The Complications of Climate Engineering and International Law

by Emily Segal

As anthropogenic climate change continues to become an increasingly discussed social, political and environmental issue, some people are turning to climate engineering as a way to supplement the pre-existing strategies of mitigation and adaptation. In the paper reviewed here, Winter (2011) explores its relationship to international law. Geoengineering, or geological engineering, refers to the application of geoscience to shape our interaction with the earth. Some forms of geoengineering that have been around for a while are detrimental to the health of our planet. Examples include deforestation, the method of clearing forested land to create arable land for monocultures, and burning fossil fuels, a process that releases toxic substances into the atmosphere, which contribute to the greenhouse effect and speed up global warming. New forms of geoengineering, however, are different from these older forms because they do not encourage side-effects that are harmful to the environment. Instead, they have intended consequences that will help reduce climate change. Carbon capture and storage (CCS), a way of capturing CO2 after it is emitted and storing it in land, is an example of a more recent form of geoengineering that would aid in decelerating climate change. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is another form of geoengineering intended to reduce climate change. SRM increases surface and cloud albedo, a kind of weather manipulation that could be effective if used on a large scale.

Unfortunately, there are expenses for these beneficial methods of climate engineering as well. Stratospheric aerosols and space reflectors, part of the SRM strategy, could be a quick and moderately priced way to cool down the planet; however, the safety for this is very low, and there would be a greater risk for adverse side-effects on both human and environmental health. Even trials for climate engineering projects could be dangerous because they would have to be performed on a large scale to see whether or not they are effective.

Legal barriers complicate the use of climate engineering as a way to reduce climate change; some international laws enable state action, while others regulate each state’s ability to act as it pleases in order to protect the global public interest. International law gives states sovereignty over regulating the release of particles into the stratosphere, but it also ensures that activities in outer space, such as the insertion of reflectors (as would be used in the SRM method of climate engineering) are not subjective to each state but rather are part of the common freedom among all states to explore and use outer space together. So, a state does have the sovereignty to decide what amount of toxic gas it will release into the atmosphere, taking into account whether it has signed any international treaties regarding air pollution. It also has the free but not exclusive legal power to implement a form of climate engineering that takes place from outer space, though this is complicated, because one state does not have jurisdiction over another state in influencing how to utilized outer space. These examples only brush the surface of the complicated legal issues that surround climate engineering and its obstacles.

Winter, G., 2011. Climate engineering and international law: last resort or the end of humanity. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law, 20 (3), 277-289.


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