Nations fail to agree ban or research on solar geoengineering

At talks in Nairobi, governments could not find consensus on new global governance for SRM, including proposals for “non-use” and a UN expert panel

Nations fail to agree on solar geoengineering regulations

The negotiating room at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi (Photos: IISD/ENB Mike Muzurakis)


Governments have failed to agree on how the United Nations should regulate controversial solar radiation management (SRM) techniques, which aim to lessen the effects of climate change by dimming the sunlight reaching Earth.

At the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi this week, some governments led by the African Group of countries wanted to ban SRM, while others led by Switzerland had pushed to set up an expert panel to research the nascent approach.

As countries were unable to reach consensus at talks on Wednesday, the status quo will continue. Solar radiation management is currently legal in most nations. But there has been a de facto global moratorium in place on geoengineering – which includes SRM – since 2010, when it was agreed by governments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, with exceptions for small-scale scientific research studies.

For example, a start-up called Make Sunsets has been sending sulphur balloons into the sky in the US and Mexico since late 2022 and attempting to sell the claimed climate benefits. And on Wednesday, the UK government announced a five-year research programme on delivering “risk-risk analyses” of SRM techniques.

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Switzerland had submitted a proposal to the UNEA to set up the first UN expert group to “examine risks and opportunities” of SRM. The panel would have been made up of specialists appointed by governments and representatives of international scientific bodies.

A Swiss government spokesperson told Climate Home that Switzerland is “committed to ensuring that states are informed about these technologies, in particular about possible risks and cross-border effects”.

African nations, on the other hand, were opposed to anything that enables SRM. In a letter to the chair of the talks, seen by Climate Home,  the African Group chair, Alick Muvundika, proposed a global governance mechanism to prevent the use of SRM (or “non-use” in UN parlance), arguing that the risks to the environment are too great and that the option of SRM undermines “real climate solutions”.

The letter added that “there are efforts to use Africa to justify use of this dangerous technology, often with the argument that the risk of climate change must be weighed against the risks of deployment of the technology”. Muvundika called this a “false dichotomy”.

The UNEA talks on the issue were not public. But annotated texts seen by Climate Home show that the African Group’s position was supported by Colombia, Mexico, Fiji and Vanuatu.

A source inside the negotiating room told Climate Home the Mexican government argued that the Swiss motion did not tackle human rights concerns, the expert group proposed was “not inclusive”, and the draft did not incorporate “the precautionary approach”.

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The US, Saudi Arabia and Japan backed an addition to the Swiss-led draft resolution welcoming the World Climate Research Programme’s Lighthouse Activity on so-called Climate Intervention Research, which covers geoengineering techniques like SRM and aims to address scientific knowledge gaps and uncertainties.

This work is co-chaired by Cornell University professor Daniele Visioni whose personal website says,”I strongly believe we need to explore [climate engineering] as a complementary measure to reduce some of the unavoidable impacts that climate change might have on our lives.”

The push at the UNEA led Mary Church, of the Centre for International Environmental Law, to accuse the US, Saudi Arabia and Japan of “trying to welcome geoengineering advocates and undermining existing UN governance structures”.

A US State Department spokesperson told Climate Home News that view misrepresented its role in the talks. “The United States was clear in this process that any discussion of SRM must not weaken collective resolve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 degrees C  [of warming] and to strengthen climate resilience,” they added.

The draft resolution shows that the US and India opposed the African Group’s call for a repository of existing research on SRM. However, the State Department told Climate Home that the US had “expressed interest in supporting proposals for a repository of scientific information jointly hosted by relevant UN organisations”, partly due to “an information gap that is particularly acute for developing countries”.

This is not the first time a proposal for an expert group on SRM has been rejected: the US and Saudi Arabia derailed Switzerland’s first attempt in 2019, with the Guardian reporting that they did not want their research into SRM to be regulated.

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With views among nations so polarised, Switzerland pulled its latest motion on Wednesday night. This means that, at least for now, there will be no expert group and no “non-use” agreement on SRM.

A Swiss government spokesperson said there was “general acknowledgement” that more research and better access to information are needed.

But, he said, views differ on how to achieve that, as well as on whether research should focus just on risks or potential benefits too, and on whether and when “a governance discussion should take place going beyond the endeavour of information compilation and access”.

“We regret that UNEA couldn’t come to a conclusion on this important matter,” he said.However, the discussions have been informative and useful and we managed to start a global conversation about this important topic.”

This article was updated on February 29 to clarify the United States’ position on key issues at the UNEA talks on solar radiation management and on March 1 to make clear there is a de facto global moratorium in place on geoengineering.

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