With expectations lower than a snake's armpit for the climate talks currently underway in Durban, there are likely to be renewed calls for geoengineering to be taken seriously as a "Plan B" for avoiding dangerous climate change.
Geoengineering – or, more accurately, climate engineering – was defined by the IPCC in 2009 as "the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment." The three main types are solar radiation management (SRM), carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and weather modification (WM).
The scientists involved in geoengineering research mostly profess to be reluctant converts to the cause, and protest that research does not mean deployment, but rare are the new technologies that have not been eventually applied in the real world. So who will watch those mucking about with our climate?
In last week's article on geoengineering by climate scientist David Karoly, he referred to the importance of "ethical and governance considerations" and the need for "urgent, well-informed, high-level international discussions."
This is already happening. In 2010, scientists working in this field proposed five "Oxford Principles" to govern research: geoengineering to be regulated as a public good; public participation in geoengineering decision-making; disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results; independent assessment of impacts; and governance before deployment.
This is all well and good, but these principles carry no legal weight. Fortunately, there are more formal moves afoot to regulate an industry that could turn the skies white and the oceans green, if attempts to produce an artificial "volcano effect" in the atmosphere or for phytoplankton to store carbon on the seabed go horribly wrong.
In Nagoya last year, countries party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (that is, most of the world, with the notable exception of the United States) adopted a de facto moratorium on all geoengineering activities. However, this decision is qualified and open to interpretation, and the legal force of decisions made at COPs (Conventions of Parties) is debatable.
The CBD parties are now involved in a process to determine whether that treaty or other existing or new treaties might be the best way to regulate research and projects. Its secretariat has produced draft studies on the impacts of geoengineering on biological diversity and the regulatory framework, and is inviting public comment.
Led by the Canada-based ETC Group, there are also moves afoot to ensure that geoengineering is on the table at the Rio 20 global environment summit next June. In September, a meeting of the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing “opposition to proposals for large-scale geoengineering” and aiming to develop a common EU position ahead of Rio 20.
ETC has already had success in stopping a proposed ocean fertilisation experiment by US company Planktos Inc near the Galapagos Islands in 2007. In October, pressure by ETC and other groups led to the suspension of plans by a British scientific consortium called SPICE to erect a one kilometre long hose. Dubbed the "Trojan hose" by opponents, the aim was to test the feasibility of constructing a much longer hose that would pump sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation.
The ETC Group has also proposed a new International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies. But (with the notable exception of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer) new global treaties are usually lengthy to negotiate and only apply directly to countries that choose to sign onto them.
To date, neither the Australian government nor any major Australian environmental group other than Friends of the Earth appears to have expressed any view on geoengineering research. But in 2007, the ABC reported that a small Australian company with research links to the University of Sydney, Ocean Nourishment Corporation, did an ocean fertilisation trial in the Sulu Sea off Philippines in 2007, involving one tonne of nitrogen-rich urea. Although a growing body of research has cast doubt on the potential efficacy of ocean fertilisation, the company is pursuing "ecosystem based modelling" and says it is interested in validating its findings "through third party independent open ocean experimentation."
Just last week, The Guardian reported plans to trial drilling holes in river ice to encourage thicker winter ice formation in the river running through the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator. The aim is to cool the air in summer to counter global warming and the urban heat island effect, as the thicker ice that results from allowing water to flow over existing ice and then freeze would take longer to thaw.
The Mongolian "naled" project emphasises the impossibility of a one-size-fits-all response to geoengineering proposals. While there are multiple concerns – most notably that if a Plan B looks feasible, the task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions might seem less urgent – who are we to tell the people of Ulan Bator they can't indulge in a little semi-natural air conditioning (even if we don't know what its effects on the river's ecosystem might be)?
There is, however, one obvious ground rule that could apply while the world works out how best to regulate this emerging plethora of technologies. The International Energy Agency's latest World Energy Outlook gives the world until 2017, at the latest, to start reducing emissions under its most plausible "New Policies" scenario; after this time it becomes prohibitively expensive to keep warming under the 2°C threshold. In view of this, no real world experiments should occur before then that could undermine efforts to reduce global emissions. This would most notably preclude any research ultimately aimed at injecting sulphides into the atmosphere or any form of ocean fertilisation.
On the other hand, purely biological methods of geoengineering that would also assist climate change mitigation efforts, such as reforestation, avoiding deforestation and improving soil health, should be encouraged.
In between these extremes, things get tricky. Recent research suggests that even some of the more benign and promising ideas, like painting rooves white to increase surface albedo and thereby reduce atmospheric heating, may be ineffective. And despite all the money thrown at carbon capture and storage, its prospects for large-scale carbon sequestration look unpromising to date. There are also serious concerns about the side effects of biochar production, which has been widely spruiked as an effective means of terrestrial carbon storage (including, according to Friends of the Earth, the production of "phytotoxic and possible carcinogenic materials... during pyrolysis").
On current indications, after 2017 we may have to reconsider our options. But so far, silver bullets there are none.
Dr Mark Byrne is an environmental educator, until last month with the NSW Environmental Defenders Office