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Solar geoengineering’s dangerous distraction
At the most recent United Nations Environment Assembly, Africa’s leaders helped shoot down a resolution that called for more research into the benefits and risks of solar radiation modification. They identified the dangers of entertaining this fantasy and emphasized the need for effective and equitable climate solutions
Yacob Mulugetta, Dean Bhekumuzi Bhebhe and Niclas Hällström 11 Apr 2024

At the most recent United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, African countries took a strong stand against potential new technologies that, if developed, could tip an already disrupted climate into chaos.

The continent’s leaders, with the support of other developing countries, helped shoot down a resolution that called for more research into the benefits and risks of solar radiation modification (SRM). Also known as solar geoengineering, SRM is the controversial idea that deliberately modifying the atmosphere to reflect some of the sun’s rays back into space could help cool a warming planet. Instead, these policymakers supported the International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering and emphasized the need for effective and equitable climate solutions.

Geoengineering encompasses a range of speculative technologies, of which SRM is just one, intended to address the effects, not the root causes, of climate change. Many solar geoengineering techniques have been proposed, but the most contemplated is stratospheric aerosol injection, which envisages fleets of high-flying airplanes continuously spraying large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the temporary cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.

In reality, such measures would likely destabilize an already severely disrupted climate. Consider that volcanic eruptions have historically precipitated extreme weather events and famines. Moreover, climate models have long indicated that stratospheric aerosol injection could alter Indian monsoons and cause more frequent and persistent droughts in the volatile Sahel region. According to the UN Human Rights Council, solar geoengineering could “seriously interfere with the enjoyment of human rights for millions and perhaps billions of people”.

Some SRM proponents argue that if spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere does not achieve the desired result, it is always possible to stop. But that could prove dangerous: the masking effect of the injected particles would disappear, causing a rapid rise in temperatures. This so-called termination shock would be a nightmare scenario.

Africans see how their continent is being used as a testing ground for these dangerous technologies. Africa is the continent most vulnerable to climate change, the argument goes, and thus would benefit the most from geoengineering. In fact, Africans have the most to lose from failed geoengineering technologies.

Furthermore, disagreements over the use of SRM could exacerbate geopolitical conflicts and even trigger wars. And, given that geoengineering technologies are largely promoted by US-based interests and institutions funded by tech billionaires, African countries have good reason to fear that they would have little to no say in decisions about their deployment. 

In addition to concerns about security and equity, geoengineering raises serious ethical questions. SRM and other related technologies appeal to those who repudiate the need for rapid, transformative societal change to limit global warming. Even entertaining this fantasy could become a dangerous distraction, especially as it gains traction as a tactic of delay for the fossil-fuel industry.

That is why African countries – together with Mexico, Colombia, Fiji, and Vanuatu – pushed back forcefully against Switzerland’s solar-geoengineering resolution at the UNEA, arguing that research has already demonstrated the catastrophic risks. They advocated for the UNEA to reaffirm a precautionary approach to these speculative technologies and to acknowledge the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment’s call for a non-use agreement – a pioneering decision taken in August 2023. But the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Japan opposed this. Given the lack of consensus, Switzerland was forced to withdraw its resolution.

The negotiations underscored the importance of the call for the International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering, an initiative that has been endorsed by more than 500 scholars and backed by almost 2,000 civil-society groups. The agreement concludes that because solar geoengineering poses unacceptable risks and is inherently ungovernable, countries must reject outdoor experimentation, patents, public funding, or deployment of the technology.

The international community should adopt a strict ban on solar geoengineering, as it has done for human cloning and chemical weapons, and it must do so before the technology is commercialized. In fact, governments agreed to a de facto moratorium on geoengineering under the Convention on Biological Diversity more than a decade ago. The Non-Use Agreement would further reinforce this prohibition.

But it is not enough to resist dangerous distractions like SRM. Addressing the climate crisis requires a razor-sharp focus on real solutions and South-South cooperation. Two of us, as part of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development, recently outlined how African countries can pursue an effective climate and development agenda – and how efforts such as the Least Developed Countries Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative could support this. Likewise, the proposed Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, a binding plan to phase out oil, gas and coal rapidly and equitably, is gaining momentum. We anticipate and welcome a wave of countries joining Colombia, Fiji and Vanuatu in simultaneously championing the International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, put it succinctly in her powerful closing plenary statement at the UNEA: “Pollution is not the solution for pollution.” African leaders have warned that the world must not be hoodwinked and find itself on a slippery slope toward catastrophic geoengineering. It is time for the international community to listen.

Yacob Mulugetta is a professor of energy and development policy at University College London, a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences and a member of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development; Dean Bhekumuzi Bhebhe is the campaigns lead at Power Shift Africa and a member of the Hands Off Mother Earth Alliance's Don’t Geoengineer Africa working group; and Niclas Hällström is the director of WhatNext? and a member of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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