UNESCO report warns of geoengineering risks

A report published by UNESCO ahead of COP28 has assessed the ethical risks of climate engineering, calling for any action to be taken within an agreed international framework.  

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Due to the current knowledge gap in the area, UNESCO believes it is impossible to fully anticipate the consequences of geoengineering, and its report highlights numerous risks associated with it. UNESCO says the strategy could undermine existing climate policies and divert funding from emissions reduction and adaptation efforts. The high cost of these technologies could further exacerbate global inequalities, especially in terms of the distribution of risks. According to UNESCO, climate engineering tools could also have the potential for military or geopolitical use, accentuating the need for a framework of international governance.

“In the face of the environmental emergency, we should consider all options at hand, including climate engineering,” said Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO assistant-director general for Social and Human Sciences. “However, their deployment should not come at the expense of the commitments made under the Paris Agreement, and not without a clearly established ethical framework. UNESCO will work with its Member States to build such a framework.”

Undertaken by UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), the report focused on the risks associated with two main categories: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation modification (SRM).

As the name suggests, CDR involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere to offset the huge amount of carbon emissions produced by human activity. Several CDR projects are already underway around the world, and it is widely viewed as an essential tool to stabilise the Earth’s temperature, alongside widespread emissions reductions.

SRM involves increasing the amount of solar energy reflected back into space away from Earth. This could be achieved by deploying large, mirrored structures in space or by Earth-based techniques such as seeding clouds with aerosols or salt to increase reflectivity. While the potential for SRM is significant, it is inherently riskier than CDR, and these risks would not be evenly distributed across the planet.

“Climate engineering may be risky, both in its interactions with the climate, and in its potential for exacerbating existing risks and introducing new ones,” said Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem, chair of COMEST.

“Before pursuing these new technologies, we must fully understand their effects and ethical implications. Any debate on climate engineering must be both an ethical and a political one, reflecting the conflicting interests between different regions and communities.”

UNESCO says the report will be shared with its 194 Member States so that it can be taken into account during COP28 discussions.