A United Nations body is investigating controversial methods to avert runaway climate change by giving humans the go-ahead to re-engineer the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere.
So-called geoengineering is seen as necessary to achieve the COP21 Paris agreement clinched in December, when 197 countries pledged to keep global temperatures rises below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to researchers who produced a report for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
“Within the Paris agreement there’s an implicit assumption that there will need to be greenhouse gases removed,” said Phil Williamson, a scientist at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, who worked on the report. “Climate geoengineering is what countries have agreed to do, although they haven’t really realized that they’ve agreed to do it.”
Large-scale geoengineering may include pouring nutrients into oceans to save coral habitats or spraying tiny particles into the Earth’s atmosphere to reflect sun rays back into space. Geoengineering proposals have been shunned because of their unpredictable consequences on global ecosystems.
The University of East Anglia released a study in February that concluded geoengineering ideas were hazardous, costly or unrealistic. The Convention on Biodiversity has approached geoengineering with caution, seeking to constrain the development unless there is effective global governance, Williamson said.
“Risks of having local imbalances of climate are quite high, we’re not quite sure how it would turn out,” Williamson said. “If you have a climate catastrophe, a flood or storm, the accusation will be that it resulted from your action in the atmosphere.”
Some minds have nevertheless been changing when confronted with the scale of the climate change problems to be solved. Monday’s report makes clear that while geoengineering still entails environmental, political and economic risks, it’s worth considering as long as potentially unintended consequences can be pinpointed and minimized.