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The country of Switzerland is urging the United Nations to investigate the potential of using solar geoengineering.
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The country of Switzerland is urging the United Nations to investigate the potential of using solar geoengineering.

The topic of dimming the sun has sparked a worldwide conversation, with Switzerland leading the charge in calling for a United Nations expert team to examine the potential risks, benefits, and unknown factors involved.

The proposal suggests that the international organization should collect data on ongoing studies about solar geoengineering. It also recommends creating an advisory panel that could provide suggestions for potential actions regarding this unproven and controversial method of addressing global warming. This approach could have significant impacts on food availability, biodiversity, inequalities, and security.

Next week in Nairobi, the Swiss proposal will be presented at the United Nations environment assembly. The proposal centers around solar radiation modification (SRM), a method that imitates the impact of a major volcanic eruption by releasing sulphur dioxide particles into the atmosphere. These particles reflect some of the sun’s heat and light back into space.

Advocates of the plan, such as UNEP, assert that studying is crucial for monitoring global-changing technologies, which could potentially be created and tested independently by influential governments or wealthy individuals.

Some people who disagree believe that talking about this could put the current unofficial prohibition on geoengineering at risk and could eventually result in its acceptance and widespread use.

The Swiss ambassador for the environment, Felix Wertli, stated that their country’s objective in presenting the proposal was to ensure that all governments and relevant parties are aware of SRM technologies and their potential risks and impacts across borders. He clarified that the intention was not to advocate or facilitate solar geoengineering, but rather to educate governments, particularly those in developing nations, about the current developments.

In her introductory speech to attendees at a preliminary meeting in Nairobi, Inger Andersen, the executive director of UNEP, emphasized the significance of having a worldwide discussion on SRM. She and her fellow colleagues highlighted that this decision was a preventative measure rather than an endorsement of the technology.

However, despite good intentions, certain environmental groups are concerned about the proposed actions. Mary Church from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) warns that mandating the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to create a report and form an expert group on Solar Radiation Management (SRM) could potentially undermine the current unofficial ban on geoengineering and inadvertently legitimize delaying efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage. Church believes that there are certain areas that the international community has deemed unacceptable, such as eugenics, human cloning, and chemical weapons, and that solar geoengineering should be added to this list before discussions on governance lead to its deployment.

In 2019, Switzerland put forth a proposal to examine geoengineering at the UN environment assembly. However, the United States and Saudi Arabia prevented the topic from being discussed. According to sources, this was to allow for unrestricted research on these technologies without international scrutiny or rules.

The discussion surrounding sun-dimming research has grown and become more widespread since its inception. In the past, this field was primarily funded by the fossil fuel industry, but in recent years, there has been an increase in involvement from other parties, including philanthropists, financiers, and technology entrepreneurs. This is driven by the potential for financial gain and a growing concern about the dangers of climate change. The United States in particular has seen a rise in funding for this sector, with figures like Bill Gates supporting the Harvard solar geoengineering research program and organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council expressing their support for further examination of sunlight reflection technologies. Some companies in this sector exhibit a profit-focused mindset, reminiscent of the Wild West, as seen in the US-based start-up Make Sunsets, which is already selling “cooling credits” and claims to have conducted outdoor tests in Mexico.

The Mexican government has officially prohibited these types of experiments within its borders. In a statement last year, the European parliament emphasized the importance of implementing strict regulations and following the precautionary principle in regards to solar geoengineering.

In 2022, approximately 500 scientists endorsed a call for a non-use agreement on solar geoengineering. This agreement would prohibit any public funding, deployment, patents, experiments, or support in international forums related to solar geoengineering.

In scientific discussions, the topic of SRM is gaining increasing attention. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified significant knowledge gaps and potential risks associated with SRM in their Sixth Assessment Report. Recently, the Montreal Protocol acknowledged the potential harm to the ozone layer caused by a specific SRM method called stratospheric aerosol injection.

The UN environment programme faced backlash last year for releasing a document on solar geoengineering entitled “One Atmosphere.” The paper featured input from supporters of SRM and suggested further investigation, including outdoor experiments. CIEL stated that this supported the implementation of the technology.

Dr. Andrea Hinwood, the chief scientist of UNEP, stated that the accusations were unjustified as their organization is not promoting these technologies. She emphasized that the primary focus is on decreasing emissions.

“We want to avoid a situation where we are suddenly unprepared and scrambling to catch up, months or even years later,” she stated. “While some may view this as enabling the use of these technologies, I believe that choosing not to address them is more concerning.”

The outcome of the Swiss proposal in Nairobi is uncertain. Senegal, who was originally a co-sponsor, has withdrawn their support. Other countries, such as the US and Saudi Arabia, have also expressed reservations. African delegates have emphasized the importance of not using the proposal. However, Wertli is optimistic that there is a more positive atmosphere compared to 2019. He noted that there was a general consensus during the initial debate that further research and information are necessary. This is a new development and demonstrates that the resolution addresses a pressing need.

  • On February 22, 2024, a correction was made to this article. The previous version incorrectly reported that 400 scientists had endorsed the call for a ban on solar geoengineering, and also claimed that detractors of SRM had contributed to the One Atmosphere report.

Source: theguardian.com