Geoengineering is a huge risk to human rights that could be the subject of future climate lawsuits
Geoengineering is one of those terms that has the skill of attracting sexy stories despite its surface dryness. It regularly crops up in articles exploring the latest solution to climate change - a label stuck onto a range of ways for deliberately making large-scale changes to the Earth’s natural systems, each of which have their own benefits, limitations and risks.
The geoengineering umbrella sometimes includes methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as mass tree planting and carbon capture and storage technology. But attention is usually focused on the more theoretical and even more controversial approaches, including solar radiation management, ocean fertilisation and the manipulation of Arctic sea ice. What they all have in common is their grandiosity in assuming the right to affect a large swathe of the globe.
A respectable idea?
Proponents of geoengineering say it can play an important role in tackling climate change, with the result that technologies that were once near science fiction are now being treated as potentially viable options meriting serious attention and investment. With time fast running out to address the climate crisis, the Economist even recently proclaimed that solar engineering is becoming "a respectable idea".
But not everyone shares such optimism, and concern about these technologies is also growing.
The gravest risk of geoengineering, says the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee, is that it deters efforts to cut emissions now “which makes disastrous future scenarios more probable”. This is sometimes called moral hazard risk.
According to Nikki Reisch, climate and energy programme director of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), relying on the promise of speculative technologies instead of existing proven ones delays urgently needed climate action and increases the chance that global temperature rise will go over the 1.5°C threshold. Such a breach, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear, would cause widespread harm to people and the environment and poses huge threats to human rights.
Geoengineering also poses human rights risks while it is being used.
Carbon dioxide removal technologies such as direct air capture and enhanced weathering require huge amounts of resources - energy, water, land, chemical and physical materials - “necessitating industrial-scale operations for supply leading to additional forms of scarification and pollution at scales that are really beyond those existing in the global economy today,” said Reisch, speaking at a webinar organised by UN’s Office of Human Rights, the Grotius Centre and the Global Network on Human Rights and the Environment in 2022.
Solar engineering in particular introduces a “widespread range of new risks to people and ecosystems, which are not well understood”, says the IPCC.
The most developed idea is stratospheric aerosol injection, which involves sending tethered balloons or planes to spray aerosols such as sulphates or nanoparticles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun’s energy back into space - much like the aftermath of a volcanic explosion. However, there is already evidence that aerosols sent into the air by humans are changing water cycles, monsoon seasons, and can lead to acid rain. And according to the IPCC, such techniques would also likely reduce global precipitation.
If geoengineering changes weather patterns, says Lili Fuhr, CIEL’s fossil economy programme director, it could infringe on people’s rights to life, health and livelihood. And, by design, technologies like solar engineering aim to have effects across borders, making it virtually impossible to undertake proper consultation and get free, prior and informed consent from everyone affected.
“These impacts are often ignored when we talk about how geoengineering technologies could threaten rights, but they’re incredibly significant and we can’t gloss it over,” said Reisch.
The UN advisory committee agrees, saying the size of the potential negative socioeconomic and human rights impacts “is currently incommensurable with any hypothetical benefits”. Those risks are particularly acute for indigenous peoples and others living in rural areas or closely attached to the land.
In its March synthesis report, the IPCC said solar engineering could offset warming within one or two decades and ameliorate some hazards, but it would not restore the climate to a previous state and, if stopped suddenly, would cause the climate to change very fast.
Even if such technologies do succeed in slowing or reversing global temperature rise, said Reisch, their impacts are likely to be wildly geographically uneven “reinforcing injustice within and between states and compounding discrimination”. And the impacts, whatever they are, may not be reversible, putting the right to remedy out of reach.
"Geoengineering ultimately shifts the burden and responsibility for real workable climate action to vulnerable populations"
In a joint opinion commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in 2022, international lawyers Philippe Sands and Kate Cook could find no clear justification to suspend human rights protections for geoengineering given the existence of alternative responses to the threat of climate change.
Ultimately, argues Reisch, geoengineering is counterproductive. “These speculative future fixes provide a perfect excuse to avoid the political costs of carbon reductions today and keep pursuing business as usual, on the promise of a distant future fix diverting resources away from proven mitigation and adaptation measures and allowing climate change to continue.
“In so doing geoengineering ultimately shifts the burden and responsibility for real workable climate action to vulnerable populations, especially in the global south, and to future generations. It's both a spatial and a temporal displacement…infringing rights and replicating patterns we've seen again and again”.
In a strong recent statement, a group of UN special rapporteurs said putting human rights at the heart of all climate action was “an obligation for states, not an option".
Not doing so could put states at risk of legal action. A recent article published in Science concludes that climate targets that depend heavily on CO2 removal may breach international law. Solar engineering techniques, for example, could violate the legal duty to avoid causing transboundary environmental harm, says Fuhr.
Carbon capture in national climate strategies is already the subject of litigation - and is likely to be under growing legal scrutiny. The sale of ‘cooling credits’ could also be questioned in the same way as carbon credits.
Given these huge risks, calls are now growing to address geoengineering before it goes too far.
Governing such techniques in a way that respects human rights would be very hard, if not impossible, says Fuhr. She notes that countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia are keen to pursue research in geoengineering and says any UN consensus-led process would likely lead to a weak outcome.
Some states are starting to take unilateral action. After a start-up company tried to release balloons containing sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere somewhere in Mexico, the nation's environment ministry announced that it would ban solar radiation management experiments within its borders. It noted that the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations, to which most nations except the US are parties, agreed a geoengineering moratorium in 2010 which it would enforce at national level.
"We need something stronger than a moratorium"
Calls are now growing for an outright ban.
The governing bodies of the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter long ago agreed to block ocean fertilisation - the idea of adding nutrients such as iron or nitrogen to the ocean surface to stimulate phytoplankton photosynthesis that in turns stores more carbon deep in the sea - and now intend to regulate four techniques with “the potential for deleterious effects that are widespread, long-lasting or severe”. They have also been looking at the impact of solar engineering.
Although there are differences between scientists about the role geoengineering should play in the world’s approach to climate change, some are now calling for an international non-use agreement. The UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee says all research and development of solar radiation modification, particularly stratospheric aerosol injection, should be banned because it “can endanger human rights in the most extensive and unimaginable way”.
“At this point, it’s really important to establish the human rights case against geoengineering,” says Fuhr. “We need something stronger than a moratorium but we're very far away from that right now.”