Africa cannot afford to be complacent about solar radiation management

Comment: As the solar geoengineering debate heats up, it is time for voices across the continent to work together and make themselves heard

Africa cannot afford to be complacent with solar radiation management

A solar eclipse is viewed from the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, USA, on April 8. Photo: Greg Wohlford / USA TODAY NETWORK


Saliem Fakir is the executive director of the African Climate Foundation. Shuchi Talati (PhD) is the executive director of the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering.

Global temperatures have crossed 1.1oC above pre-industrial levels. They are likely to cross the 1.5oC Paris Agreement threshold within the next decade, and despite countries’ pledges to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions entering the atmosphere, the world is likely to breach  2oC of warming.

Moving beyond these thresholds significantly raises the threat of irreversible tipping points around the world. 

While scientists insist that decarbonization efforts, net-zero targets, and wide-scale adaptation must be prioritized, the Global Stocktake Report notes that our emissions keep rising. Given this race against time, controversial approaches are being put on the table, such as solar radiation modification (SRM, also known as solar geoengineering), a potential stopgap measure against worsening climate change. 

Still in its research infancy, SRM refers to large-scale, intentional interventions that increase the amount of sunlight reflected back into space to counteract some types of climate change impacts.

If ever used, it is proposed as a range of relatively fast-acting approaches with potential global benefits, but even this may well be debatable. Governance over the use or non-use of these technologies needs a global approach that requires deep public understanding. 

Untangling uncertainty

SRM technologies offer two sides of the same coin –  potential benefits include reducing global temperature rise and secondary benefits such as slowing the rate of sea level rise, and limiting harm to the poles, but potential risks include impacts on precipitation patterns, agriculture, and biodiversity. 

Uncertainty exists in both the science and the social response.

The usefulness of SRM in the context of climate change is deeply dependent on how science unfolds, who the decision makers are, who has access, willingness, capacity and resources required to master these technologies and the context within which it exists.

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To be clear, SRM is not a solution to climate change. It can only be considered alongside robust decarbonization and adaptation efforts. Given the early stages of the development of SRM, more information, discussion, and open-minded conversations with broad groups of stakeholders are needed.

We are at a clear inflection point for the field where momentum is clearly shifting in funding, research, media, and governance. However, much of the narrative about SRM is currently being built in the Global North, where the majority of research and funding on this subject exists.

African voices unheard

The use, or non-use, of this suite of technologies will have global impacts. It is all the more important for the Global South to be actively and effectively engaged with SRM research and governance, due to its potential impacts on their climate vulnerable communities. 

Despite Africa’s low contributions (< 4%) to global greenhouse gas emissions, it suffers disproportionate climate change impacts. Its agrarian-dependent economy  necessitates an elevated interest in changing local and regional weather patterns; there are strong incentives for Africa to better understand the physical and socio-economic implications of SRM. 

African research and policy perspectives on SRM are starting, highlighting several gaps that exist in understanding how these technologies may benefit or harm the continent’s climate efforts.

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One key example is the recent deliberation on a SRM resolution at the Sixth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6). The Africa Group (AG) functioned as a bloc during the deliberation, and proposed the establishment of a publicly accessible repository of existing scientific information, research, and activities on SRM, including submissions from member states and stakeholders.

While the resolution did not reach consensus, the deliberations signified an important shift that African nations are starting to weigh in on the issue. 

Building awareness

But more resources, expertise, and engagement are necessary to generate African knowledge and capacity across a range of sectors to contribute to – and start leading – SRM deliberations in the international sphere.

Policymakers across Africa need access to relevant information and an informed civil society sector to shape decisions. Diverse perspectives on whether and how to consider SRM, with grounding and knowledge in the near term, can help African nations prepare for the critical decisions to come.   

Building awareness on this topic, with unbiased information rooted in science and based in the African context, will provide answers from both physical and social science perspectives for inclusive and fair SRM decision-making.

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Driving demand to focus on specific issues that Africans are raising, and building their capacity to govern through their key government and NGO institutions, is necessary to enable informed deliberations on SRM regulations at national, regional and international levels. 

This summer, the African Climate Foundation and The Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering are kicking off a series of Africa-focused workshops to build knowledge around the science, governance, and justice dimensions of SRM.

The first two in the series will highlight African scientists and thought leaders and are virtual and open to the public.

We hope to catalyze interest and engagement across the African continent, widen public discourse on SRM and ensure these discussions go beyond certain circles of experts and the negotiating community. Debates on SRM need to reflect the full spectrum of interests in Africa, and it is time for voices across the continent to coordinate and coalesce.

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