Geoengineering at COP23

by Matthew Kennedy, College of the Atlantic 

COP23 in Bonn this November saw the continuing intrusion of the geoengineering discourse into the global climate talks, but it was countered by civil society’s persistent rebuttal that geoengineering is not an appropriate means of addressing the ambition gap in international climate change policy.  

At the periphery of the official negotiations were furtive campaigns for false solutions. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) advocates, for instance, plugged their eccentric techniques for “Carbon Dioxide Removal” (CDR) at informal side events and in press releases, including the much favored and highly problematic Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS). The UK government, the first to make an intervention in an open dialogue with the Fijian presidency, proudly announced intentions to work with the Scottish Parliament to accelerate the development of CCS. As we have seen since COP21 in Paris, dangerous proposals like massive sequestration projects slipped into the conference by way of the popular negative emissions euphemism.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is dedicating greater and greater attention to CDR and to the reckless strategies for Solar Radiation Management (SRM). Its upcoming Special Report on 1.5 Degrees, the primary scientific input to the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue on ratcheting up ambition, will adopt the underlying assumption that some geoengineering technologies will need to be employed to limit warming to 1.5ºC, contributing to the steady undermining by geoengineering of collective climate action towards the temperature goal. Likewise, the contents of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report will grossly over-emphasize SRM and CDR, and this report will feed directly into the 2023 Global Stocktake, further distracting policy-makers from real and equitable solutions to the emissions gap. As the leading scientific body on climate change, closely tied to the UNFCCC, the IPCC’s turn toward geoengineering has scary implications for future climate negotiations.

However, a variety of voices also present at COP23 decried the invasion of these dangerous ideas into the UNFCCC and offered sane, just alternatives for mitigating the worst of climate change. A panel put together by Friends of the Earth Germany, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Klima-Allianz, and Misereor, “The Case Against Geoengineering: How to Build a Fair Future in a 1.5 Degree World” pointed to the extreme risks and ethical consequences of both SRM and CDR. The panelists called for an end to outdoor experiments, for a global ban on SRM, and for solutions that go to the roots of the climate crisis, such as decentralized renewable energy production and a rapid fossil-fuel phaseout. A later event organized by the ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation, “Geoengineering the Climate? Sustainable Development and Climate Justice in a 1.5ºC World,” elaborated further on the scientific uncertainties and human rights concerns of various technologies, repeating the need for a global ban and its legal consistency with the Sustainable Development Goals. These were only two of several such expressions at the COP, helping to redirect attention towards the Convention’s original mandate.

Additionally, in an open letter to UNFCCC diplomats and IPCC researchers sent during the COP, members of the CBD Alliance reiterated the significance of the CBD’s moratorium on geoengineering and advised country parties not to ignore their commitment to this agreement, nor to let “wishful thinking” about nonexistent techno-fixes substitute for pathways towards systemic change in the 2030 Agenda. Speaking to the rise of SRM experimentation in the U.S., an issue of Climate Action Network International’s ECO newsletter warns against the fossil fuel industry’s “attempts to sabotage all strong decarbonisation efforts.”

Following COP23, we must remain vigilant to the swift progress of geoengineering schemes into the UNFCCC. As governments consider strategies for responding to the emissions gap in their Paris goals, and in the lead up to 2018 and to future global stocktakes, they must not be permitted to sidestep their commitments, particularly those countries historically responsible for climate change. A growing coalition of civil society is demanding they choose meaningful, transformative mitigation options over risky, inequitable and illogical technological fixes.


Critical Geoengineering Activities at COP 23

If you’re in Bonn for the UN Climate Conference for the next few weeks, mark your calendars for the following side events from civil society critical of climate geoengineering:

Geoengineering, technofixes and radical emission reductions” 

Hosted by Heinrich Böll Foundation

When? Monday, Nov 6, 2017, 2:30-4:30 pm

Where? Peoples‘ Climate Summit/Gustav-Stresemann-Institut

The risks of Bioenergy and Biosequestration in the context of CDR” 

Hosted by Global Forest Coalition

When? Tuesday, Nov 7, 2017, 9:30-12:00 noon

Where? Peoples‘ Climate Summit/Wissenschaftszentrum, Bonn

The case against geoengineering: How to build a fair future in a 1.5 degree world” 

Hosted by Heinrich Böll Foundation, BUND/FoE-Germany/Misereor

When? Wednesday Nov 15, 2017, 1-2pm

Where? Talanoa Space, Bonn Zone

“Geoengineering the Climate? Sustainable development and climate justice in a 1.5°C world” 

Hosted by Heinrich Böll Foundation and ETC Group

When? Friday, Nov 17, 2017, 11:30am – 1pm

Where? German Development Institute/DIE Interconnections  Zone

Climate Engineering Conference 2017: a CSO perspective

By Oli Munnion (Biofuelwatch)

The Climate Engineering Conference 2017 aimed to “bring together the research, policy, and civic communities to discuss the highly complex and interlinked ethical, social and technical issues related to climate engineering.” In practice, the conference represented a concerted effort to normalise geoengineering among researchers, scientists and policy-makers, focusing almost solely on the technical and engineering challenges, and neglecting the social and ethical aspects.

Civil society representation felt largely tokenistic, with an unapologetic promotion of various forms of geoengineering research throughout the 4 days of events. The conference highlighted just how urgent it is for civil society to reject geoengineering publicly, and to bring this clique of academics and policy-makers back in line with global thinking on the subject.

Speaking and presenting slots were dominated by men from countries in the global North, to the extent that at least one panel discussion was entirely populated by men from either the US or Europe. The lack of diversity amongst the presenters reflected just how problematic it is that research into geoengineering techniques that will affect everyone, and in the global South disproportionately, is largely taking place in countries responsible for the greatest historical contributions to climate change.

The dominant discourse from academics and researchers was that they didn’t want to geoengineer the climate, but that if other forms of mitigation fail (i.e. drastic emissions reductions), the world needs to know whether geoengineering can step in, and if so, how to use it. In the case of solar radiation management (SRM) research, academics want to “know now if it’s not going to work“, so that we know whether it can be relied upon in the future. And if it can’t be relied on, then we know that we really do have to seriously reduce emissions instead. Read more about why experiments of one type of geoengineering are unwise and unethical here.

There were also two distinct camps of geoengineers – the “solar radiation management” geoengineers, who come across as your stereotypical ‘mad scientists,’ and who really don’t want to live in a geoengineered world but just can’t stop themselves from researching it. And the “carbon dioxide removal” geoengineers, who don’t consider themselves geoengineers and scoff at the irresponsible ideas of the SRM camp. The similarity they share is the belief that “carbon dioxide removal” or “negative emissions,” through technologies such as “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” and “direct air capture,” will be essential mitigation strategies if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. The promotion of these seemingly more benign forms of geoengineering from this section of the scientific community is very dangerous as it gives governments and industry another excuse to delay making essential emissions reductions, even though the technologies don’t exist yet, and are unlikely ever to.

In summary, the conference tried to normalise geoengineering as a response to climate change, both as a mitigation strategy (alongside emissions reductions) and as a “fail safe” in the event of mitigation not working.

Geoengineering is an unjust and inequitable solution to climate change, especially when its research, governance and deployment are in the hands of those most responsible for it. Climate change is not an engineering problem, it is a symptom of the multiple, deep-rooted crises that pervade human societies and the planet. The promotion of geoengineering is therefore very much part of the problem, and not the solution.

Highlights of the conference: 

CEC17 press briefing (video), 10 October 2017, which set the tone for the conference and highlighted key narratives and areas for debate.


Speakers were David Keith, Professor of Applied Physics and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, Mark Lawrence, Scientific Director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Lili Fuhr, Head of the Ecology and Sustainable Development Department at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Pablo Suarez, Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

CSO-led Sessions: 

Linda Schneider from Heinrich Böll Foundation introduces delegates to the new Interactive Map of Geoengineering Experiments

A change of course: Radical emission reduction pathways to stay under 1.5°C

Climate change is not an engineering problem. There are many viable alternatives to bring our societies on a pathway towards 1.5°C without geoengineering. A technofix mentality and powerful vested interests prevent us from implementing them. This session will explore how we can change course for a climate-just future.

Linda Schneider – Heinrich Böll Foundation , Lili Fuhr – Heinrich Böll Foundation & ETC Group

Barbara Unmüßig – Heinrich Böll Foundation , Karin Nansen – Friends of the Earth International , Silvia Ribeiro – ETC Group , Uwe Leprich – German Federal Environment Agency , Bernd Nilles – Fastenopfer – Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund

Social Movements & Climate Engineering Justice from the Periphery

Debate around the justice of geoengineering has often, implicitly or explicitly, assumed the perspective of high-emitting groups that are disproportionately responsible for geoengineering research. We should re-orient our normative thinking regarding climate engineering research, governance, and deployment to include the agency and perspectives of the global South and subaltern groups. We will convene global representatives from diverse social movements to lead intersectional discussions on what geoengineering means for racial and environmental justice, food sovereignty, youth, gender, health and global justice as well as climate justice.

Patrick Taylor-Smith – National University Singapore , Jim Thomas – ETC Group , Duncan McLaren – Lancaster Environment Centre

David Morrow – American University & Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment , Aniruddh Mohan – Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy , Octavio Rosas-Landa – National University Mexico , Nnimmo Bassey – Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)



Governance for a ban on geoengineering

[Originally posted by Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative.]

by Lili Fuhr

All geoengineering approaches are by definition large-scale, intentional, and high-risk. Some have well-known negative impacts, threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining fundamental human rights (for example Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage). Others have great uncertainties when it comes to their potential impacts, that will never be fully known before actual deployment (mostly Solar Radiation Management).

There is a very important principle in international and national environmental law when it comes to dealing with uncertainties and risks – the precautionary principle. Based on this principle, the outdoor testing and deployment of SRM technologies, because of their potential to weaken human rights, democracy, and international peace, should be banned outright. This ban should be overseen by a robust and accountable multilateral global governance mechanism.

Other technologies that require great scrutiny are Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) projects that threaten indigenous lands, food security, and water availability. Such large-scale technological schemes must be assessed diligently before setting up proper regulations, to ensure that climate-change solutions do not adversely affect sustainable development or human rights. Any intentional large-scale deployment of transboundary nature (and with potential transboundary risks and harms) needs to be assessed by an agreed UN multilateral mechanism, taking into account the rights and interests of all potentially impacted communities and future generations. Most CDR schemes currently proposed would very likely fail such a rigorous assessment.

A ban requires governance

So why should I be interested in a debate on governance of a set of technologies that I would like to see banned? The answer is clear: a ban requires governance to ensure it is being implemented and enforced. And furthermore: governance of geoengineering is not just about the rules, procedures and institutions controlling research and potential deployment, but it is also about the process and discourse leading up to it. Unfortunately, current debates about climate engineering are undemocratic and dominated by technocratic worldviews, natural science and engineering perspectives, and vested interests in the fossil-fuel industries. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities must be given a prominent voice, so that all risks can be fully considered before any geoengineering technology is tested or implemented.

The good news is that a debate of governance of geoengineering does not take place in a legal or political vacuum. There are a number of important decisions to build upon. In 2010, 193 governments – parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – agreed to a de facto international moratorium on all climate-related geoengineering. More thematically focused, the London Convention/London Protocol (LP) to prevent marine pollution adopted a decision in 2013 to prohibit marine geoengineering (except for legitimate scientific research). The decision (adopted but waiting to enter into force) applies to the technologies that are included in an annex, which for now only lists ocean fertilization, as other techniques have not been thoroughly considered by the LP yet.

Beyond climate change

But geoengineering is about much more than climate change. Many geoengineering techniques have latent military purposes and their deployment could violate the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD), which prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) has been in force since 1978 and has been ratified by 77 states. It prohibits the use of environmental modification and commits parties “not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party” (Article I). Article II defines environmental modification techniques: “any technique for changing – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.” This definition encompasses many geoengineering technologies currently under active research and development.

Today, with powerful advocates generating so much pressure to bring geoengineering technologies out of the lab, soft bans with little enforcement mechanisms like the CBD decision are no longer sufficient. The world urgently needs an honest debate on the research, deployment, and governance of these technologies. The CBD and the London Protocol are essential starting points for these governance discussions, but these are certainly not enough.

Using the precautionary principle

In our civil society briefing on the Governance of Geoengineering “Riding the Geostorm” – that the Heinrich Böll Foundation published jointly with ETC Group – we highlight some key criteria for a legitimate discussion on geoengineering governance. In our view it should be based on the precautionary principle and not be confined to climate-related issues, as the consequences are more far-reaching than the climate, including weaponization, international equity, intergenerational justice, impacts on other ecosystems, such as biodiversity and oceans, impact on local and national economies dependent on those, indigenous and peasant rights.

Any debate on geoengineering, in our view, needs to be entwined with and informed by a rigorous discussion on ecologically sustainable and socially just alternatives to confront climate change and its causes, that shows that geoengineering is not a physical necessity or technical inevitability but a question of political choices.

Multilateral, participatory discussions 

Discussions on the governance of geoengineering need to be multilateral and participatory, transparent and accountable. They need to allow for the full participation of civil society, social movements and indigenous peoples. All discussions must be free from corporate influence, including through philanthro-capitalists, so that private interests cannot use their power to determine favourable outcomes or to promote schemes that serve their interests. This also means that initiatives like the C2G2 need to have obligatory, public and non-ambiguous conflict of interest policies in place, that prevent researchers with commercial interests in geoengineering to act as “independent” expertise.

An agreed global multilateral governance mechanism must strictly precede any kind of outdoor experimentation or deployment. And a ban on geoengineering testing and deployment is a governance option that I would certainly like to keep on the table.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a long-standing partner of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, received the Nobel Peace Prize this year “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. Maybe this shows that despite a rather negative outlook on the future of multilateralism today, there’s an appetite to take bold and clear action when it comes to enclosing high-risk technologies.

Lily Fuhr is Department Head, Ecology & Sustainable Development, Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The geoengineering fallacy

By Barbara Unmüssig. Source: Project Syndicate

Photo: Eric Kayne

BERLIN – As the world struggles to rein in emissions of climate-changing gases and limit planetary warming, a new technological silver bullet is gaining supporters. Geoengineering –the large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – has been popularized as a means of counteracting the negative effects of climate change.

Proponents of this science feed the illusion that there is a way to engineer an exit from the climate crisis, meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and maintain a consumption-heavy lifestyle.

But this solution is not as simple as proponents would have us believe. Betting on climate engineering – either as a planetary insurance policy or as a last-ditch measure to combat rising temperatures – is not only risky; it also directs attention away from the only solution we know will work: reducing carbon emissions.

Each of the engineered technologies being discussed carries dangers and uncertainties. For example, the only way to test the effectiveness of solar radiation management (SRM) on a global scale would be to carry out experiments in the environment – either by spraying particles into the stratosphere, or by artificially modifying clouds. While such tests would be designed to determine whether SRM could reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet, experimentation itself could cause irreversible damage. Current models predict that SRM deployment would alter global precipitation patterns, damage the ozone layer, and undermine the livelihoods of millions of people.

Beyond the ecological risks, critics warn that, once deployed globally, SRM could spawn powerful weapons, giving states, corporations, or individuals the ability to manipulate climate for strategic gain (an idea that not even Hollywood can resist). But perhaps the most important criticism is a political one: in a world of challenged multilateralism, how would global ecological interventions be governed?

Similar questions surround the other major group of climate engineering technologies under debate – so-called carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Proponents of these technologies propose removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground or in the oceans. Some CDR approaches are already prohibited, owing to concerns about possible environmental consequences. For example, fertilization of oceans with carbon-sequestering plankton was banned by the London Protocol on marine pollution in 2008. Parties to that decision worried about the potential damage to marine life.

But other CDR approaches are gaining support. One of the most discussed ideas aims to integrate biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques. Called “bioenergy with CCS,” or BECCS, this method seeks to pair the CO2-absorption capabilities of fast-growing plants with underground CO2 storage methods. Proponents argue that BECCS would actually yield “negative” emissions.

Yet, as with other engineered solutions, the promises are simply too good to be true. For example, huge amounts of energy, water, and fertilizer would be required to operate BECCS systems successfully. The effects on land use would likely lead to terrestrial species losses, and increase land competition and displacement of local populations. Some forecasts even suggest that the land clearing and construction activities associated with these projects could lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short term.

Then there is the issue of scale. In order for BECCS to achieve emissions limits set by the Paris agreement, between 430 million and 580 million hectares (1.1 billion to 1.4 billion acres) of land would be needed to grow the required vegetation. That is a staggering one third of the world’s arable land.

Simply put, there are safer – and proven – ways to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere. Rather than creating artificial CO2-binding “farms,” governments should focus on protecting already-existing natural ecosystems and allowing degraded ones to recover. Rainforests, oceans, and peatlands (such as bogs) have immense CO2 storage capacities and do not require untested technological manipulation.

By pushing unproven technologies as a cure for all climate-changing ills, proponents are suggesting that the world faces an unavoidable choice: geoengineering or disaster. But this is disingenuous. Political preferences, not scientific or ecological necessity, explain the appeal of geoengineering.

Unfortunately, current debates about climate engineering are undemocratic and dominated by technocratic worldviews, natural science and engineering perspectives, and vested interests in the fossil-fuel industries. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities must be given a prominent voice, so that all risks can be fully considered before any geoengineering technology is tested or implemented.

So what conversation should we be having about geoengineering?

For starters, we need to rethink the existing governance landscape. In 2010, parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to a de facto international moratorium on climate-related geoengineering. But today, with powerful advocates generating so much pressure to bring geoengineering technologies out of the lab, informal bans are no longer sufficient. The world urgently needs an honest debate on the research, deployment, and governance of these technologies; the CBD and the London Protocol are essential starting points for these governance discussions.

Among the technologies that require the most scrutiny are CDR projects that threaten indigenous lands, food security, and water availability. Such large-scale technological schemes must be regulated diligently, to ensure that climate-change solutions do not adversely affect sustainable development or human rights.

In addition, the outdoor testing and deployment of SRM technologies, because of their potential to weaken human rights, democracy, and international peace, should be banned outright. This ban should be overseen by a robust and accountable multilateral global governance mechanism.

No silver bullet for climate change has yet been found. And while geoengineering technologies remain mostly aspirational, there are proven mitigation options that can and should be implemented vigorously. These include scaling up renewable energy, phasing out fossil fuels (including an early retirement of existing fossil infrastructure), wider diffusion of sustainable agroecological agriculture, and increased energy and resource input into our economy.

We cannot afford to gamble with the future of our planet. If we engage in a serious discussion about ecologically sustainable and socially just measures to protect the Earth’s climate, there will be no need to roll the dice on geoengineering.

New report highlights risks of large-scale biosequestration as a form of CO2 removal


Source: Global Forest Coalition

Click here to view the report.

At the start of a major Climate Engineering Conference [1] in Berlin, the Global Forest Coalition [2] has launched a Working Paper that highlights the risks of different proposals for large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal. The report finds that while the most prominent CDR approach, Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technology is still in a state of “infancy” and is unlikely to be rolled out on a global scale, biosequestration in the form of afforestation through monoculture tree plantations is already rapidly expanding and causing significant negative social and environmental impacts..

The Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is largely dependent on CDR approaches and climate finance institutions are already supporting such afforestation schemes, largely due to the strong emphasis on private-sector involvement in climate finance mechanisms such as the World Bank’s Forest Investment Program.

“Large-scale biosequestration almost always involves the establishment of monoculture tree plantations on land that was formerly used for other purposes like agriculture or pasture” says Oliver Munnion, one of the authors of the report. “The transformation of land to monocultures causes adverse ecological and social impacts such as the loss of biodiversity, land degradation, changes in hydrological cycles, elite resource capture, conflict and violence against mostly poor and vulnerable communities.”

The report describes existing trends in the field of large-scale biosequestration. It examines the social and ecological impacts of such projects and discusses whether or not these are viable climate solutions. It also showcases successful community led biosequestration alternatives which could prove to be more effective in reversing climate change and in providing long term sustainable livelihoods. “It would be a smarter and more cost effective choice for policy makers to support community-based forest restoration initiatives, but sadly the strong influence of corporate interests in climate policy has caused governments to prioritize subsidies for commercial tree plantations over these community-led projects” says Dr. Simone Lovera, director of the Global Forest Coalition.

Riding the geostorm: Is it possible to govern geoengineering?

The prospect of controlling global temperatures raises serious questions of power and justice: Who gets to control the Earth’s thermostat and adjust the climate for their own interests? Who will make the decision to deploy if such drastic measures are considered technically feasible, and whose interests will be left out? This briefing from civil society on Geoengineering Governance was was produced by ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Geoengineering further encroaching on the IPCC’s work: 46th IPCC meeting in Montréal, Canada

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the main scientific authority in the field of climate change – came together for their 46th meeting in the city of Montréal, Canada. Although the work of IPCC is geared towards producing scientific assessments and reports, it is also an intergovernmental institution, which means that the 195 governments party to the IPCC get to decide on the broad course of what particular topics relating to climate change the IPCC should assess. At the Montreal meeting, Government delegations negotiated the three Working Groups’ chapter outlines for the upcoming 6th Assessment Report (AR6), to be published in 2021.

We were there to monitor developments around geoengineering, and have to conclude that the normalization push is well under way at the IPCC:

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) – or, in fact, Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), which is the adopted language at the IPCC – appears prominently in Working Group III, whose task it is to “assess options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere.” (IPCC Working Groups)

CDR/negative emissions technologies will appear, where relevant, in the sectoral Chapters 6-11 – but certainly in the chapters on energy systems (CCS-based technologies being at the core of geoengineering proposals for this sector) and the Agriculture, Forestry and Land-Use (AFOLU) chapter (relying on large-scale afforestation).

Beyond the sectoral chapters, WGIII Chapter 12 will be on “cross-sectoral perspectives.” Here all CDR technologies will be assessed that do not fall neatly into any of the preceding sectoral chapters – such as BECCS and ocean fertilization. While AR5 was hiding the excessive reliance on BECCS and afforestation in the footnotes, AR6 is going to fully embrace the discussion of basically all geoengineering technologies available – their status, cost, risks and impacts, but also their potentials.

Special attention was given to “impacts, risks and opportunities of large-scale land-based mitigation”, i.e. BECCS and afforestation. While some countries wanted to see the same in-depth assessment of large-scale ocean-based mitigation (despite the fact that ocean fertilization is already prohibited under the London Protocol of the London Convention), WGIII Chairs argued that prominence was accorded to large-scale land-based geoengineering – or mitigation, as they call it – due to these approaches’ role in mitigation pathways to 2°C and 1.5°C produced by Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). And indeed, no other geoengineering technology has yet made its way into the models.

SRM will be discussed in WGIII Chapter 14, International Cooperation. In the initial draft outline it was included in Chapter 12, Cross-sectoral Perspectives chapters, but some delegations preferred to highlight the dimension of international cooperation (and potential conflict) on SRM, so it was moved to Chapter 14. The respective bullet point now reads “Ethics and governance of SRM, associated risks” – which may risk precluding a discussion of other political and social risks of SRM beyond questions of governance and international cooperation and make them slip from view.

Civil society observers have argued throughout the meeting that geoengineering technologies should not be given such prominence as they remain high-risk and speculative response strategies with large-scale foreseeable negative impacts on human communities and ecosystems.

Nevertheless, geoengineering has been agreed on as one of eight cross-cutting issues identified by all Working Groups (I-III). So beyond being treated in dedicated chapters, geoengineering may very well sprawl across the report’s three Working Groups and show up in all different places, giving readers and policy makers no systematic account of the political, social and ecological risks and impacts of geoengineering proposals.

Geoengineering creeping into Working Group I on the physical science basis of climate change

Quite shockingly, the IPCC in its AR6 will do an in-depth assessment of both Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) scenarios and Solar Radiation Management (SRM) scenarios not only in Working Group III, which, as per usual, looks at mitigation options and pathways, but also in Working Group I – tasked with assessing “the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change.” In Chapter 4 of Working Group I, authors will look at the climate response to GGR and SRM scenarios, in Chapter 5, they will further analyze the biogeochemical implications of GGR and SRM scenarios. This group’s work is supposed to focus on the physical science basis of climate change, while assessing the geoengineering scenarios – a high-risk and largely speculative response strategy – is clearly outside the scope and mandate of WGI. WGI will also not assess the physical science basis of other types of responses to climate change, thereby giving undue prominence to geoengineering proposals.

It is worrying that including geoengineering (both CDR and SRM) scenarios in Working Group I’s contribution to AR6 may set a dangerous precedent for future assessment cycles of the IPCC. By establishing alleged unpolitical “scientific facts” about the climate response and biogeochemical implications of geoengineering scenarios, the IPCC is very likely to foster the normalization trend around geoengineering. The first problem with this is that the scientific consensus so established rests on results spit out by computer models that could never do justice to the complexity, interconnectedness and unpredictability of the Earths systems. It thus creates a false sense of controllability of geoengineering and climatic responses to it. The second problem relates to treating geoengineering in WGI in a seemingly neutral and unpolitical fashion – as if the decision to go down that path were not a fundamentally political one. The attempts at establishing an allegedly neutral scientific consensus on geoengineering is part of the larger thrust towards normalizing geoengineering as a response strategy to climate change.

However, knowledge production in the natural sciences is also not neutral: Given the disproportionate representation of geoengineers in the modelling community that will write WGI’s contribution to AR6, we are likely to see a heavily one-sided account of geoengineering scenarios, one that focuses on “potentials” while disregarding risks, impacts and disturbances of the climate system and ecosystems entailed by large-scale technological interventions.

The adopted chapter outlines can be retrieved from the IPCC website:

Working Group I

Working Group II

Working Group III

Workshop: Geoengineering from a degrowth and climate justice perspective

Workshop materials. Photo: Linda Schneider

In late August, the annual climate camp drew several thousand climate activists to the German brown coal mining region of Rheinland for a full week of workshops, panel discussions and fruitful exchange.

The climate justice movement also took to the streets – or rather: to the coalmines.  For the third time, the direct action campaign Ende Gelände organised mass actions of civil disobedience, blockading coalfields and train tracks – climate protection on the ground!

We at Heinrich Böll Foundation took the opportunity to discuss geoengineering from a Degrowth and climate justice perspective with a group of 30 people in a 4-day course at the Degrowth summer school.

After an introduction to the idea of geoengineering, the different technologies and the associated risks and impacts, we developed a critique of the concept of geoengineering as well as individual technologies from a broad Degrowth perspective, one that incorporates climate and resource justice, human rights concerns and is sensitive to global power structures and their reproduction through large-scale technofixes.

From a Degrowth perspective it is clear that real solutions are radical emissions reduction pathways that transcend mainstream economic thinking. Greenhouse gas emissions are inextricably linked to economic growth, high-consumption lifestyles and the exploitation of natural resources – a radical response to the socioecological crises we’re facing implies a deep transformation of social and economic structures and power relations in our societies, including the adherence to perpetual economic growth.

From a degrowth-based critique of geoengineering, we derived a set of criteria that technologies should satisfy to qualify as helpful for a climate-just 1.5°C world. To only mention a few – they should be low-risk, reversible and controllable, they should not compromise biodiversity, human and land rights, and adopt a holistic perspective that does not push concerns for human rights and ecosystem integrity aside. And: They must not serve as excuses for continuing fossil emissions!

There is a whole range of such technologies and approaches, that also have the co-benefit of drawing down CO2, such as the careful restoration of the world’s ecosystems: rainforests, moors and oceans, and the transformation of industrial agriculture towards locally adapted agroecology and peasant agriculture.

The conversation about geoengineering in the climate justice movement is only just beginning – we will continue fostering this conversation at this year’s Peoples’ Climate Summit in Bonn (November 3-7, 2017) in the context of COP23: We will hold an open capacity-building workshop on geoengineering – we’ll keep you posted about the exact date and location!

Failure of Kemper County “clean coal” plant casts more doubts on BECCS

Kemper County plant under construction. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

After years of embarrassing delays and $5.3 billion in cost overruns, Southern Company has finally pulled the plug on its pioneering “clean coal” plant in Kemper County, Mississippi.

The $7.5 billion Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Instead, it will now run on natural gas, without carbon capture – an ironic end, given that Southern Co. could likely have built such a power plant from the outset for under $500 million.

The project’s failure should cast serious doubts on the prospects of both “clean coal” as well as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – the current star child of techno-fix solutions to climate change.

BECCS would involve capturing CO2 from biofuel refineries or biomass-burning power stations and pumping it into geological formations, or – more likely due to economics – pumping it into oil wells in order to extract more oil. Despite lack of evidence as to the technological and economic viability of BECCS, the models underpinning the Paris Agreement’s 2°C target overwhelmingly rely upon BECCS as a “negative emissions technology” capable of being deployed at a scale large enough to balance out emissions by mid-century.

In theory, an IGCC power station like Kemper County should be the cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity from burning coal or biomass. Furthermore, an IGCC plant with CCS should be less energy-intensive than a conventional power plant with CCS, because the CO2 is removed from the syngas pre-combustion – when the CO2 concentration is higher – instead of stripping it from the flue gas post-combustion when CO2 is diluted, as it is at facilities like the retrofitted Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, which was officially opened earlier this year.  

The failure of the Kemper County project, which featured the cleanest and most efficient CCS power plant technology, should therefore be seen as a warning for policy-makers expecting CCS – including BECCS – technologies to magically close the emissions gap by mid-century.

It’s important to note that exchanging biomass for coal would add even more challenges to an IGCC with CCS plant. Biomass gasification results in a syngas which is chemically quite different from that generated through coal gasification, and therefore requires different treatment in order to produce a gas clean enough for burning to power a gas turbine.

While CCS advocates will undoubtedly seek to frame it as a marginal example, the reality is that the Kemper County project is a prime example of what CCS stands for – an enormous waste of public attention and resources, at a time when society should be focused on transforming our energy systems to address the root causes of climate change.