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Growing Calls for Moratorium on Climate Geoengineering

by Stephen Leahy

NAGOYA, Japan -- Delegates to the world summit on biodiversity here are calling for a moratorium on climate engineering research, like the idea of putting huge mirrors in outer space to reflect some of the sun's heating rays away from the planet.

Geo-engineering fixes for climate change include placing mirrors in space that reflect sunlight from the Earth. Photograph: Blue Line Pictures Climate engineering or geoengineering refers to any large-scale, human- made effort to manipulate the planet to adapt to climate change.

Representatives from Africa and Asia expressed concern about the negative impacts of geoengineering during the opening week of the 10th Conference of Parties (COP 10) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Oct. 18-29. They were joined by civil society organizations in calling for a moratorium on geoengineering experiments.

The geoengineering proposals include installing giant vertical pipes in the ocean to bring cold water to the surface, pumping vast amounts of sulphates into the stratosphere to block sunlight, or blowing ocean salt spray into clouds to increase their reflectivity.

Broadly speaking, there are two main geoengineering approaches: solar radiation management and carbon sequestration, in other words, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the concentration of this greenhouse-effect gas.

To manage the sun's rays, there are ideas like releasing sulphates into the atmosphere or placing giant mirrors in outer space. For absorbing carbon, the possible approaches include ocean fertilization, in which iron or nitrogen is added to seawater to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton to sequester the carbon deep in the ocean.

"Some of the proponents of these technologies think it's easier to 'manage the sun' than get people to take a bus" to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organization headquartered in Canada.

"Politicians in rich countries see geoengineering as 'Plan B' so they don't have to make the hard choices of reducing emissions causing climate change," Mooney told Tierramérica.

"It's a political strategy aimed at letting industrialized countries off the hook for their climate debt," he said.

No longer the realm of crackpots, geoengineering is fast becoming the subject of serious scientific discussion and commercial interest.

In 2007, Tierramérica broke a story that a U.S. company, Planktos Inc., was going to dump 100 tonnes of iron dust into the ocean near Ecuador's Galápagos Islands -- a sanctuary for studying unique species and their evolution -- without the consent of the Ecuadorian government.

If it was able to prove that the technique absorbed carbon dioxide, Planktos hoped to sell carbon credits for the carbon it sequestered. The project was stopped and the company soon ended its research in this area.

The following year the CBD agreed to a moratorium on further ocean fertilization attempts.

Earlier this year, the CBD's scientific body proposed a ban on all climate- related geoengineering activities.

However, given the ongoing failure to reach an international agreement to curb emissions of the gases causing climate change, there has been renewed scientific and political interest in these experiments.

Britain's Royal Society, a highly respected global network that includes the world's most eminent scientists, now defends geoengineering research.

"We oppose a moratorium because we don't want to restrict scientific research into geoengineering," said John Shepherd, a climate scientist at the National Oceanography Center of the University of Southampton, and Royal Society fellow.

"Climate change could get to the point of 'desperate times requiring desperate measures' and therefore we should be ready with some good research on what might help," said Shepherd, author of the 2009 Royal Society report on geoengineering.

That report concluded that such technologies may well be necessary to cool the planet if efforts to reduce carbon emissions fail.

Research is needed to determine the hazards and effectiveness of any geoengineering idea, he told Tierramérica in an interview.

"Deployment of any geoengineering now would be incredibly premature," he said, and noted that this is the current opinion of the Royal Society as well.

In November, the Royal Society will hold a symposium in London entitled "Geoengineering: Taking Control of Our Planet's Climate."

Injecting sulphates into the atmosphere is attractive to policy-makers because its costs are much lower than reducing carbon emissions, writes Clive Hamilton, of the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Australian National University.

While acknowledging that no country advocates geoengineering, these schemes "avoid the need to raise petrol taxes, permit yet more unrestrained growth, and pose no threat to consumer lifestyles," stated Hamilton, the author of a new book on climate change titled "Requiem for a Species."

The ETC Group documents progress on various ideas to control the climate in its report, "Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering," presented Oct. 19 in Nagoya. The report asks, "Who has the right to set the global thermostat?"

"Developing countries understand that they can't trust the rich countries that have failed to reduce their emissions to control the global thermostat," said Mooney.

The potential impacts on the global weather system of such attempts to cool the planet are impossible to assess, he added.

In his opinion, what is needed is a moratorium on open-air experiments in geoengineering to allow time for an international discussion about the potential biodiversity, social, and economic impacts.

Delegates in Nagoya are hotly debating the wording of a moratorium. A representative from Brazil told Tierramérica that it has become a big issue for countries like Canada that are firmly opposed to any ban or moratorium on geoengineering experiments.

Stumping for the moratorium is the ETC Group's Silvia Ribeiro, who asserted in a Tierramérica interview: "Geoengineering is not a solution to the problem of climate change. It could only be considered in an emergency and therefore can never be for-profit or part of any carbon market."

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Environment Program and the World Bank.

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