Proposed Biodiversity Pact Bars 'Climate-Related Geoengineering'

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

ScienceInsider has obtained draft text from negotiators at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, in regards to a proposed bar on geoengineering research. If it is passed, the language could broadly affect a whole field of research still taking shape. That emerging field is laid out in a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the field, released today.

The statement, proposed to be part of the official communiqué of the meeting, declares that "no climate-related geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis
on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity". The text goes on to define geoengineering as either techniques that reduce the amount of sunlight striking the ground or suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

In an e-mail, geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Washington slams the proposed text as making "no sense." He says the words "may affect" could "devastate" efforts to do even small-scale experiments that would not have climatic effects. Also, he says, by not saying "may affect negatively," the statement could actually bar efforts that would increase biodiversity, such as increasing the biodiversity of a farm for the purpose of large-scale sequestration of carbon using plants.

But Pat Mooney of the ETC Group, a Canadian environmental group, called the proposed text a "a step in the right direction. … It's important that governments are recognizing that there should be controls on who messes with the thermostat." By including the broad phrase "may affect," he said, the language would serve a "precautionary" role in controlling actions whose impacts may be unknown.

The meeting runs for two more days, but negotiators say that the text is unlikely to be revised.

It's unclear how the statement might be enforced, as nations have not considered CBD decisions "legally binding" in the past. One hundred sixty-eight countries are signatories to the CBD treaty; the treaty has not been ratified by the United States. But it has had effects on several scientific research areas, including genetically modified plants. A joint India-Germany experiment in ocean fertilization—one type of geoengineering —was nearly scuttled last year when two German ministries argued over the relevance of a CBD bar on such work at sea. After some paperwork, the experiment was allowed to progress.

Full proposed text:

8 (w) Ensure, in line and consistent with decision IX/16 C, on ocean
fertilisation and biodiversity and climate change, in the absence of science-based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for geo-engineering, and in accordance with the precautionary approach and Article 14 of the Convention, that no climate-related geoengineering activities (1) that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting in accordance with Article 3 of the Convention, and only if they are justified by the need to gather specific scientific data and are subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts on the environment.

(1) Without prejudice to future deliberations on the definition of geo-engineering activities, understanding that any technologies that deliberately reduce solar insolation or increase carbon sequestration from the atmosphere on a large scale that may affect biodiversity (excluding carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels when it captures carbon dioxide before it is released to the atmosphere) should be considered as forms of geoengineering which are relevant to the Convention on Biological Diversity until a more precise definition can be developed. Noting that solar insolation <<sp?>>is defined as a measure of solar radiation energy received on a given surface area in a given hour and that carbon sequestration is defined as the process of increasing the carbon contact of a reservoir/pool other than the atmosphere.

and

9 (n) Taking full account of the views and experiences of indigenous and local communities, small farmers, fishers and livestock keepers, compile and synthesize available scientific information on:

1. The possible impacts of geoengineering techniques on biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts;
2. Governance options for regulating geoengineering activities; and
3. Options on definitions and scopes of geoengineering, and make this information available for consideration at a meeting of the SBSTTA prior to the eleventh meeting of the COP;

(alternative to 9n)
(n bis) Taking into account the possible need for science-based global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms, subject to the availability of financial resources, undertake a study on gaps in the existing related mechanisms for climate-related geoengineering relevant to the CBD, bearing in mind that such mechanisms may not be best placed under the CBD, for consideration by the SBSTTA prior to a future meeting of the COP and to communicate the results to relevant organisations.

Meanwhile, the GAO report highlights more than $100 million worth of federal science projects that might be relevant to various geoengineering approaches. Only a few projects, costing a total of $2 million, are directly related to the field.