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Solar Geoengineering Is a Dangerous Distraction

By Yacob Mulugetta, Dean Bhekumuzi Bhebhe, and Niclas Hällström Columns 2024-04-02, 2:13pm

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LONDON/JOHANNESBURG – At the most recent United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA),heldin Nairobi, African countries took a strong standagainst potential new technologies that, if developed, could tip an already disrupted climate into chaos.


Yacob Mulugetta

The continent’s leaders, with the support of other developing countries, helped shoot down a resolution that called for more research into the benefits and risks ofsolar radiation modification (SRM). Also known as solar geoengineering, SRM is the controversial idea thatdeliberately modifying the atmosphere to reflect some of the sun’s rays back into space could help cool a warming planet.Instead, these policymakerssupported theInternational Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering and emphasized the need for effective and equitable climate solutions.

Niclas Hällström

Geoengineering encompasses a range of speculative technologies, of which SRM is just one,intended toaddress the effects, not the root causes, of climate change. Many solar-geoengineering techniques have been proposed,but the most contemplatedis stratospheric aerosol injection, which envisages fleets of high-flying airplanes continuously spraying large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the temporary cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.

In reality, such measures would likely destabilize an already severely disrupted climate. Consider that volcanic eruptions have historically precipitatedextreme weather events and famines. Moreover, climate models have longindicatedthat stratospheric aerosol injection could alter Indian monsoons and cause more frequent and persistent droughts in the volatile Sahel region. According to the UN Human Rights Council,solar geoengineering could “seriously interfere with the enjoyment of human rights for millions and perhaps billions of people.”

Some SRM proponents argue that ifsprayingsulfate aerosols into the stratosphere does not achieve the desired result, it is always possible to stop. But that could prove dangerous: the masking effect of the injected particles would disappear, causinga rapid rise in temperatures. This so-calledtermination shockwould be a nightmare scenario.

Africanssee how their continent is being used as atesting ground for these dangerous technologies. Africa is the continent most vulnerable to climate change, the argument goes, and thus would benefit the most from geoengineering. In fact, Africans have the most to lose from failed geoengineering technologies.

Furthermore, disagreements over the use of SRM could exacerbate geopolitical conflicts and even trigger wars. And, given that geoengineering technologies are largely promoted by US-based interestsandinstitutionsfunded by tech billionaires, African countries have good reason to fear that they would have little to no say in decisions about their deployment.

In addition to concerns about security and equity, geoengineering raises serious ethical questions.SRM and other related technologiesappeal to those who repudiate the need for rapid, transformative societalchange to limit global warming.Even entertaining this fantasycould become a dangerous distraction,especially as itgains traction as a tactic of delay for the fossil-fuel industry.

That is why African countries –togetherwith Mexico, Colombia, Fiji, and Vanuatu –pushed back forcefully againstSwitzerland’s solar-geoengineering resolution at the UNEA,arguing that researchhas already demonstratedthecatastrophic risks.Theyadvocated for the UNEA to reaffirm a precautionary approach to these speculative technologies and to acknowledge the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment’s callfor a non-use agreement– a pioneering decision taken in August 2023. But the United States, SaudiArabia, and Japan opposed this. Given the lack of consensus, Switzerland was forced to withdraw its resolution.

The negotiations underscored the importance of the call for theInternationalNon-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering, an initiative that has been endorsed by more than 500 scholarsand backed by almost 2,000 civil-society groups. The agreement concludes that because solar geoengineering poses unacceptable risks and is inherently ungovernable, countries mustreject outdoor experimentation, patents, public funding, or deployment of the technology.

The international community should adopt a strict ban on solar geoengineering, as it has done for human cloning and chemical weapons,and it must do so before the technology is commercialized. In fact, governments agreed to a de facto moratorium on geoengineering under theConvention on Biological Diversity more than a decade ago. The Non-Use Agreement would further reinforce this prohibition.

But it is not enough to resist dangerous distractions like SRM. Addressing the climate crisis requires a razor-sharp focus on real solutions and South-South cooperation.Two of us, as part of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development, recently outlined how African countries can pursue an effective climate and development agenda –and howefforts such as the Least Developed Countries Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative could support this. Likewise, the proposedFossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, a binding plan to phase out oil, gas, and coalrapidly and equitably, is gaining momentum. We anticipate andwelcome a wave ofcountriesjoiningColombia, Fiji, and Vanuatu in simultaneously championing the International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, put it succinctly in her powerful closing plenary statement at the UNEA: “Pollution is not the solution for pollution.” African leaders have warned that the world must not be hoodwinked and find itself ona slippery slope toward catastrophic geoengineering. It is time for the international community to listen.

Yacob Mulugetta,Professor of Energy and Development Policy at University College London, is a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences and amember of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development. Dean Bhekumuzi Bhebhe, thecampaigns lead at Power Shift Africa, is a member of the Hands Off Mother Earth Alliance’sDon’t Geoengineer Africa working group. Niclas Hällström, Director of WhatNext?,isa member of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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