Climate engineering is the potential game changer we need to confront

By Penehuro Fatu Lefale 18 October 2018, 12:00AM

Penehuro Fatu Lefale

Utualii, Lalomanu, Salelavalu

International Climate Analyst/Director

LeA International, Wellington, New Zealand 

“Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage”—Lewis Hyde

In his article “Geoengineering worsen climate and hurts Paris Agreement” (October 11, 2018, posted online October 15, 2018), Fiu Mataése Elisara, Executive Director – O.L.S.S.I contends geoengineering  (climate engineering) “…is a deliberate attempt by the rich to distract from the real priorities of fossil fuel emission reductions. A false mitigation solution that will worsen climate change and indeed does nothing but hurts the Paris Agreement.” 

 He went on to argue “[t]his initiative [climate engineering] is all very well, but the priority is, and must be, to tackle the root cause of climate change, by reducing emissions and protecting natural carbon sinks, remains the main focus of our efforts to increase our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Elisara that we have to redouble our efforts on mitigation first and foremost – any acceptable climate future involves radical global cuts to greenhouse gases, starting immediately. But I do not share his view climate engineering (Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM)) would worsen climate and hurt the Paris Agreement – in fact I think the science shows the opposite.

Having worked in climate change policy making and scientific assessments for 28 years (since the Second World Climate Conference (SWCC) in Geneva, October-November 1990), I do not share his optimism that we will avoid dangerous climate change (i.e. 1.5°C or 2.0°C) with mitigation alone.

Moreover, his claim that climate engineering “is a deliberate attempt by the rich to distract from the real priorities of fossil fuel emission reductions” is just not accurate. These technologies are being researched by climate scientists who are terrified about the potential climate futures we are facing. And support for research comes from all around the world.

On April 3rd of this year, I published a Comment in Nature along with ten leading academics from across the Global South, urging developing countries to lead on solar geoengineering research . We do not support deployment of the technologies and are well aware of the potential risks. But our aim is to better understand all potential methods for reducing climate risk, and to make sure the voices of the South are central to discussions and decisions.  

Climate change is increasingly recognised as a global threat. 

To prevent the worst impacts, all options (response policies and measures (PAMs) such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)) should be on the international climate policy table, including CDR and SRM, especially as the IPCC Special Report 1.5oC (1.5oC Special Report) released last week (October 6, 2018) observes “SRM could reduce some of the global risks of climate change related to temperature rise… rate of sea level rise.., sea-ice loss, and frequency of extreme storms in the North Atlantic and heatwaves in Europe.”  But the report also notes “SRM also holds risks of changing precipitation and ozone concentrations and potentially reductions in biodiversity... Literature only supports SRM as a supplement to deep mitigation, for example in overshoot scenarios.”   

Professor David Keith and his group at Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences correctly observes “[s]olar geoengineering...could not be a replacement for reducing emissions (mitigation) or coping with a changing climate (adaptation); yet it could supplement these efforts.”  

Mitigation has been and still is the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC (Article 2) and Protocols or Other Legal Instruments (POALIs) - the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (Articles 2, 3), the 2015 Paris Agreement (Article 2). The other 3 components of international climate policy are Adaptation, CDR and SRM. The latter, CDR and SRM, have been on the scientific agenda well before the UNFCCCC was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. However, neither was seriously considered by policy makers until now. In fact, it is the 1.5oC warming goal, successfully promoted by Small Island Developing States like Samoa, that has brought CDR and SRM to consideration by the international community, particularly through the IPCC’s recent 1.5°C Special Report.

The report reaffirms what we in the scientific community already know. That is, the Paris Agreement and its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, were woefully inadequate to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5°C, let alone reverse climate change.  Even if all Parties implement the emissions cuts they pledged in Paris, global temperatures are projected to rise above 3oC. Temperatures are rising at such a rate that 1.5°C may be exceeded with in two decades unless there is climate engineering: either to remove billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere or to cool the planet by shading sunlight. 


The 1.5oC Special Report observes:

Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. [emphasis placed]. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (high confidence).

It called for the use of CDR to compensate for residual emissions.

All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with limited or no overshoot project the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) on the order of 100–1000 GtCO2 over the 21st century. CDR would be used to compensate for residual emissions and, in most cases, achieve net negative emissions to return global warming to 1.5°C following a peak (high confidence). CDR deployment of several hundreds of GtCO2 is subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints (high confidence). Significant near-term emissions reductions and measures to lower energy and land demand can limit CDR deployment to a few hundred GtCO2 without reliance on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) (high confidence)”, authors of the 1.5°C Special Report wrote in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM).

Under the heading “Strengthening the Global Response in the Context of Sustainable Development and Efforts to Eradicate Poverty” the 1.5oC Special Report states:

Estimates of the global emissions outcome of current nationally stated mitigation ambitions as submitted under the Paris Agreement would lead to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 of 52–58 GtCO2eq yr-1 (medium confidence). 

Pathways reflecting these ambitions would not limit global warming to 1.5°C, even if supplemented by very challenging increases in the scale and ambition of emissions reductions after 2030 (high confidence). Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future largescale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence).

In the context of international climate policy, the 1.5°C Special Report is a wake-up call for policy makers. It shows that the 1.5oC target - the target that gave hope to the most vulnerable populations like Pacific SIDS - is unlikely to be met by cutting greenhouse emissions alone. And if mitigation proves insufficient, as looks almost certain, CDR and SRM would be the only options for meeting the 1.5oC target. This is a lamentable situation that the SIDS have done nothing to cause, but ignoring this reality will not make it go away.  

As such, we do not have the luxury of being able to simplistically oppose climate engineering, as Mr Elisara suggests. And nor should we oppose them, since the evidence indicates it might significantly reduce climate risks. Instead, as we argued in Nature, we should join our colleagues from the global south and lead on this issue, making sure that evaluation of CDR and SRM is transparent and safe, with the interests of the most vulnerable people as the central concern. We in the South led the world on climate and development policy. We need to step up again and show leadership on climate engineering.


*The writer was a Lead Author, Chapter 16: Small Islands, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report AR4), 2007. 


His current research is on Governance of Climate Engineering from a Small Islands’ perspective. He has authored, co-authored and act as a book reviewer, a number of opinion pieces, commentaries, power-point presentations, on Climate Engineering, published in books and journals such as Springer, Nature, etc.


By Penehuro Fatu Lefale 18 October 2018, 12:00AM
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