CE Governance: A turbulent start to international negotiations

In spring 2019, the Swiss government made the first ever attempt to put the issue of international standards for climate engineering governance on the United Nations agenda. It submitted a proposed resolution to the United Nations Environment Programme /UN Environment Assembly (UNDP / UNEA), calling for an international assessment summarising the current state of research on climate engineering and existing and potential governance approaches. The proposal referred both to carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and to radiation management (RM) methods, and had the backing of ten other countries. At the fourth session of the UNEA in Nairobi, delegates from UNEA member countries discussed the Swiss proposal in what resulted into a heated debate. As no agreement was reached, Switzerland eventually withdrew the proposal. 

So has the idea of adopting overarching approach to climate engineering governance already failed at that first attempt? Observers stress that the proposal and the subsequent negotiations revealed five key issues that are highly controversial and need to be clarified in further discussions. These are:

 1. Which expert body could and should carry out the assessment proposed by Switzerland on behalf of the UNEA? Could the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produce a report of that kind? Or would an alternative panel of experts, either existing or perhaps newly created, have to be set up for the task? In contrast to other global environmental assessments, the CE assessment would not only have to assess the causes and impacts of global environmental changes, but would also have to include proposals for regulating the risks and opportunities of the various CE methods used.

2. What political venue could and should be given the mandate to negotiate international CE governance approaches? Could the negotiations take place under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change? Or would an overarching, cross-sectoral and multilateral forum like the UNEA be needed in order to take account of the environmental and geopolitical impacts of CE interventions on other areas such as biodiversity and security of water and food supply?

3. How could and should CE methods be integrated into the existing portfolio of climate policy instruments? Would they be seen, for example, as a component of mitigation strategies? What might the consequences be for current and future policies to mitigate of and adapt to climate change? Would CE measures perhaps be seen as a substitute for achieving drastic emission reductions and thus undermine emission reduction efforts?

4. A fourth point of contention concerned the precautionary principle emphasised in the Swiss proposal. In its most general form, this prescribes that given the risk of significant or irreversible damage, a lack of complete scientific certainty should not be seen as a reason to postpone implementation of cost-effective measures to prevent environmental harm.

The precautionary principle is contained in most international treaties and instruments of potential relevance to climate engineering (such as the CBD, the UNFCCC and the London Protocol). Although it always relates in that context to how government decisions on the environmental impact of a particular action are to be reached in cases of scientific
uncertainty, the precautionary principle has been adapted to suit each case relative to the legal consequences resulting from its application. It is not possible, therefore, to argue in general terms that the precautionary principle prohibits action that could be harmful to the environment. What counts instead are the provisions of the relevant treaty – although this can lead to problems if action (such as a large-scale climate engineering experiment) falls within the scope of multiple international treaties, each of which implements the precautionary principle differently.

Even within individual treaty regimes, application of the precautionary principle has resulted in controversy. Under the London Convention, for example, both those for and those against permitting carbon captured at power plants to be deposited on the seabed have argued their cases based on the precautionary principle. This shows that there is still no uniform way to assess whether the precautionary principle has already become accepted as customary international law and as such must be observed by countries as a binding legal principle irrespective of how it is implemented in a given treaty. The US in particular has always been opposed to the idea of the principle applying as customary law. 

Legal experts have thus proposed that the precautionary principle should be conceived of as a mode of target attainment that governs if and when there is an obligation to take measures to protect the environment. In the case of frequently occurring conflicts between different protected interests (climate action versus marine environment conservation, for example), it would be used to decide if and when protected interests must be weighed against each other using the proportionality principle. The problem here, however, is that the underlying principles and modalities for this kind of approach remain controversial and are in need of further analysis, especially in respect of CE.

5. The fifth and final question was: What basic procedure should be followed in the search for governance approaches? Would it make sense to strive for a method-neutral approach that encompasses all CE methods? Or is it advisable to assess and govern CDR and RM methods separately, and thus to develop method-specific governance approaches? 

Proponents of the method specific approach criticised the Swiss proposal because in it, CDR and RM methods were to be looked at together, meaning in a method-neutral approach under the catch-all concept of climate engineering. But then the critics also argued that the CE methods differ so widely in their characteristics and spatial and geopolitical consequences that it is difficult to compare them and account for them by a single approach. CE methods would instead have to be regulated by specially tailored governance approaches. In a more detailed assessment of the various methods (such as a legal appraisal), it would appear more helpful to use more specific designations for the methods in question rather than using generic terms. 

New approaches to governance of CDR and RM 

It is an open question how the negotiations in Nairobi would have proceeded if Switzerland had submitted two separate proposals – one for CDR and one for RM. Leading scientific panels such as the IPCC differentiate between CDR and RM categories. 

With regard to CDR, initial assessments have come to the conclusion that the few existing international conventions and policy regimes will not be sufficient to enable CDR to be used on the scale required by the IPCC to achieve the 1.5 °C target. What is also clear is that as broad a range of methods as possible should be promoted and that premature commitment to one particular method is to be avoided. Incentives must be created to promote both research into and application of the various methods, and to further develop the regulatory approaches offered under the Paris Agreement. 

For RM methods, an intensive dialogue is needed on the standards for and principles for their governance before any large-scale deployment – even if this means that RM methods are then rejected. The scientific recommendation is to develop RM-specific governance approaches in a step-by-step process because the technical and political risks involved cannot be foreseen. This would allow a flexible approach, responding to unintended risks by adjusting procedures as needed. 

Given the development and security implications of many CE methods, an inclusive governance approach is needed where as many countries and as many societal stakeholders as possible have to be included in the debate from the outset. To place future policy decisions on a robust scientific basis, data and information systems should also be developed to enable independent monitoring of CE deployment. The aim must be to expand international cooperation in CE research in order to fully understand the regional and geopolitical impacts, and to be able to respond to undesirable impacts and risks. 

This means that for policymakers, busy times lie ahead. The debates held at the fourth UNEA session provided important impetus, catalysing a much-needed debate on the future of global environmental governance. ◆