft, it may help fill the "vacuum of technology assessment that exists within the UN system right now", she said.  

Link to live web streaming of the conference

For more news and analysis of the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference click here, and also see our live blog.