Climate: Problems and solution


Countries must urgently agree on a way of controlling and regulating attempts to geoengineer the climate, and consider whether to set a moratorium on such efforts, as the danger of global heating exceeding the 1.5C threshold increases, the former head of the World Trade Organisation has warned.

Pascal Lamy, a former director-general of the WTO and a former EU trade commissioner, now president of the Paris Peace Forum, said governments were increasingly likely to explore the possibilities of geoengineering, as efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions have so far been inadequate.

“Given where we are, we have to seriously consider the risk of overshooting 1.5C,” said Lamy. “That is a huge risk. All of the ways by which we can alleviate this risk must be evaluated. I think a global effort on geoengineering could work.”

At present, there is little to stop a government from experimenting with geoengineering. “There should be ways of stopping countries from doing this alone,” Lamy told the Guardian. “We should look at all options, including a moratorium.”

But Lamy said the likelihood of an individual billionaire, such as Elon Musk, attempting to geoengineer the climate without government involvement was still remote. “I don’t think that is a danger. I think Elon Musk would need some kind of authority [from governments],” he said. “I don’t think he could try to do it alone. You need government clearance to send up a rocket, even.”

Geoengineering would involve trying to change the temperature or climate on Earth through methods such as whitening clouds, injecting sulphur particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight, or spreading iron in the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide. Ideas such as launching a giant sunshade into space have also been suggested, along with more prosaic options including painting roofs white.

None of these possibilities have yet been tried, and some could be dangerous: for instance, spraying sulphur could cause acidification of the seas, cloud whitening could change rainfall patterns and deflecting the sun’s rays could cause crops to fail.

But Lamy said the world had to examine such methods, as countries were failing to cut greenhouse gases fast enough. “It is tragic that we have to consider this [geoengineering]. Because we know we are not on the right path to avoid overshooting 1.5C,” he said.

Scientists warned this month there was a 50:50 chance of global average temperatures rising to more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within the next five years. If the earth’s temperatures exceed 1.5C consistently, drastic and in some cases, irreversible changes to the climate will follow, including melting of the ice caps, floods, droughts, heatwaves and sea level rises.

Some methods of geoengineering could be cheap, Lamy added. “Some could be economically rather cheap, whereas we know that carbon capture and storage is something very costly.”

Lamy said the science behind geoengineering required careful investigation, but his concern is directed towards how any such attempts would be governed at an international level. Some forms of weather manipulation have already been tried: for instance, cloud-seeding to provoke rainfall has been used in China.

Lamy, as president of the Paris Peace Forum think tank, is leading a new initiative to establish potential governance structures for geoengineering. He has convened a panel of 16 global experts, called the Global Overshoot Commission. They will consider recommendations on how geoengineering can be governed, both within existing international structures such as the UN, and the potential need for new governance bodies.

The commission will produce a report, probably consisting of a series of principles to be observed, that will be presented to governments in 2023, before the Cop28 UN climate summit. It will have no legal standing but is intended to inform government thinking.

As well as geoengineering, the commission will consider ways of helping countries adapt to the ravages of the climate crisis, the potential for new technologies such as carbon capture and storage, and ways of “repairing” the climate to reduce temperatures after they have breached the 1.5C limit.

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