Go ahead and change the atmosphere, no one will stop you – probably

A de facto moratorium on solar geoengineering will remain in place after heated talks at the United Nations Environment Assembly ended in stalemate. The debate is over whether we should let humans launch particles into the air that would reflect sunlight back into space, apparently cooling the planet.

It is a hotly contested tactic to tackle climate change. Geoengineering does nothing to stop the root cause of the problem: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. And tinkering with the composition of our planet and its atmosphere to reflect solar radiation could lead to unforeseen consequences that scientists are still trying to understand. After all, the climate change we are already experiencing – in the form of rising sea levels, extreme weather and other disasters – can be seen as the result of unintentional geoengineering through greenhouse gas pollution.

The debate is over whether we should let humans launch particles into the air that would reflect sunlight back into space, apparently cooling the planet

Humanity has just experienced its hottest year on record, with rising temperatures in 2023 likely to exceed those in at least the past 100,000 years. And despite being stuck in what is essentially a burning house, global warming emissions from our energy use still reached a record high last year. With that in mind, proponents of solar geoengineering research say it’s time to consider even the weirdest options for turning down the heat.

One scrappy startup — really just a few guys grilling fungicides and launching the resulting sulfur dioxide gas aboard weather balloons — pissed off a lot of people by continuing its solar geoengineering experiments in Mexico and the US since 2022. to mimic the way volcanic eruptions can temporarily cool the planet by releasing sulfur dioxide, which mixes with water in the stratosphere to create a hazy layer of reflective aerosols.

Actual research groups interested in the potential of solar geoengineering have been much more cautious, avoiding real-world tests until they have a better idea of ​​what the pitfalls might be. For now, no one really knows what can happen with large-scale geoengineering projects. It could help cool the planet; it could also tear open the ozone layer over Antarctica.

All of that has led to a flurry of efforts to establish some parameters for solar geoengineering projects. The startup’s experiments last year were probably too small to have much impact. But if a more capable group or government decided to throw caution to the wind and try something similar on a larger scale, it could have consequences for the entire planet.

There is already a de facto global moratorium on large-scale geoengineering, agreed upon at a United Nations biodiversity conference in 2010. But it is outdated and the language is vague. It does not apply to small-scale experiments and could be limited to solar geoengineering efforts considered harmful to biodiversity.

Without stricter international rules to stop rogue experiments, governments could be playing a game with startups that can move their operations from one place to another. Mexico said it would ban future experiments after the fungicide grilling startup’s balloon launched within its borders. The startup just launched more balloons in California the following year.

Without international rules to stop rogue experiments, governments could be playing games

A panel of experts from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published a report in 2023 stating that: “With many unknowns and risks, there is a strong need to establish an international scientific assessment process to assess scenarios, consequences, uncertainties and knowledge gaps to identify.” In June, the European Union called for an international framework to govern geoengineering efforts.

Switzerland came to the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, this week and proposed a plan to establish a panel of experts to study the “risks and opportunities” of solar geoengineering. Climate Home News reports. But it was reportedly shot down by a group of African and Pacific island nations, Mexico and Colombia.

Opponents saw that proposal as a veiled attempt to legitimize solar geoengineering. Some countries and environmentalists are pushing for a stricter agreement that would completely ban solar geoengineering. But that also failed to materialize at the summit in Nairobi this week.

“Solar radiation modification (SRM) technologies are dangerous and have no role in our common future. These technologies cannot address the root causes of the climate crisis and would instead allow major polluters to delay the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels,” said Mary Church, senior geoengineering campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), in a statement. yesterday.

After all that back-and-forth, the 2010 de facto moratorium on geoengineering remains the only international agreement between intrepid startups and their plans to save the world – or perhaps endanger it.

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