On Friday, Oct 29, 193 delegates to the United Nations declared that any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of a UN consensus. In essence, the statement published by the UN appears to ban any and all efforts to address global environmental problems such as global warming and biodiversity, except in the case where the effort has already been accepted by the UN.
At first glance, media proclamations like this sound like a disaster for the future of environmental technologies and contradictory to the UN’s efforts to address major environment issues. Efforts at technological innovation such as orbital solar deflectors, cloud fertilization or even industrial carbon sequestration appear to be at risk of termination, and new ideas for using technology to address such problems seem to be frozen.
But, a second look the UN communiqué shows that the headline is very short on facts. First, to understand the UN consensus, it takes a little extra reading and considering. What the communiqué is saying is that it does not want the US, Russia, Europe, Asia or another nation or alliance of nations to embark on a plan to alter the global environment unilaterally. Plans to orbit shade discs around the sun so as to reduce global warming will need to be approved by the UN before they are attempted on any significant scale.
Second, the UN ban does not apply to relatively small, non-globally influential research. Testing of carbon sequestration techniques is not an issue. Engaging in worldwide fertilization of the oceans to sequester carbon, without UN approval, is a problem as it may pose unforeseen threats and hazards.
Third, current efforts to address environmental problems with consumption and production limitations, cap and trade policies, re-forestation targets and other methods that do not violate the sovereignty of other states, are not at issue in this ban. Efforts to produce or reduce rain over a nation’s capital city for an international event are not the target of this ban.
However, production of a fleet of 1,500 ships cruising international waters emitting aerosols to increase global cloud cover does pose a problem that needs to be debated by the entire UN body.
Those nationalist conservative ideas that the UN is institutionalizing a “do nothing” politic is not at play in this instance. More practically, the UN is trying to avert serious conflict as nations, attempting to address environmental concerns, forcibly impose their politics through geo-engineering on other nations. The ban is definitely a hurdle for geo-engineering solutions. However, with nations being at odds over how to address global environmental problems, it is, in the least, a reasonable step.
For more information, see What the UN ban on geoengineering really means?