A Brief Primer on Ocean Fertilization in the CBD and the London Convention and Protocol

by Duncan E.J. Currie LL.B. (Hons) LL.M.

This briefing outlines the principal decisions and resolutions of the Convention on Biological Diversity and London Convention/Protocol relating to ocean fertilization in the context of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation’s “Haida Salmon Restoration Project”.

The CBD Moratorium

In May 2008 the Parties at COP-9 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) decided in Decision IX/16 that the Parties noted the 2007 Statement of Concern of the London Convention and Protocol,[1] urged Parties and other Governments to act in accordance with the decision of the London Convention, recognized the current absence of reliable data covering all relevant aspects of ocean fertilization, without which there is an inadequate basis on which to assess their potential risks, and put into place what is now known as the CBD moratorium:

“4. Bearing in mind the ongoing scientific and legal analysis occurring under the auspices of the London Convention (1972) and the 1996 London Protocol, requests Parties and urges other Governments, in accordance with the precautionary approach, to ensure that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities, including assessing associated risks, and a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities; with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters. Such studies should only be authorized if justified by the need to gather specific scientific data, and should also be subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts of the research studies on the marine environment, and be strictly controlled, and not be used for generating and selling carbon offsets or any other commercial purposes.”

So, this means that the governments (such as the Canadian government, which is a Party to the CBD) have been requested to “ensure” that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until:

1. there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities, including assessing associated risks, and

2. a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities;

with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters. Such studies should only be authorized if justified by the need to gather specific scientific data, and should also be subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts of the research studies on the marine environment, and be strictly controlled, and not be used for generating and selling carbon offsets or any other commercial purposes.

Ocean fertilization was also the subject of negotiations at UNCSD Rio+20 in June this year, and in the outcome documentThe Future We Want,[2] States in paragraph stated that:

“167. We stress our concern about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization. In this regard, we recall the decisions related to ocean fertilization adopted by the relevant intergovernmental bodies, and resolve to continue addressing with utmost caution ocean fertilization, consistent with the precautionary approach.”

It should be noted that to ‘recall’ the decisions in this context means to reiterate or draw attention to them, and so confirms that the decisions of the CBD and the LC/P are still of good standing, as well as that States are still concerned about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization.

London Convention and Protocol


In 2007, the governing bodies of the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1972) and the 1996 London Protocol (LC/P)[3]

  • endorsed the “Statement of Concern” of their Scientific Groups, taking the view that knowledge about the effectiveness and potential environmental impacts of  ocean iron fertilization currently was insufficient to justify large-scale operations and that this could have a negative impact on the marine environment and human health;
  • agreed that the scope of work of the London Convention and Protocol included ocean fertilization, as well as iron fertilization, and that these agreements were competent to address this issue in view of their general objective to protect and preserve the marine environment from all sources;
  • agreed that they would further study the issue from the scientific and legal perspectives with a view to its regulation;
  • developed specific terms of reference for the Scientific Groups to discuss ocean fertilization in May 2008 and established the Legal Intersessional Correspondence Group (LICG) to summarize the legal views by Contracting Parties as to whether, and how, the legal framework of the London Convention and Protocol applies to key scenarios on ocean fertilization (LC 29/17, paragraphs 4.14 to 4.29 and annex 6); and
  • stated that “recognizing that it was within the purview of each State to consider proposals on a case-by- case basis in accordance with the London Convention and Protocol, urged States to use the utmost caution when considering proposals for large-scale ocean fertilization operations.  The governing bodies took the view that, given the present state of knowledge regarding ocean fertilization, such large-scale operations were currently not justified.”


Resolution LC-LP.1 (2008) on the Regulation of Ocean Fertilization adopted on 31 October 2008 noted that the Statement of concern’ on large-scale ocean fertilization by the Scientific Groups in June 2007 endorsed by the 29th Consultative Meeting and the 2nd Meeting of Contracting Parties in November 2007, and expanded on by the Scientific Groups in May 2008, remained valid, and noted COP-9 decision IX/16 on 30 May 2008, and provided that Parties:

“2.      AGREE that for the purposes of this resolution, ocean fertilization is any activity undertaken by humans with the principal intention of stimulating primary productivity in the oceans[3]; [3] read: ” Ocean fertilization does not include conventional aquaculture, or mariculture, or the creation of artificial reefs.”

8.       AGREE that, given the present state of knowledge, ocean fertilization activities other than legitimate scientific research should not be allowed.  To this end, such other activities should be considered as contrary to the aims of the Convention and Protocol and not currently qualify for any exemption from the definition of dumping in Article III.1(b) of the Convention and Article 1.4.2 of the Protocol.”

The Contracting Parties agreed that scientific research proposals should be assessed on a case-by-case basis using an assessment framework to be developed by the Scientific Groups under the London Convention and Protocol.


That assessment framework was developed in 2010 in the “Assessment Framework for Scientific Research Involving Ocean Fertilization” (adopted on 14 October 2010). The Framework provides a tool for assessing proposed activities on a case-by-case basis to determine if the proposed activity constitutes legitimate scientific research that is not contrary to the aims of the London Convention or Protocol.

In essence,

1. An Initial Assessment determines whether a proposed activity falls within the definition of ocean fertilization and has proper scientific attributes, and thus is eligible to be considered and evaluated in this framework. Upon completion of the Initial Assessment, the Secretariat of the London Convention and Protocol should be informed. Contracting Parties may also inform the Secretariat after receiving a proposal, prior to the completion of the Initial Assessment;

2. An Environmental Assessment is carried out, including Problem Formulation, Site Selection and Description, Exposure Assessment, Effects Assessment, Risk Characterization and Risk Management; and

3. The Environmental Assessment then feeds into the decision-making process, which is a determination that a proposed activity is legitimate scientific research, and is not contrary to the aims of the London Convention and Protocol, should only be made upon completion of the entire Framework. There is provision for monitoring: the collection and use of information resulting from monitoring informs future decision making and can improve future assessments.

A decision that a proposed activity is legitimate scientific research and is not contrary to the aims of the London Convention and Protocol should only be made if all earlier steps of the Framework, including the appropriate consultation and communication, have been satisfactorily completed and conditions are in place that ensure that, as far as practicable, environmental disturbance and detriment would be minimized and the scientific benefits maximized.

Consent should be sought from all countries with jurisdiction and/or in the Region of Potential Impact. If the risks and/or uncertainties are so high as to be deemed unacceptable, with respect to the protection of the marine environment, taking into account the precautionary approach, then a decision should be made to seek revision of or reject the proposal. Authorization of the project includes the duration and location of the activity, the requirements for monitoring and reporting, and any other conditions required by Contracting Parties. This authorization should be communicated to the Secretariat and relevant countries.


It is beyond the scope of this summary to conclusively analyze the activities undertaken under the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation’s “Haida Salmon Restoration Project” and assess it against the CBD and LC/LP resolutions. If the “The Haida Salmon Restoration Project: The Story So Far September 2012” is correct, and the activity did, or was intended to, “replenished vital ocean mineral micronutrients, with the expectation and hope it would restore ten thousand square kilometers of ocean pasture to health,” then this certainly would appear to be an “activity undertaken by humans with the principal intention of stimulating primary productivity in the oceans” and thus qualify as ocean fertilization under LC-LP.1(2008).

The Canadian Environment Minister reportedly told Parliament[4] that “Environment Canada did not approve this non-scientific event. Enforcement officers are now investigating … This government takes very seriously our commitment to protect the environment and anyone who contravenes environmental law should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Based on this statement, it appears that LC-LP.1(2008) and the Assessment Framework were not followed. It would therefore follow that the activity should be considered as contrary to the aims of the Convention and Protocol and not currently qualify for any exemption from the definition of dumping in Article III.1(b) of the Convention and Article 1.4.2 of the Protocol. The application of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (EPA 1999) to the activity is a matter for Canadian law and Canadian lawyers.

Given the position under the LC/P, it is unnecessary to assess the Project’s activities under the CBD moratorium, but on the facts known to date it seems clear that (1) the activities did not constitute small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters; (2) they were not authorized; (3) they were not justified by the need to gather specific scientific data; (4) were not subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts of the research studies on the marine environment; and (5) were not strictly controlled by the Canadian government. Clearly they can not be used for generating and selling carbon offsets or any other commercial purposes.

Originally posted by ETC Group.

[1] The LC/P (i) endorsed the June 2007 “Statement of Concern regarding iron fertilization of the oceans to sequester CO2” of their Scientific Groups, (ii) urged States to use the utmost caution when considering proposals for large-scale ocean fertilization operations and (iii) took the view that, given the present state of knowledge regarding ocean fertilization, large-scale operations were currently not justified.

[2] 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) in The Future We Want, confirmed in General Assembly resolution 66/88. United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) in The Future We Want, confirmed in General Assembly resolution 66/88 (2012). Athttp://www.un.org/en/sustainablefuture/.

[3] See LC 30/4 25 July 2008, Report by the Legal and Intersessional Group on Ocean Fertilization (LICG)

[4] “Experiment to seed Pacific defended, “Globe and Mail, October 19, 2012.


Geoengineering experiment cancelled amid patent row

Balloon-based ‘test bed’ for climate-change mitigation abandoned.

by Daniel Cressey (Nature)

A field trial for a novel UK geoengineering experiment has been cancelled amid questions about a pre-existing patent application for some of the technology involved.

The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project is a collaboration among several UK universities and Cambridge-based Marshall Aerospace to investigate the possibility of spraying particles into the stratosphere to mitigate global warming. Such particles could mimic the cooling produced by large volcanic eruptions, by reflecting sunlight before it reaches Earth’s surface.

But the field-trial arm of SPICE — which would have seen around 150 litres of water pumped into the atmosphere through a 1-kilometre hosepipe attached to a balloon — has now been abandoned.

“It is with some regret that today the SPICE team has announced we’ve decided to call off the outdoor ‘1km testbed’ experiment that was scheduled for later this year,” said Matthew Watson, the principal investigator of SPICE and an Earth scientist at the University of Bristol, UK, in an e-mail statement to Nature.

In the statement, which Watson says reflects only his views, he wrote that one factor in the cancellation was the lack of rules governing such geoengineering experiments. Although “it is hard to imagine a more environmentally benign experiment”, in the absence of an agreed architecture, Watson said that the field trial would be “somewhat premature”.

Another factor involves questions surrounding a patent application that was submitted by Peter Davidson, who runs the UK consulting firm Davidson Technology on the Isle of Man and was an adviser at the workshop that gave rise to the SPICE project, and Hugh Hunt, an engineer at the University of Cambridge, UK, who is one of the SPICE project investigators. The patent is for an “apparatus for transporting and dispersing solid particles into the Earth’s stratosphere” by “balloon, dirigible or airship” technology related to the SPICE field trial.

Although the patent application was submitted before the SPICE project proposal, it presents “a potentially significant conflict of interest”, Watson said. UK funding bodies require anyone assessing or applying for grants to declare relevant potential conflicts of interest. “The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort,” said Watson. “Information regarding the patent application was immediately reported to the research councils, who have initiated an external investigation.”

Davidson insists that he told the main funder, the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), about the pending patent. “The EPSRC was well aware I might have some IP [intellectual property] before the project was sanctioned,” he told Nature.

Hunt says that only a small part of SPICE is stopping, with the rest going ahead as planned, including climate modelling and analysis of what particles might be ideal to use in geoengineering, and other work on delivery methods. He adds that it is “completely normal” for engineering projects to seek to protect their intellectual property. “The issue here is that in climate science there is a mistrust of IP, and I understand that now,” he says. “We’re not expecting any revenue from any of the IP, but if there is any it will go into a trust fund supporting climate-change-related charities.”

Sandpit troubles

SPICE was hotly anticipated as a first practical step towards a promising potential form of geoengineering. But it was also controversial, attracting protests from some environmental groups who felt that insufficient public consultation had taken place (see ‘SPICE put on ice‘).

Most of the funding for SPICE came from the EPSRC, after a ‘sandpit’ event. The sandpit process involves an expert, who steers discussions, and a team of mentors, who lead workshops with researchers in a specific area. The director and mentors are not eligible to receive research funding — instead, they act as referees for projects devised in the sandpit, eventually recommending what should be funded. SPICE was given an EPSRC grant of  £1.6 million (US$2.6 million) after a 2010 geoengineering sandpit directed by Peter Cox, who works on climate systems at the University of Exeter, UK. Davidson was one of the mentors on the sandpit that gave rise to SPICE, but says he absented himself from any discussions of SPICE in the sandpit.

David Manning, a climate-change researcher at Newcastle University, UK, and another of the sandpit mentors, says that SPICE ticked all the boxes for funding, being novel, exciting and risky work. “As an experiment, it was crying out to be done,” he told Nature. He says that during the sandpit “there were no grounds for concern” about conflicts of interest that he was aware of.

Tim Kruger, who works on geoengineering at the University of Oxford, UK, and was the third mentor on the sandpit, says he was aware that Davidson was looking into commercial opportunities, but not that there was a patent application. “When I learned of this, I was not very happy about the fact that had not been disclosed to me previously,” he says.

There is no suggestion that anyone involved in the sandpit or the SPICE project acted improperly. A spokesman for the EPSRC says that the research council was aware of these developments, but was unable to comment.

“It is regrettable that the field-trial aspect of SPICE has now been cancelled, but it is vitally important that the remainder of the project — which is desk- and lab-based — should continue,” says Cox. “The SPICE project represents a vital first step in the research required before large-scale geoengineering on the real climate system could even be considered. I think the UK research councils, especially the EPSRC, should be applauded for having the courage to support projects such as SPICE.”

Originally posted by Nature.

U.K. Geoengineering Tests Delayed until Spring

by Sarah Fecht (Scientific American)

Controversial tests of geoengineering hardware, initially set to start in October, have been delayed. The British government agency that provides funding to the project issued the delay on September 29, in order “to allow time for more engagement with stakeholders.”

In mid-September, a team of U.K. researchers leading a project called Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) announced its plans to begin small-scale equipment tests. The tests would attempt to spray a few bathtubs full of water one kilometer into the sky, by way of a helium-filled balloon, a hose and a pressure washer pump. The balloon-and-hose method has been proposed as one way to deliver sunlight-reflecting particles to the sky, potentially easing the worst effects of climate change. The October experiments would have tested whether such a delivery method might be possible. While the research council’s delay was not intended to be long, the coming winter months will make it difficult to fly the balloon before springtime, says SPICE engineer Hugh Hunt.

The decision to delay came after 60 organizations from around the world signed apetition that called on the British secretary for energy and climate to cancel the tests. The petition was promoted by ETC Group, a Canada-based environmental organization that advocates socially responsible technology development. In a press release, ETC called the project “the Trojan Hose” and said that the test will “send the wrong signal to the international community, which adopted a moratorium on geoengineering activities last October at the [United Nations] Convention on Biological Diversity.”

In fact, the decision never uses the word “moratorium,” says Jason Blackstock, a science-policy mediator with Canada’s Center for International Governance Innovation. Instead, the agreement is a recommendation that no large-scale geoengineering activities should take place without considering impacts on biodiversity, economies and cultures. The agreement makes an exception for “small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting…and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment.” (The exact wording in the agreement can be found here in Section 8w of the decision.)

The proposed SPICE tests do not appear to violate international legal agreements, but debate continues about whether such a project would be socially acceptable. The petition demands confirmation that the UK government and its research councils “will not grant permission for, or fund, any other field trials of [geoengineering] equipment in the absence of an international consensus.”

Although the SPICE tests planned for this month were expected to be environmentally benign, other geoengineering efforts do have the potential to throw off weather patterns and endanger ecosystems and food supplies around the world, according to the Royal Society for Solar Radiation Management Governance. For that reason, any large-scale geoengineering project, if it is to go forward in an ethical way, will need to arise from international cooperation, says Blackstock.

The SPICE researchers acknowledge the controversial nature of geoengineering. “This is a controversial and potentially alarming subject, and we understand that,” said project leader Matthew Watson in a press briefing three weeks ago. For this reason, the team said, “we are fully committed to openness and transparency.”

Prior to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, representatives in the European Parliament (a legislative body of the European Union) must determine the EU’s official stance on several environmental issues. On September 29, the same day that U.K. officials announced the delay of SPICE, the European Parliament passed a resolution including an expression of its “opposition to proposals for large scale geoengineering.” If other bodies of the European Union approve the resolution, the E.U.’s official stance during the United Nations negotiations could be anti-geoengineering.

Originally posted by Scientific American.

SPICE put on ice

by Geoffrey Brumfiel (Nature)

SPICE figA British experiment to test technologies that could one day be used to manage the climate has been put on hold, in part due to the objections of environmental groups.

The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project is little more than a balloon with a hose attached. The stated goal of the project is to test technologies that might someday be used to cool an overheating Earth. The test bed will pump water through a hose to a balloon, which will disperse it as a spray a kilometre above the planet. The primitive contraption is a forerunner to larger balloons that might eventually deliver sulfate aerosols at heights above 10 km. In theory, the aerosols will reflect sunlight away from the Earth’s surface and cool the planet.

SPICE is a modest £1.6 million (US$2.5 million) effort, and the balloon test is just a small portion of it. But the project sends the wrong message, according to some environmental groups. In a letter sent earlier this week to Chris Huhne, Britain’s climate minister, they state that the experiment violates a decision not to undertake large-scale geoengineering tests made during the last meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It also says that the experiment will undermine Britain’s role in ongoing climate negotiations. The campaign is being spearheaded by the ETC group, well known for trying to halt the development of nanotechnology. But among the signatories is Friends of the Earth, a more mainstream organization.

The balloon test, at an air base in Norfolk, was originally set for mid-October, but is now on hold, according to Matthew Watson, SPICE’s principle investigator and a scientist at Bristol University. ETC claims that their letter halted the project, but Watson says the decision actually resulted from an independent consultation. An ethical advisory group worried that Watson and his colleagues had not done enough to engage with environmental groups prior to announcing the test.

Watson says that he welcomes debate from environmentalists. He also emphasizes that the test will in no way alter the climate locally or globally. “We would have sprayed two bath tubes full of water over a field,” he says. The point of the test, should it proceed, he says, is merely to see whether balloons are a feasible geoengineering technology.

Originally posted by Nature.

Say No to the “Trojan Hose”

No SPICE in our skies, say environmental justice groups

(ETC Group/Econexus)

Over 50 concerned groups from around the world are calling on people to sign an open letter (here) asking the UK Government and Research Councils to scrap the controversial SPICE experiment designed to test hardware for deployment of stratospheric aerosol injections as a way to artificially cool the planet. The SPICE project (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) involves four universities, three research councils, several government departments along with private company Marshall Aerospace.

Groups signing the letter to Environment Minister Chris Huhne and the UK Research Councils hope it will gather enough support before the test to get authorities to reconsider allowing the controversial experiment to go ahead.  The experiment, which involves spraying water from a kilometre-long hose suspended by a giant balloon, is scheduled to take place on a disused military airstrip in Sculthorpe, in Norfolk, UK between October 6 and 23rd.  Groups objecting to the test say it will send the wrong signal to the international community, which adopted a moratorium on geoengineering activities last October at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan.

“On the one hand, our government is involved in negotiations around geoengineering and biodiversity by funding, chairing and actively participating in discussions at the CBD.  On the other hand, it is preparing the hardware for deployment of a potentially very dangerous geoengineering technology. Such tests should certainly not be allowed to proceed before there is an international decision to go down that path,” says Helena Paul of Econexus, one the NGOs involved in the CBD talks and in the open letter.

Diana Bronson of ETC Group, an international technology watchdog says: “This is a Trojan Hose — our objection is not that they want to spray water but that they are preparing the technology that can shoot sulfates into the stratosphere to try to block sunlight from reaching the earth.  This so-called Solar Radiation Management could have devastating consequences  — altering precipitation patterns, threatening food supplies and public health, destroying ozone and diminishing the effectiveness of solar power, in addition to many other known and unknown impacts.”

Organizers invite people opposed to carrying out geoengineering field trials in the absence of international agreement to signal their opposition here: handsoffmotherearth.org


Geo-engineering: green versus greed in the race to cool the planet

by John Vidal

The alert on the Climate Ark website in January 2009 was marked urgent: “Take action: A rogue science ship is poised to carry out risky experimental fertilisation of the Southern Ocean. This is likely [to be] the first of many coming attempts to begin geo-engineering the biosphere as a solution to climate change. The chemical cargo is likely to provoke a massive algal bloom big enough to be seen from outer space…”

The response was immediate and vitriolic: “You morons,” fumed a woman from a Canadian university. “That isn’t a rogue ship… it’s one of the best marine science research groups in the world. You are no different than anti-science religious fanatics. You seek to keep the world ignorant. May you drown in your lies…”

Professor Peter Liss, then chair of Britain’s Royal Society’s global environment research committee and himself involved in research to see the effect of iron on phtyoplankton, stepped in: “The [intention] is to find out what role iron plays in marine biogeochemistry. In no way is it an attempt to geo-engineer the planet. Only by knowing the facts can you argue effectively against such geo-engineering proposals. Emotion and opinion will not win the argument; knowledge and understanding will.”

Some hope. Geo-engineering – artificial efforts to mitigate global warming by manipulating weather patterns, oceans, currents, soils and atmosphere to reduce the amount of greenhouses gases – evokes ideological, political and financial passions. For those who have more or less given up on UN climate talks, it is, along with nuclear power, the only practical planetary way to avoid catastrophic climate change; for others, it is an irresponsible move into the unknown by the rich world that will inevitably have unintended consequences, most probably for the poorest.

But as attempts to get major economies to agree to reduce emissions through energy efficiency falter, so groups of scientists, universities and entrepreneurs are coming together, patenting ideas and pressing the case with governments and the UN to back experiments as the first step towards wide-scale deployment of a suite of technologies.

From just a few individuals working in the field 20 years ago, today there are hundreds of groups and institutions proposing experiments. They fall broadly into two camps: one aims to remove greenhouse gases from the air and store them underground; the other, more controversially, tries to cool the Earth down by reflecting sunlight from the atmosphere or space in a process known as solar radiation management.

The range of techno-fix ideas is growing by the month. They include absorbing plankton, growing artificial trees, firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain, genetically engineering crops to be paler in colour to reflect sunlight back to space, fertilising the ocean with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton, blasting sulphate-based aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, covering the desert with white plastic to reflect sunlight and painting cities and roads white.

There are serious proposals to launch a fleet of unmanned ships to spray seawater into the atmosphere to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from Earth. Most controversial of all is an idea to fire trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a 100,000-mile “sunshade” for Earth.

Most are unlikely to be seriously considered but some are being pushed hard by entrepreneurs and businessmen attracted by the potential to make billions of dollars in an emerging system of UN global carbon credits. Research by ETC, the Canadian-based watchdog, shows at least 27 patents have been granted to inventors and assignees including Bill Gates, Dupont, the US government and various corporations. Chemical engineer Michael Markels has four patents, Professor Steven Salter of Edinburgh University and climate change scientist David Keith have two.

“If geo-engineering techniques move towards actual deployment, the existence of patents could mean that decisions over the climate will be effectively handed over to the private sector,” says Diana Bronson of ETC.

In what is shaping up to become a deep, ideological division along the lines of pro- and anti-nuclear or GM crops, the scientists, corporates and entrepreneurs are being broadly opposed by environment groups and developing countries, but backed increasingly by the UK and US governments, as well as businessmen such as Richard Branson. And in a strange new grouping, free market environmentalists such as Mark Lynas in Britain, Stewart Brand in the US and Bjorn Lomborg in Denmark have joined high-profile US conservative politicians and thinktanks to say geo-engineering is a step forward.

“Geo-engineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year,” said Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, in 2008. “We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.”

How geo-engineering plans to combat climate change.

Such people have decided that re-engineering Earth for survival, or for profit, is just an intellectual skip away from what we have been doing for centuries and what has got us into the mess in the first place – cutting down most of the world’s forests, converting the savannas, diverting and damming rivers and plundering the seas. With no evidence that mankind is prepared to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, it has become necessary to have a plan B, an insurance policy for the situation in which Earth hits a tipping point, they argue.

But to do that requires experiments and money, says Andrew Lockley, moderator of the geoengineering group Google site that brings together many of the world’s leading scientists working in different areas. His own area is finding geo-engineering ways to capture methane on a vast scale from melting tundra landscapes.

Lockley says: “We just do not know if a catastrophic methane release could be 50, 100 or 10,000 years away. Different scientists are saying different things. We could be sleepwalking into a climate disaster. What is needed is the support of academe to do further research. We need basic research done on which models might work.”

But with most major research institutions scared of the public reaction and hesitating to put money into geo-engineering, it is being left to corporations and billionaire entrepreneurs. Bill Gates has put in $400m (£250m) into two projects and is named in a group of people holding a patent to employ a fleet of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths. Richard Branson’s “carbon war room” is backing carbon capture and storage technologies. Behind the scenes, airlines, GM and chemical companies are believed to be cautiously investigating the potential.

Britain now leads the world’s public funding, by providing research money and intellectual backing from scientific institutions such as the Royal Society. Last week, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a British government funding agency, released over £3m for two geo-engineering research projects.

The most controversial project is for an artificial mini-volcano to block sunlight and lower temperatures. Inspired by the way eruptions can spew particles into the stratosphere dimming the sun and lowering temperatures, the scientists from Bristol, Cambridge and Reading Universities propose to launch a massive balloon system 20-25km into the stratosphere to spray millions of sulphate particles. The prototype will put a balloon just 1km into the sky.

Their work is being mirrored in the California where Philip Rasch, chief scientist for climate science at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a research group with the US Department of Energy, has proposed fleets of aircraft continually spraying tons of reflective sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Geo-engineering critics are appalled, saying the diffusion of the sunlight might result in ozone depletion, reduced plant growth, more humidity in the atmosphere, less energy and even potential damage as particles fall to Earth.

“We just do not know how to recall a planetary-scale technology once it has been released. Techniques that alter the composition of the stratosphere or the chemistry of the oceans are likely to have unintended consequences as well as unequal impacts around the world,” says Pat Mooney of ETC.

Scientists are also divided on the deployment of planetary-scale geo-engineering but united on the need for research – if only to show that many of the proposed schemes may be rubbish.

“I am actually pretty scared of putting things in space. Some people are planning to do it [but] it is much harder to check what is going on in the stratosphere. We may need to regulate the experiments. We know very little about secondary consequences. To talk about doing it is naive. To do research is different,” he says. “The case for experimentation is not the case for going ahead with major implementation. You cannot consider [these things] until you have done the research. Maybe it goes no further. A first step does not presume a second. That would be for politicians to decide.”

But the technologists are at many different stages. According to ETC, there are now several groupings, including the pragmatists, such as Branson, Lomborg and the American Enterprise Institute, which argue that geo-engineering is faster and cheaper than carbon taxes and emissions reductions, so just get on with it; and the theorists, such as the Royal Society and the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US which say we must have an emergency Plan B because we are heading for a certain climate catastrophe; meanwhile, businesses such as the Ocean Fertilisation Company and the Biochar Initiative see dollars.

In the background is the military. According to US science historian James Fleming, control of the climate gives the military an advantage and so it seeks to “weaponise” every technology, providing a stream of resources for scientists. Star Wars architect Lowell Wood argued in the 1990s that by spending about $1bn per year, the US could put enough particles in the stratosphere to reduce sunlight by about 1%.

“It is not easy to see how a serious geo-engineering programme could move forward without some degree of military involvement,” says Jeff Goodell, journalist and author of How to Cool the Planet.

The immediate battle, though, is being fought in the media, where the scientists are hoping to be hailed as social visionaries, and in the UN and scientific establishments, where they are seeking intellectual underpinning. According to Bronson: “The geo-engineers have worked hard to conquer the western scientific establishment and are now moving into Brazil, India and China because they know that the northern orientation of everything so far is a huge liability.”

There is growing awareness that geo-engineering is not going away, adds Bronson. “Many NGOS and social movements in Latin America have started to get involved and interest in south-east Asia and some parts of Africa is growing. Combined with lacklustre climate talks and rising emissions, though, many environmentalists end up with some kind of reluctant endorsement of the ‘more research’ agenda. Indigenous peoples and farmers’ organisations have proved particularly strong in their opposition. Women’s groups are also starting to get interested and alarmed.”

Above all, it will be the governments of poor countries which are likely to object to any planetary-scale project. Two years ago, all countries except the US agreed to a de facto voluntary moratorium on geo-engineering projects and experiments. Apart from the unpredictability of the science, there was mistrust that western-northern-driven technological solutions to climate change would be fair or equitable. Two weeks ago, 160 organisations from around the world sent an open letter to Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel prize-winning chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after it had hosted a meeting of geo-engineers in Lima, Peru.

“Geo-engineering is too dangerous to too many people and to the planet to be left in the hands of small group of so-called experts,” they warned. “The IPCC has assured us it will go forward carefully in this work. We will be closely following the process.”

This article was originally posted to the Guardian.