05.12.2011 - Natural Sciences Sector

Engineering the Climate: Research Questions and Policy Implications

Cover of the UNESCO - SCOPE - UNEP Policy Brief

Publication of UNESCO-SCOPE-UNEP Policy Brief N°14.

Earth’s climate appears to be changing faster than previously observed. Even with active mitigation and adaptation measures, additional efforts to avoid significant climate disruptions may be needed. Geoengineering the climate is an option that is now gaining scientific, policy, and public attention while raising important environmental, ethical, social, and political challenges.

On the occasion of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, UNESCO, SCOPE and UNEP are pleased to launch a new publication entitled Engineering the Climate: Research Questions and Policy Implications. Geoengineering is the intentional alteration of the climate system on a large scale and includes a broad range of proposed interventions at various degrees of testing and with uncertain consequences.

These proposed interventions range from ocean fertilization to large-scale cloud seeding.  The policy brief aims to prompt international discussion amongst policy makers by creating awareness of geoengineering’s effectiveness, possible benefits, potential undesirable impacts and status of both the science and governance of this rapidly evolving field.  

The two main kinds of interventions proposed must be differentiated as the science and governance issues are dramatically different.  ‘Solar Geoengineering’ or Solar Radiation Management refers to interventions that reduce the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the Earth’s climate system, such as the injection of reflective particles like sulphur dioxide into the lower or upper atmosphere, resulting in lower global average temperatures. ‘Carbon Geoengineering’ or Carbon Dioxide Removal refers to the active removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through engineered CO2 scrubbers or enhancement of ecosystem processes and results in a reduction of the detrimental impacts caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This policy brief is based on the UNESCO workshop on geoengineering organized by its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the Basic and Engineering Sciences  Division and the Ecological and Earth Sciences Division (Paris, November 2010).  UNESCO acknowledges the important contribution of the authors and their respective institutions: Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

The UNESCO-SCOPE-UNEP Policy Brief Series focuses on emerging and critical environmental issues. Each policy brief builds on the contributions of experts at international workshops to review current knowledge, highlight trends and controversies, and open perspectives for policy planners, decision makers and stakeholders in the community. The series was launched in 2006. Engineering the Climate is the 14th policy brief in the series.

The policy brief is being released concurrently with the first major report on the governance of geoengineering by the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative of the Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund and TWAS (the academy of sciences for the developing world).

The policy brief can be obtained in hard copy at the UNESCO, UNEP and SEI stands at the COP-17 in Durban, through request to UNESCO or online (.pdf).

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