Solar geoengineering dangerous

Solar energy

Solar radiation modification (SRM) is also known as solar geoengineering.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • Africa is said to be the most vulnerable to climate change.
  • Thus, Africa would benefit the most from geoengineering.

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

With the support of other developing countries, they helped to shoot down a resolution 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, the policymakers supported the International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering and emphasised the need for effective and equitable climate solutions.

Geoengineering encompasses a range of speculative technologies 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 aeroplanes continuously spraying large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the temporary cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.

Rapid rise in temperatures

But that would likely destabilise 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.

The UN Human Rights Council says solar geoengineering could “seriously interfere with the enjoyment of human rights for millions and perhaps billions of people”.

Some SRM proponents argue that if the spraying does not achieve the desired result, it is always possible to stop it. But that could prove dangerous: The masking effect of the injected particles would disappear, causing a rapid rise in temperatures. That shock would be a nightmare.

Africans see how their continent is being used as a testing ground for these dangerous technologies.

Africa is said to be the most vulnerable to climate change and thus would benefit the most from geoengineering. But Africans have the most to lose from failed geoengineering technologies.

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

Catastrophic risks

Besides security and equity concerns, 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 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, arguing that research has 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 last August. But the US, Saudi Arabia and Japan opposed this.

The negotiations underscored the importance of the call for the International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering, an initiative endorsed by more than 500 scholars and backed by almost 2,000 civil society groups.

It says since solar geoengineering poses unacceptable risks and is inherently ungovernable, countries must reject its outdoor experimentation, patents, public funding or deployment.

Catastrophic geoengineering

The international community should adopt a strict ban on solar geoengineering as it has done for human cloning and chemical weapons — and do so before the technology is commercialised.

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.

Addressing the climate crisis requires a razor-sharp focus on real solutions and South-South cooperation.
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.

Prof Mulugetta, professor of energy and development policy at University College London, is a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences and member of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development.

Mr Bhebhe, the campaigns lead at Power Shift Africa, is a member of the Hands Off Mother Earth Alliance’s Don’t Geoengineer Africa working group.

Mr Hällström, director of WhatNext?, is a member of the Independent Expert Group on Just Transition and Development. © Project Syndicate, 2024