Perspectives on the UNEA resolution

Delegates discussed a draft resolution regarding solar geoengineering and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) at the fourth session of the UN environment assembly (UNEA), which took place from the 11th to 15th of March in Nairobi. The Swiss government put forward the draft resolution with the support of a dozen other countries. The core action proposed by the draft resolution was to “prepare an assessment of the status of geoengineering technologies, in particular, carbon dioxide removal technologies and solar radiation management,” including both current scientific evidence as well as actual and potential governance tools for these techniques. The resolution went through several drafts but was ultimately withdrawn after the parties failed to reach an agreement on it.

We have asked a set of experts on the governance of solar geoengineering and CDR, some of whom were present for these discussions, to give their take on these developments.

  • Olaf Corry: Did global governance of geoengineering just fall at the first hurdle?
  • Ina Möller: Accounting for Political Expectations and Diplomacy
  • Joshua Horton: Early Thoughts on “Geoengineering” at UNEA-4
  • Aarti Gupta: Failure of resolution attests to its merits 
  • Matthias Honegger: A battle of paradigms 
  • Jesse Reynolds: UN Environment Assembly geoengineering resolution warrants a closer look
  • Duncan McLaren: A double injustice? 
  • Sikina Jinnah: The Swiss UNEA Geoengineering Proposal: What could they do differently next time?
  • Maria Ivanova: Political Lift and Scientific Footing: Engaging the UN Secretary-General and Reviving the UN Scientific Advisory Board  

The original resolution draft can be found here.

Did global governance of geoengineering just fall at the first hurdle?
Prof. Olaf Corry, Associate professor of International Relations, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. Prof. Corry attended the UNEA meeting in Nairobi.

It is common to hear that geoengineering requires ‘appropriate governance’ to qualify as a safe and desirable addition to the climate policy portfolio. Yet it is rare to see evidence or detail concerning how this might come about. 

Will a treaty with basic rules be ‘broadly acceptable to all countries’ as Scott Barrett thinks, or dogged by conflicts like conventional climate governance?

The Swiss resolution felt like an early test, and partly for that reason I was excited to go to Nairobi to follow the negotiations close up. 

The resolution draft was deliberately modest, operatively not much more than a UNEA expert panel study of technologies and potential governance. UNEA is multilateral and provides a broader environmental view, not limited to assessing climate effects. So if it failed, this would not auger well for comprehensive, long-term multilateral oversight and rule-making.

It failed. The resolution was pummelled, and then pulled. States disagreed fundamentally even about a study. The obvious conflict was the venue of a study (UNEA vs IPCC). But deeper fissures emerged about the remit (environmental effects plus governance vs. climate efficacy) and also the ultimate aim (control and oversight vs avoid undue restrictions). 

Opposing countries led by the US and Saudi Arabia were offered concessions. The ‘study’ shrank to a mere ‘compilation’. Preambular text ‘noting the lack of multilateral control and oversight’ was deleted. The IPCC was named the ‘main’ and then ‘the primary’ forum for assessment. A warning against ‘duplication of work’ was inserted. A redraft recognised the ‘widely differing’ maturity, potential, costs, risks etc. of varying technologies. 

But to no avail. Resolution supporters fought to keep references to what existing governance there is (e.g. London Convention and CBD), anxious that these could be undermined by an amputated resolution. Opponents then square-bracketed the entire resolution saying it was in any case too early. The IPCC would be conducting a thorough assessment in AR6 and this was not to be ‘distracted’. 

Were they really worried about distracting the IPCC? The same countries refused to endorse the IPCC’s latest report. The remit of the AR6 has only 8 bullet points (out of hundreds) mentioning geoengineering technologies. 

How much of a surprise was this? Beforehand the Swiss draft had been called ‘open’ and ‘helpful’ and the venue ‘particularly fitting’ by those sympathetic to further research, while anti-geo campaigners worried the original draft was too weak. After further weakening, it turned out to be too strong for highly incentivized countries opposing it. 

Is it coincidental that the two big fossil fuel producers were the most strident objectors? Who knows? But wording warning against geoengineering as an alternative to strengthening mitigation was removed. Saudi Arabia openly objected that grouping CDR technologies with SRM could lead to undue restrictions. Having first argued to differentiate CDR and SRM, the US eventually wanted them grouped again alongside mitigation and adaptation under an overarching ‘climate strategies’ label (implying substitutability?).

The indications are that interests that currently resist mitigation look set to frustrate governance of geoengineering. If Nairobi was the start of a journey, the road to a comprehensive international agreement on geoengineering will be long and arduous, if not impassable.

Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to the Christopher Reynolds Foundation for the funding which enabled this fieldwork.

Accounting for Political Expectations and Diplomacy
Ina Möller, PhD candidate, Department of Political Science, Lund University, Sweden

Geoengineering is an icky topic. The community around it has fought long and hard to make it an acceptable research area, but its bad reputation tends to precede the substantial amount of publications calling for more research. This makes it difficult for governments to engage productively with the concept. 

Why then, did Switzerland bring up geoengineering at the UNEA conference, in its original form and with a comparatively neutral framing? And why did it fail?

Although Switzerland has no major research programs on geoengineering, its government already started engaging with the concept in 2011. In a white paper, the Swiss Agency for the Environment concludes that, although their climate policy is based on mitigation, the precautionary principle calls for enabling a wide portfolio of options. Geoengineering research is thus endorsed, provided that it conforms to international principles of inter- and intra-generational equity. The initiation of international governance to regulate research and development is identified as a priority task. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland is aware of the immense diplomatic difficulties that tabling geoengineering could entail. If framed in the wrong way, traditional fault lines of climate politics – in particular those that exist between Northern (‘Annex 1’) countries and Southern (‘Annex 2’) countries – could break open again. This would be counterproductive, considering the fragile climate peace that was achieved with the Paris Agreement. For this reason, countries like Germany or the UK are extremely cautious in showing support for geoengineering as a policy option, even if they are aware of its importance. 

The solution to this dilemma is to build up as much legitimacy as possible. Neutrality helps a lot, and Switzerland has a long-standing reputation for being politically neutral. Diversity also helps, which is why Switzerland garnered the support of ten other comparatively neutral countries, many of them in the Global South. Finally, the resolution itself was formulated in an explicitly open manner. It did not advocate for geoengineering research, nor did it condemn it. In a very diplomatic way, it called for an evaluation of the situation.

The choice of forum was certainly another important consideration. UNEA is not an institution that scholars have considered relevant to geoengineering governance. Usually more powerful, but also more normatively laden institutions like the CBD or UNFCCC are mentioned as candidates. By contrast, UNEA’s history of being an administrative program without decision-making capacity makes it a neutral broker. Diplomatically, it is the safest place to bring up a controversial subject like geoengineering.

That the motion was blocked is not particularly surprising. For one, it is extremely difficult to introduce new language in multilateral negotiations. For the other, Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration will water down anything that acknowledges the urgency of climate change. Yet the topic has been tabled, and its rejection is not final. Further developments will depend on the coordination of countries outside of global fora and the degree to which blocking countries exclude themselves from the global community. The episode probably represents a beginning, rather than an end, to global geoengineering governance.

Early Thoughts on “Geoengineering” at UNEA-4
Dr. Joshua Horton, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University

There is much we do not know about why a draft resolution on “geoengineering and its governance” failed to be adopted at UNEA-4 in Nairobi.  However, amid multiple conflicting and incomplete accounts of the episode, two items in particular seem noteworthy.

First, numerous reports indicate that the US and Saudi Arabia were the principal opponents of the draft as originally written.  And according to one unnamed source, the US specifically objected to language “suggesting” that “geoengineering techniques should not be treated as a substitute for mitigation, or emissions cuts.”  If this is true, and if the US (and possibly others) regarded this as nonnegotiable, then stakeholders should be relieved that the resolution was withdrawn.  Perhaps the most important goal of the resolution was to place geoengineering on the agenda of UN Environment, the UN’s leading environmental body charged with coordinating environmental policy at the global level.  Adopting a foundational resolution on geoengineering with the implicit understanding that Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and/or Solar Radiation Management (SRM) might serve to replace mitigation would have been irresponsible.  Such statements powerfully shape subsequent policy developments, and if there is one thing virtually all participants in debates about geoengineering agree on it is that neither CDR nor SRM should be a substitute for emissions cuts.  This position should be taken for granted in international discussions about geoengineering—if it cannot be, then the timing or the venue is wrong.

Second, the events in Nairobi demonstrate the practical hazards that accompany efforts to “lump” CDR and SRM together under the geoengineering label.  I have made the analytical case for why these two technology types should be split in another blog, and many others have made similar arguments.  Prior to the commencement of UNEA-4, many commentators (including myself with David Keith) flagged this as a problematic aspect of the draft text.  The failure of the resolution illustrates why lumping is not merely conceptually unhelpful, but politically imprudent.  Imagine that Switzerland had introduced two resolutions, one on CDR and one on SRM, which were otherwise identical to the “geoengineering” resolution that was actually put forward.  Obviously, it is impossible to know what would have happened under this counterfactual scenario, but it is a good bet that much of the disagreement would have been focused on the SRM resolution and not on the CDR resolution, reflecting the relatively higher risk profile characteristic of the former technology category.  CDR is not without risks, but it is quite possible that a resolution restricted to CDR would have been adopted and set in motion an overdue global assessment of these technologies.  Instead, lumping CDR together with SRM meant that the controversies accompanying the latter inevitably enveloped the former, forestalling a serious consideration of CDR’s myriad economic, environmental, social, and governance challenges.

The next time such an undertaking is pursued, this experience suggests that CDR and SRM should be split.  But supporters must insist on clear statements that neither one should be viewed as an alternative to mitigation.

Failure of resolution attests to its merits
Prof. Aarti Gupta, Associate Professor, Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University and Research

The much-anticipated resolution on climate engineering advanced by Switzerland and others at UNEA-4 was withdrawn after sustained debate, when it was clear that it would not pass. 

In my view, there can be no greater validation of the merits of the resolution, than the fact that it failed, particularly since failure was attributed to opposition from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Its failure testifies, ironically, to its timeliness and necessity. This necessity relates, first, to its UN setting, and second, to the precautionary intent animating it. 

The Setting: UN or IPCC? 

Prior to and during the debate, many of those who support greater consideration of climate engineering in the mainstream climate policy toolkit, suggested that the IPCC might be a better forum than the UN for an assessment. Ostensibly, this would ensure that the issue is not ‘politicized’. 

For those who use the word, politicization is clearly undesirable. 

What is striking, however, is which governance settings get characterized as such, by whom, and why.

For a politically fraught issue such as climate engineering, a ‘non-politicized’ setting does not exist. The only question is which ‘politicized’ setting will be favoured, and by whom. In my view, the UN constitutes the only multilaterally legitimate, necessarily political setting wherein which to discuss fundamental, first-order questions about the very need and governability of speculative and high-risk climate engineering options. 

While the IPCC certainly has a role, it is striking how the IPCC, the ‘non-politicized’ setting seemingly preferred by advocates of climate engineering, gets excoriated if its ‘science-based’ assessment throws up conclusions that are not to the liking of those seeking to avoid UN-style messy ‘politicized’ debates. 

The Message: Precaution or Permission? 

This suggests that the message emerging from an assessment is more crucial than the messenger, i.e. the venue producing it. If a technology-enabling stance were to result from a UN-led assessment, its multilateral legitimacy and the inherently political context from which it emerged would be embraced and celebrated by those who seek such a message. On the other hand, a sceptical, precautionary, message from a UN-led assessment is likely to be characterized, by definition, as illegitimate and politicized. In a similar vein, if an enabling message comes from the IPCC, objective science has spoken. If the IPCC’s message is sceptical, it has been captured by anti-climate engineering interests. Depending on the message, then, the IPCC can quickly also come to be characterized as a ‘politicized’ setting. 

The Swiss resolution had a precautionary intent animating it, ensuring its downfall at the hands of those who would not welcome such a message. 

In essence, this episode highlights that what defeated the resolution is, in fact, what we most urgently need in this realm: (a) the politically legitimate setting of the UN to understand what’s at stake; and (b) an assessment that can shed light on the precautionary actions that the global community should most urgently contemplate.

A battle of paradigms
Matthias Honegger, Research Associate, Perspectives Climate Research & Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. Mr. Honegger attended the UNEA meeting in Nairobi.

Politics of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation modification (SRM) – or geoengineering – revolve around an ongoing battle of categories and associated paradigms. The dynamic around the simple, broadly supported proposal fitting UNEP’s mandate – to undertake an assessment under UNEP purview – can only be understood in light of this battle: between generalization of ‘geoengineering’, characterising it as a dangerous distraction in an attempt to pre-empt serious exploration versus efforts to explore specificities of various approaches with nuanced takes on their potentials, risks and (governance) challenges. What is worrisome to me, is that the differences in framing by way of preambular language were allowed to trump the substance of the proposal, given that it could have benefited countries in particular that have not themselves built up resources and expertise to dedicate to a national or regional exploration of these issues.

Apart from an admirable persistence of the proponents, particularly Switzerland, lacklustre efforts to reaching compromise displayed by two groups of conflicting UNEP members, suggest that neither saw sufficient value in the proposed assessment. The reasons for this may be different for the two major powers involved:

The US made it clear early on that they saw the lumping of these very different categories into one as fundamentally problematic. It had good reasons to believe that the resolution as well as the ensuing mandate to UNEP would have tended to address both under a premise of restriction rather than enablement – at a point in time where the US is perhaps the leading country in terms of incentivising CDR implementation. Yet the US repeatedly iterated its willingness to participate in negotiations on the text if the generalization of CDR and SRM was softened and the colouring language on governance was more balanced. The US indeed appeared ready to support the significantly shortened final proposal put forward by Switzerland on the last day, which had deleted the EU’s insertion of the precautionary principle. That proposal suggested preparation of a report that would map out how various international organizations saw their role in governance of CDR and SRM.

The EU on the other hand seemed comfortable to see CDR and SRM in one proposal, while doubling down on the sentiment that all of ‘geoengineering’ required extreme caution, that its risks raised ‘grave concerns’ and introducing reference to the precautionary principle. The EU’s support of the proposal was, however, lukewarm as it might not have felt ready to address CDR and SRM head on at the multilateral level, for lack of internal clarity: CDR is silently built into the EUs 2050 long-term strategy, while at a political level CDR clashes with the EUs climate policy paradigm. SRM alone might be easier to address for the EU – likely in an approach that is heavily reliant on the precautionary principle. This would avoid upsetting any climate and broader environmental policy paradigms, yet not prevent some of the research – particularly on questions of SRM governance – from taking place. In light of this awkwardness, it is thus not a surprise, that the EU was not prepared to accept letting go of the precautionary principle – even when such a compromise could have led to adoption of the proposal.

UN Environment Assembly geoengineering resolution warrants a closer look
Jesse Reynolds, University of California, Los Angeles School of Law

The dominant explanation in the news media for the fate of the UN Environment Assembly geoengineering resolution is that the US led a few states in blocking it and that they did so in order to prevent international oversight. Claims of the US’s intransigence are true and unfortunate. Its insistence that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) serve as the sole assessment site is ironic (at best) given the Trump administration’s cold reception of the IPCC’s work and its general hostility to climate change science.

However, the US’s obstinance is not the entire explanation of the resolution’s fate. Substantively, the resolution was too expansive along two dimensions, fracturing a potential supportive coalition. It addressed both carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM), although these two categories of “geoengineering” are more different than alike. The resolution also called for evaluating the current states of both the science and governance, which raised questions of institutional fit. In fact, the US’s position – however cynically it may have been deployed – that geoengineering’s scientific assessment is within the IPCC’s scope was a reasonable one (whereas the current state, challenges, and potential frameworks of governance would be best appraised within UN Environment).

Moreover, other countries may bear some responsibility. Although it is unclear whether the US would have supported the original resolution, Bolivia and some European countries pushed for changes in its preamble, adding a reference the precautionary principle and further emphasizing a 2010 decision by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) parties. Yet the US’s opposition to each of these was entirely predictable. It is thus unclear why Bolivia and the European countries would alter the resolution in ways that were likely to lead to its failure.

Some explanation may be found in the activities of advocacy groups that oppose geoengineering and that lobbied in Nairobi. They have called for a prohibition on geoengineering and criticized past assessments as unduly giving the endeavor legitimacy and credibility (see here and here). In Nairobi, the groups both reiterated their demand for a ban while also calling for any decision to emphasize the precautionary principle and the CBD decision. If they indeed influenced some states toward greater skepticism of geoengineering — as they did at the 2010 CBD meeting — then the advocacy groups achieved their second best: reinforcing their (poorly evidenced and misleadingnarrative that geoengineering is the project of fossil fuel interests.

Despite the stalemate, the debate could have some positive consequences. The IPCC leadership might get the message and in its next scientific Assessment Report increase the attention given to CDR and especially SRM, which it has largely neglected to date. Likewise, the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change could consequently address CDR, a topic within the agreement’s scope that they too have been avoiding. That leaves the governance of SRM without a clear institutional home. This could be a fitting subject of a future UN Environment decision.

A double injustice?
Dr. Duncan McLaren, Lancaster Environment Centre. Dr. McLaren attended the UNEA meeting in Nairobi.

Having studied arguments about geoengineering and climate justice for some years, the opportunity to observe international negotiations on geoengineering first hand was too good to miss. At the UNEA many countries supported a Swiss resolution – levelled at the UN’s top environmental body – intended to build knowledge – not just about the climatic implications of geoengineering, but about its potential social, environmental, economic, political and technical implications and side-effects. This majority view however was assiduously blocked by a vocal minority – notably the US and Saudi Arabia, acting virtually in unison. The opponents called the resolution premature, and criticised it for threatening inappropriate restrictions, especially on carbon removal approaches. They rejected all efforts at compromise.

To imply that some environmentalists’ opposition to geoengineering is equally to blame for this failure – as some commentators who were not present in Nairobi have done (here and here) – is misguided. Some delegations did call for a strong precautionary approach, and for reference to existing decisions by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But to interpret such proposals as ‘poison pills’ intended to scupper agreement overestimates the influence of environmentalists. In practice, support for a broadly precautionary approach seemed to accurately reflect countries’ recognition of serious uncertainties around both CDR and SRM, and the deadly future risks and injustice that can be anticipated if efforts to deliver the deep emissions cuts implied by the Paris agreement are hampered or delayed. 

The disagreements, nonetheless, reflect deep cultural and political fissures. The majority feared that pursuit of geoengineering options could undermine mitigation, and supported text that restated the primacy of emissions reductions. The minority opposed such text, claiming that carbon removal could be a direct substitute for emissions cuts. The majority sought broad, independent assessment to begin to shape these emerging technologies in the public interest – or if necessary to regulate them. The minority appeared to fear any restriction on market-led research and innovation in new technologies – and wanted them assessed only narrowly and instrumentally against climate impacts by the IPCC, a body which has no mandate to initiate governance. 

Of course, technology governance can be restricting or enabling, formal or informal, democratic or dominating. In Nairobi, most countries seemed to favour beginning moving towards a democratic and formal system of governance for geoengineering. But few appeared ready to decide whether governance needed to be restrictive or enabling. 

However, these countries all want to be able to participate fairly and fully in future decision making. Indeed, delegates from some vulnerable countries made it abundantly clear that they are no more willing to have geoengineering imposed on them than climate change – regardless of whether the former could be beneficial. Whatever the motives of the US and Saudi Arabia in rejecting this resolution, the result means huge procedural injustice persists. If – as some observers suggest – the US and Saudi Arabia were representing the interests of fossil fuel industries in exploring the use of geoengineering techniques as a means to sustain their operations, then this rejection doubles the injustice imposed on countries already facing climate impacts for which they are not responsible.

Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to the Christopher Reynolds Foundation for the funding which enabled this fieldwork.

The Swiss UNEA Geoengineering Proposal: What could they do differently next time?
Prof. Sikina Jinnah, Department of Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Swiss have pledged to reopen the debate about geoengineering at the next meeting of the UN Environmental Assembly in February 2021. How might they think about improving the draft resolution to gain political traction with those countries that opposed it, namely the United States and Saudi Arabia? 

In order to answer this question, we must first consider why these countries opposed the resolution in the first place. The Earth Negotiations Bulletin, reported that opposition was based in concerns about four main things: 1) venue (i.e. is the United Nations Environment Programme the right forum?); 2) duplication of effort with other ongoing assessment processes undertaken by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); 3) lack of consensus on what constitutes geoengineering; and 4) that the negotiations were veering too strongly into the political domain of climate change. Other explanations include, as Duncan McLaren pointed out elsewhere, a seemingly perennial double-edged fear that governance could be either overly enabling (i.e. slippery slope to deployment) or, as was likely the US concern, overly constraining (i.e. shutting down potentially desirable research). 

What changes, then, might the Swiss and other proponents consider in revising the proposal for consideration again in February 2021? Here are two ideas:

First off, as several others have pointed out, any revised proposal should not address solar geoengineering and carbon dioxide removal strategies together. Because the risks are vastly different, so too are the politics. As such, political solutions should be considered in tandem not in sync. 

Second, in addressing the twin concerns about venue and potentially duplicative efforts, proponent countries might do well to position the proposal as one that draws on UNEP’s core strengths as a convening and coordinating institution. Although assessment is technically within UNEP’s mandate and capabilities, given the controversial nature of this issue, UNEP’s value added may well be in coordinating the work of others. Centrally, rather than assembling its own independent assessment group as proposed, UNEP may be better suited to encouraging the work of existing assessment processes. For example, UNEP could rather encourage a deep tackling of solar geoengineering in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report (AR6), which appears in the Working Group I and III outlines, but leaves much room for maneuvering in terms of the breadth and depth with which the issue is actually addressed. It may be that the timing is too tight, with AR6 due to start rolling out just months after UNEA-5, but this could be considered in future. Another possibility is a UNEA recommendation for an IPCC special report on solar geoengineering (and potentially carbon removal strategies as well). In efforts to bring the United States on board, UNEA might also welcome their ongoing domestic work on this issue, through the recently established National Academies committee charged with developing a research agenda and recommending governance approaches for solar geoengineering. 

These changes are no guarantee, of course, with more complex politics likely at play. The concerns about duplicative efforts, for example, are brought into question by the US position at the 2018 UN climate conference in Poland wherein, despite its insistence in Nairobi at UNEA-4 that no assessment be published prior to the AR6, at 2018 climate conference in Poland the US refused to even “welcome” the IPCC’s special report on 1.5 degrees. Nevertheless, a UNEA role more focused on coordinating the work of other international institutions, rather than assessment and governance recommendations, may well address these underlying political currents as well. 

Political Lift and Scientific Footing: Engaging the UN Secretary-General and Reviving the UN Scientific Advisory Board 
Maria Ivanova, Associate Professor of Global Governance and Director, Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Boston

In 2009, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee endorsed the “Oxford Principles of Geoengineering” to guide the governance of geoengineering and ensure that research on the subject is carried out responsibly. The five principles set a baseline:

  1. Geoengineering regulation as a public good
  2. Public participation in decision-making 
  3. Disclosure of research and open publication of results 
  4. Independent assessment of impacts
  5. Governance before deployment

Ten years later, in 2019, the political attempt for a UN Environment Assembly resolution on “Geoengineering and its Governance” at a global level did not succeed. The failure to reach consensus illustrated three core concerns: multiplicity of institutions and fragmentation of responsibility; importance of preparation; and the role of science. To break the impasse, the efforts will need a  political lift to higher level and deeper and wider scientific foundation. 

The main contention was the appropriate forum to deliberate geoengineering. Where do we discuss these issues? In the UN Environment Assembly, the universal political forum for the environment? In the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change? Or in the IPCC? The United Nations Environment Programme was created as the anchor institution for the global environment with three core functions: 1) keep the global environment under review and identify emerging issues, 2) catalyze policies to resolve these concerns, and 3) support countries to act. It is therefore in authority to deliver an assessment and establish the basis for discussions on the need and utility of various policy options. The logic for the US opposition to the resolution, however, was that the issues pertain mostly to climate change and should be referred to the international climate institutions. A discussion in the UN Environment Assembly would open opportunities for broader policy decisions. 

When insufficiently prepared for debate, member states shy away from choices that might result in policy decisions. With limited understanding of the issues, no clear instructions from capitals and witnessing strong opposition to all forms of geoengineering, including research, from some NGOs, delegations could not provide the necessary support for the resolution. They require more information, knowledge, and understanding of the science and the policy implications. 

The role of scientists in providing relevant, comprehensive, and comprehensible information to government officials and their advisors is critical. The UK parliament published a report on “The Regulation of Geoengineering” in 2010 and the US National Academies of Sciences followed with two reports on carbon dioxide removal and on “reflecting sunlight to cool Earth” in 2015. In 2018, the US National Academies launched a new study on a research agenda and research governance approaches for climate intervention through solar radiation management. Scientists are actively seeking to establish a baseline and improve knowledge.

Perhaps surprisingly, the failure to adopt a resolution at UNEA resulted in a dramatic increase in discussion about geoengineering, including the state of scientific knowledge, risks, benefits, and uncertainties, actors and activities in research and deployment, and potential governance frameworks. The next stage of the debate, however, would need to happen at the highest political level – under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General who has recognized the need for urgent and extraordinary action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and stay within the 1.5C limit that the IPCC deemed critical. Engaging science, technology, and governance expertise will be imperative in understanding the issues surrounding geoengineering and its governance. The UN Secretary-General would be well-served by reviving the UN Scientific Advisory Board that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon created at the request of member states in 2013 because “science makes policy out of brick, not straw,” as the Board’s final report concluded.