06/20/2008 - 13:57

Current regulatory discussions could help govern geoengineering research

All geoengineering techniques raise some common (and complicated) questions: Should legitimate research activities continue? Should experimental as well as theoretical research take place? Who decides whether an experiment or project can go forward? Are people concerned about geoengineering because they fear that the research might be harmful, or because they're worried that the knowledge gained might be dangerous? Are science and business mutually exclusive activities?

Over the past month, a variety of bodies have gathered to discuss geoengineering techniques in an effort to better understand them--and perhaps better control their research and/or practice as well:

  • The Scientific Group of the International Maritime Organization's London Convention, which regulates ocean dumping, met in May to provide technical guidance to the convention's parties and included ocean iron fertilization on its agenda.
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity, a framework agreement concerned with actions that may affect biodiversity, considered ocean iron fertilization during its recent Conference of the Parties.
  • A workshop on geoengineering sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations took up the foreign-relations implications of geoengineering.
  • The American Enterprise Institute also sponsored a conference on geoengineering.

In addition to these meetings, last week, the academies of science for the Group of 8 Plus Five countries released a joint statement calling for additional geoengineering research. Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the U.S. National Academy of Science Michael Clegg interpreted their statement to include "approaches to soaking up carbon dioxide," specifically "the so-called fertilization of the oceans with iron."

Of this recent activity, we believe that the London Convention's proceedings provide a good model of how discussions between governments, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations may evolve. When the Scientific Group met in Ecuador, they formed an ad hoc working group on ocean iron fertilization to provide technical expertise in support of decision-making. The working group called on several oceanographers, including some that had participated in ocean iron fertilization experiments, for assistance in understanding technical issues.

Several external scientific groups also developed statements to inform these deliberations, including the Scientific Committee on Ocean Research; its U.N.-commissioned Joint Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution; and the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC). The academic research community also addressed questions of interest to the delegates in a Science magazine policy forum.

Although private companies and individuals cannot be parties to these agreements and cannot directly participate in meetings, parties to the London Convention provide opportunities for private concerns to inform its members through side sessions. Our company, Climos, made technical presentations during side sessions at the London Convention meeting last fall as well as at the most recent Scientific Group meeting.

The delegates reviewed a variety of scientific questions--ranging from whether large-scale experiments are justified scientifically (the consensus of the position papers from scientists was that they were) to whether ocean iron fertilization was harmful to the marine environment. (The consensus of the position papers was that there's insufficient scientific evidence to determine whether ocean-fertilization activities would pose any significant risks of harm to the marine environment.)

The Scientific Group will release its report on these discussions before the fall meeting of the parties in London this October, which will consider policy statements based on the input from the Scientific Group. The London Convention's legal consultants will also provide information on the legal basis for considering whether ocean iron fertilization is "dumping" under the technical definition of this activity within the London Convention.

On the other hand, the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted, with little deliberation or input from the scientific community and no input from knowledgeable private-sector stakeholders, a decision that expresses concerns about ocean iron fertilization and requests that governments ensure that activities don't take place "until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities." But the IOC's ad hoc working group on ocean iron fertilization, of which Ken Caldeira is chair, recently released a response to that statement, saying that it "places unnecessary and undue restriction on legitimate scientific activities." The IOC will meet in Paris next week and will review the progress of the London Convention towards a scientific and policy framework for ocean iron fertilization.

We believe that the deliberative, science-based proceedings of the London Convention may serve as a useful model by which other international groups might consider proposals for adding aerosols to the stratosphere and other geoengineering activities.