How can research into geoengineering be governed to limit its environmental and political risks?
Submit proposals: https://www.climatecolab.org/plans/-/plans/contestId/1300209
Deadline: July 20, 2014, at 11:59:59 PM U.S. Eastern Time
Rules: All entrants must agree to the 2014 Contest Rules.
Prizes: Judges Choice and Popular Choice winners will be connected with and able to present to people who can support the implementation of their proposal, which may include policy makers, economists, business executives, NGO and foundation officials, scientists, and others. They will be recognized and publicized by the MIT Climate CoLab and invited to showcase their proposals at a conference held at MIT fall 2014, where a $10,000 Grand Prize will be awarded. See 2013 conference.
Guidelines from Advisors and Fellows
What is geoengineering?
Geoengineering encompasses a variety of technical interventions designed to counteract some of the effects of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases, without reducing emissions. Geoengineering strategies can operate at a global or local level and commonly fall into one of two broad categories: solar radiation management (SRM) or carbon dioxide removal (CDR).
SRM techniques aim to reduce warming by either decreasing the amount of the sun’s heat that reaches the planet’s surface or by increasing the amount of heat that is reflected back out. Ideas include:
- seeding clouds to make whiter and more reflective of the sun’s rays,
- spraying aerosols into the upper atmosphere to make the sky more reflective,
- bioengineering paler crops and trees so that they absorb less heat,
- covering large expanses of desert or ocean with white plastic, and
- installing mirrors in space to prevent some sunlight from reaching the planet.
CDR techniques use biological or chemical processes to ‘suck’ greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Some ideas are:
- dumping iron or other nutrients into the ocean to help the growth of carbon-absorbing plankton,
- sprinkling crushed limestone over soil, rivers or the ocean to accelerate the natural process of carbon uptake,
- building machines that act like ‘sponges’ for removing carbon dioxide from the air, and
- planting and maintaining carbon-absorbing vegetation like forests.
Although SRM and CDR techniques are the most commonly discussed geoengineering ideas, other techniques might exist. For example, proposals to tow icebergs across the ocean to warmer coastlines could alter climate systems and might be considered geoengineering methods. Participants should keep all geoengineering possibilities in mind when considering the question of this contest.
Additionally, some commentators tend to catalogue geoengineering initiatives as either “hard” or “soft.” These categories are not strictly defined, but soft geoengineering ideas tend to be reversible and smaller in scale and they are often deployable at a local level. The distinction may be useful in considering the question of this contest.
Why is research into geoengineering risky?
To date, most research into geoengineering methods has consisted of theoretical desk- or computer- based simulations. However, such research can only be verified by field-testing. Many geoengineering techniques (including some of those described above) involve manipulation of the air, the ocean or outer space. These are open, complex systems that transcend international borders. The opportunity for small-scale field-testing is therefore limited and unintended consequences of trial-and-error testing have the potential to do serious environmental harm.
There are also socio-political risks associated with geoengineering research, such as:
- The act of research might implicitly endorse geoengineering as an option; this is likely to reduce incentive for, and investment into, cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
- Countries undertaking research might seek to design the technology to meet their own national climatic preferences.
- Research projects may build political momentum such that decision-makers are persuaded to enable them rather than see them fail, regardless of the science.
- Research may open up the potential to use geoengineering as a weapon against entire communities or regions.
Why is overseeing geoengineering research a challenge?
Not everyone agrees that research into geoengineering should proceed. However, many of those who support such research are concerned that the day may come when geoengineering, in some form, will be needed. They argue that in such an instance, the decision to deploy geoengineering initiatives should be based on solid evidence and that the only way to avoid bad ideas is through research and review. Many also argue that geoengineering research will happen regardless, so it should happen in the most transparent and cautious way possible. Establishing effective transparent regulations for geoengineering research requires the navigation of a number of considerations, including:
- The inherent risk associated with geoengineering research.
- The likelihood that geoengineering proposals will have climatic ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, the question of equity and how the costs and benefits will be divided globally.
- Geoengineering proposals are relatively cheap and could be undertaken unilaterally by a country, company or individual (there is no international law against geoengineering).
- Some geoengineering proposals are already in effect at small scale for commercial purposes unrelated to climate change (i.e. ocean fertilization to facilitate aquaculture).
- The global public is likely to want to engage in the decision-making process, but might not possess sufficient understanding of technicalities to contribute in a meaningful way.
Participants are free to engage with any of the issues outlined above and provide a solution that addresses some of the challenges of progressing geoengineering research responsibly. The solution may be in the form of a set of policy guidelines, a method for global negotiation, proposed text for an international treaty, a technology assessment framework, a public engagement program or anything else that seems appropriate. The answer must include the following:
- A clear statement of what particular issue the solution is addressing
- A basic explanation of the proposal with an indication of the level at which it would be applied (global, regional, national, community-level, household-level etc).
- A detailed explanation of the proposal and how it addresses the problem.
The proposal may in the form of text, audio or video but must not exceed the character limit set out on the submission page (about 2000 words) or 10 minutes in total.
- The Royal Society (2009), Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty, Science Policy Centre report 10/09
- Robert L. Olson (2012), Soft Geoengineering: A Gentler Approach to Addressing Climate Change, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.
- Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) website.
- For an extensive bibliography of scholarly research in ethics and geonengineering, see University of Montana, Ethics of Geoengineering Online Resource Center
- Scott, D. (2012) Geoengineering and Environmental Ethics. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):10
- For a sample set of rules for geoengineering governance, see Rayner, S., Redgwell C., Savulescu, J., Pidgeon, N. and Kruger, T. (2009) Memorandum on draft principles for the conduct of geoengineering research. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee enquiry into The Regulation of Geoengineering.