Starting the Dialogue on Climate Engineering Governance: A World Commission

Fixing Climate Governance Series Policy Brief No. 8

August 15, 2017

Climate engineering can, if appropriately governed within a coherent overall climate change strategy, reduce risks beyond what mitigation and adaptation can achieve alone, and is probably essential to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature targets. Climate engineering also poses significant new risks, and needs expanded research and scrutiny in climate assessments.

Both types of climate engineering — carbon removal and solar geoengineering — also pose significant challenges to governance. The governance challenges of solar methods are particularly novel and severe, and urgently need international examination and consultation, both to learn how (and whether) climate engineering can deliver societal and ecosystem benefits, and to prepare for the likelihood that some states, facing mounting climate change impacts, will pursue climate engineering, and the international system will have to respond.

The needed international dialogue on geoengineering governance will have broad international participation; engage high-level expertise in international policy and institutions; draw closely on parallel advances in scientific knowledge and technical capability, while keeping governance the central focus; and facilitate open, exploratory investigations of governance needs and potential responses, rather than pursue specific decisions, at least in initial stages. Present institutions are not well equipped to support these needs.

A promising first step would be to establish a world commission on climate engineering or similar consultative body, with high-level political authorization, an appropriately broad mandate, adequate resources and wide participation.

Part of Series

Fixing Climate Governance Series

Climate scientists agree that human activity has been changing our planet’s climate over the long term. Without serious policy changes, scientists expect devastating consequences in many regions: inundation of coastal cities; greater risks to food production and, hence, malnutrition; unprecedented heat waves; greater risk of high-intensity cyclones; many climate refugees; and irreversible loss of biodiversity. Some international relations scholars expect increased risk of violent conflicts over scarce resources and due to state breakdown. Environmentalists have been campaigning for effective policy changes for more than two decades. The world’s governments have been negotiating since 1995 as parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) . Their 2015 Paris Agreement created a new regime for joint action; among other things, it is the first UN climate agreement to oblige all parties to make some contribution. Each party made a pledge pertaining to the period 2020 to 2025 or 2030. But it is widely agreed that if they are all implemented, together these 2015 pledges will still fall far short of what is needed to meet the collective goals and avoid widespread catastrophes. Important details of the Paris Agreement itself also remain to be negotiated. Nor is the UNFCCC the whole of international climate governance. Many initiatives have also been launched by smaller sets of countries, national governments, provinces, cities, civil society, and private investors and companies.   This project was designed to generate improved ideas for both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process and other possible sites of climate governance. In 2015, we published nine policy briefs and papers, which can be found below. The ideas in two of them appeared in Paris during COP21. Several offered original recommendations for more effective action outside the UNFCCC. A new series of publications appeared in 2016-2017.  

About the Author

Edward A. (Ted) Parson is the Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law and faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles.