Switzerland suggests the establishment of the inaugural UN expert panel on solar geoengineering

Switzerland is seeking to advance global discussions on whether contentious solar geoengineering methods could be employed to mitigate climate change by cooling the Earth.

The country is proposing the establishment of the first-ever United Nations expert group to “evaluate risks and opportunities” associated with solar radiation management (SRM), a set of largely untested technologies aimed at reducing solar radiation.

According to a draft resolution submitted by Switzerland and reviewed by Climate Home, the panel would comprise experts appointed by member states of the UN’s environment program (Unep) and representatives from international scientific bodies.

This proposal will be negotiated and voted on at Unep’s annual meeting, scheduled to commence next week in Nairobi, Kenya. It has already received formal endorsement from Senegal, Georgia, Monaco, and Guinea.

A spokesperson from the Swiss government informed Climate Home that SRM is “a new topic on the political agenda” and Switzerland is committed to ensuring that states are well-informed about these technologies, particularly regarding potential risks and transboundary effects.

Divided Scientific Perspectives
Solar geoengineering remains a highly contentious issue, with scientists divided over whether it should even be considered as a potential solution.

Ines Camilloni, a climatology professor at the University of Buenos Aires, welcomed Switzerland’s proposal, stating that the UN is well-positioned to facilitate transparent and inclusive discussions.

However, Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, head of climate science at Climate Analytics, expressed concerns about the initiative, cautioning against elevating SRM as a viable solution prematurely.

He warned of the risks associated with normalizing a concept that remains speculative from a scientific standpoint, emphasizing the importance of considering unintended consequences and the potential for opening a Pandora’s box.

An open letter signed by over 400 scientists in 2022 called for an international “non-use agreement” on solar geoengineering, expressing doubts about the ability of UN bodies, including Unep, to effectively regulate the deployment of such technologies.

Uncertain Risks
Solar geoengineering, long regarded as a futuristic climate intervention, has gained prominence as efforts to limit global warming to 1.5C have faced challenges.

These technologies aim to reduce solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, which could involve injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere or brightening clouds.

While proponents argue that SRM could offer a relatively inexpensive and rapid method to counter extreme heat, critics highlight the uncertainties surrounding its regional and wider climatic, social, and economic impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that solar geoengineering could introduce a host of new risks to both people and ecosystems, underscoring the need for further research before any potential deployment.

Switzerland’s Proposal
Switzerland’s proposal to the Unep assembly acknowledges the “potential global risks and adverse impacts” of solar geoengineering.

The proposed expert group, comprising 25 members, would initially be tasked with producing a comprehensive scientific report on solar geoengineering. Its primary objective would be to facilitate an informed discussion on the potential use of SRM, with a view to informing future decisions on governance.

While Switzerland had previously submitted a resolution on solar geoengineering to the Unep summit in 2019, efforts to develop a governance framework were thwarted by opposition from the USA and Saudi Arabia.

Last year, Unep issued an “independent expert review” of solar geoengineering, concluding that extensive research is necessary before any consideration of deployment.

Ines Camilloni, one of the authors of the UNEP report, emphasized the importance of exploring a range of policy responses to climate change, including mitigation and adaptation, alongside solar geoengineering research.

However, she stressed the need for more research to assess the benefits and risks of SRM against potential adverse climate scenarios.

Moving Forward
As discussions on solar geoengineering continue, some leaders have called for expanded research while advocating for a moratorium on large-scale outdoor experiments.

A rogue SRM experiment conducted by a US startup in Mexico prompted the Mexican government to announce a ban on solar geoengineering in January 2023.

Mary Church, a campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law, cautioned against establishing an expert group under Unep, fearing it could undermine existing regulatory frameworks and inadvertently legitimize the development and experimentation of SRM technology.

Instead, she advocated for a precautionary approach, urging countries to commit to non-use and prioritize the phase-out of fossil fuels.

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