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Environment

More Input On Geoengineering

Lawmakers are told that for technologies to advance, more research and regulations are needed

by Jeff Johnson
March 29, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 13

TESTIMONY
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Credit: House Science & Technology Committee
Frank Rusco (from left), a director in the natural resources and environment team at the Government Accountability Office; Morgan; and Long talk geoengineering at a congressional hearing.
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Credit: House Science & Technology Committee
Frank Rusco (from left), a director in the natural resources and environment team at the Government Accountability Office; Morgan; and Long talk geoengineering at a congressional hearing.

International regulations are needed to control the use of climate-change “geoengineering” technologies intended to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gases, and the United Nations is the best body to enforce these yet-to-be-developed regulations. That is the conclusion of a new report by the U.K. House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology, which was released in the U.S. on March 18 at a House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee hearing on the topic.

Phil Willis, a member of Parliament and chair of the select committee, described the report to the House committee and discussed the status of joint actions taken by the two committees, which began last April. The report, Willis’ testimony, and the results of other hearings by the U.S. House science committee are parts of a plan to couple the two committees’ work on climate-change issues and particularly on geoengineering technology, he said.

International regulations, Willis and the report explained, are needed for three reasons: A single country unilaterally using geoengineered technologies can affect the world’s climate, small-scale geoengineering is already going on, and the world needs geoengineering as a fallback if greenhouse gases cannot be cut through reduction techniques.

At the hearing, committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) echoed the need to move ahead on development and regulation of geoengineering. “The impacts of climate change may outpace the world’s political, economic, and physical ability to avoid them through greenhouse gas reductions alone,” he said. “Therefore, we should know what other tools we have at our disposal and if certain proposals, such as geoengineering, represent an option.”

He cautioned, however: “I’d like to make it clear that we are not advocating for deployment of geoengineering technologies. I hope that we never get to that point.”

Like Gordon, Willis too warned against dependence on geoengineering to solve climate-change problems. He noted the likely difficulty in reaching an international agreement on the use of geoengineering. Pointing to the failure to negotiate a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, he said, “I cannot see how geoengineering would be any easier.”

Willis emphasized the complexity and difficulty in considering regulations for technologies that have yet to be tried at full scale. He underscored the problem by giving the example of a rich nation trying a relatively inexpensive geoengineered technology that cannot be contained within its national boundaries. “We should avoid a situation where one nation deliberately or otherwise alters the climate of another nation without prior approval,” he said.

Although the report did not call for an international treaty at this time, it said nations should be laying the groundwork for “regulatory arrangements.” It also warned against a “mass rollout” of geoengineering, Willis continued, without extensive research coupled with a broad and open public debate.

Willis was among five speakers, each of whom endorsed development of various geoengineering technologies. The approaches were divided into two broad areas: technologies that reflect a portion of the sun’s radiation back into space, thereby lowering trapped solar radiation, and those that capture carbon dioxide directly from air and store it away from Earth’s atmosphere.

M. Granger Morgan, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s department of engineering and public policy, runs a National Science Foundation-supported program examining solar radiation management (SRM) approaches to cool Earth. However, he stressed, “I am not arguing anyone should actually engage in SRM today.”

Before turning to geoengineering, he said, “the world must get much more serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and I believe this can be done at affordable levels.” But he said a better understanding of geoengineering is needed.

“The risks of not understanding whether and how well SRM might work, what it will cost, and what its intended and unintended consequences might be,” Morgan said, “are greater than the risk such research might pose.”

Research should be federally funded at this time as a “public good,” testified Jane Long, principal associate director-at-large at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This arrangement could change, she added, and private industry might get involved in R&D if there were a price on carbon emissions.

She also cautioned against the use of geoengineering technologies and stressed the need for openness and public transparency. “We should say up front that we are not planning for deployment at this time, otherwise we will get a lot of push-back. Many people who are against the idea of geoengineering are clearly for more research on it,” she said.

The House hearings will be combined with the U.K. report and rolled into a final report that will be a “capstone” to the joint inquiry, according to a statement by the two committees. Staff are aiming for a summer release.

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