Conference agrees on geoengineering moratorium

The consensus decision at the Nagoya conference on an international moratorium on geoengineering projects pending a study of all risks to biodiversity is a landmark achievement as it has brought the governance of these technologies within the UN framework. A report on this conference decision appears below, and in the pages that follow, we explain the full import of geoengineering technologies in relation to biodiversity.

ETC Group

IN a landmark consensus decision, the 193-member UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has adopted a de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments.

'Any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of this carefully crafted UN consensus,' stated Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of ETC Group.

The agreement, reached during the ministerial portion of the two-week 10th meeting of the CBD Conference of Parties (COP 10) that met 18 to 29 October in Nagoya and which included 112 environment ministers, asks governments to ensure that no geoengineering activities take place until risks to the environment and biodiversity and associated social, cultural and economic impacts have been appropriately considered. The CBD secretariat was also instructed to report back on various geoengineering proposals and potential intergovernmental regulatory measures.

The unusually strong consensus decision builds on the 2008 moratorium on ocean fertilisation adopted by COP 9 in Bonn. That agreement put the brakes on a litany of failed 'experiments' - both public and private - to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans' depths by spreading nutrients on the sea surface.

Since then, attention has turned to a range of futuristic proposals to block a percentage of solar radiation via large-scale interventions in the atmosphere, stratosphere and outer space that would alter global temperatures and precipitation patterns.

'This decision clearly places the governance of geoengineering in the United Nations where it belongs,' said ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney. 'This decision is a victory for common sense, and for precaution. It will not inhibit legitimate scientific research. Decisions on geoengineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving "voluntary guidelines" on climate hacking. What little credibility such efforts may have had in some policy circles in the global North has been shattered by this decision.'

Mooney added that the UK Royal Society and its partners should cancel their Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative and respect that the world's governments have collectively decided that future deliberations on geoengineering should take place in the UN, where all countries have a seat at the table and where civil society can watch and influence what they are doing.

Delegates in Nagoya have clearly understood the potential threat that deployment - or even field testing - of geoengineering technologies poses to the protection of biodiversity. The decision was hammered out in long and difficult late night sessions of a 'friends of the chair' group and adopted by the COP 10 Working Group 1 plenary on 27 October. The Chair of the climate and biodiversity negotiations called the final text 'a highly delicate compromise'.

'The decision is not perfect,' said Neth Dano of ETC Group Philippines. 'Some delegations are understandably concerned that the interim definition of geoengineering is too narrow because it does not include Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Before the next CBD meeting, there will be ample opportunity to consider these questions in more detail. But climate techno-fixes are now firmly on the UN agenda and will lead to important debates as the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit approaches. A change of course is essential, and geoengineering is clearly not the way forward.'                                      

ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) is an international civil society organisation that specialises in emerging technologies. The above is the edited text of a news release issued on 29 October 2010.

Engineering ecological chaos?

ETC Group

Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth's systems by artificially changing oceans, soils and the atmosphere. More than a set of technologies, however, it is a political strategy. Rather than nurturing and protecting biodiversity, geoengineering aims to create conditions that will allow us to sustain the excesses that brought on the current ecological and social crisis. It also allows the governments responsible for almost all historic greenhouse gas emissions to sidestep compensating the global South, which is not culpable in climate change but suffering its effects. In other words, geoengineering offers a technological 'fix' to the same governments and industries that both created the climate crisis and failed to adopt policies that would mitigate its damage.

The consequences of geoengineering activities, including real world experimentation, are global. Before any action can be countenanced, the world's peoples and governments must debate these consequences and determine limits. As the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Biodiversity and Climate Change noted in its recent report, the impact of geoengineering on ecosystems is unknown.1 No unilateral initiative - or one by a 'coalition of the willing' - can be considered legally, practically or morally acceptable. Until the international community has had time to be properly apprised of the issue, has debated its relevance to addressing the concurrent global crises we are facing, and has determined what further action, if any, is necessary, there  should be a moratorium on all geoengineering activities.

Geoengineering: Definitions

Although multilateral bodies may define the term differently according to their mandates and interests, geoengineering always includes the following elements:

Intent: Geoengineering is always deliberate (even if it may have unintended impacts). It is the engineering of the Earth's ecosystems on purpose rather than accidentally.

Scale: Geoengineering technologies have a big enough impact to actually affect global systems. By definition, the impacts are transboundary.

Technology: Geoengineering is a technological approach. Simply changing consumption patterns would not be considered geoengineering, even though on a large scale such a change could have a noticeable impact on the climate.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English defined geoengineering this year as 'the deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth's climate, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming'.2

What technologies are involved in geoengineering?

There are different geoengineering technologies in research and development in Northern academic, public and private settings, broadly classified into three categories: (1) solar radiation management (SRM); (2) carbon dioxide (CO2) removal (CDR); and (3) weather modification. Within each category, the most prominent of these technologies are:

1. Solar radiation management

_          Aerosol sulphates in the stratosphere: Pumping aerosol sulphates or aluminium nanoparticles into the stratosphere to block sunlight, thereby lowering the Earth's temperature without reducing the level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.

_          Cloud whitening: Spraying seawater into the atmosphere to increase the reflectivity and condensation of clouds, thereby reflecting more of the sun's rays back into space.

_          Space sunshades: Launching trillions of small free-flying spacecrafts, or space mirrors, a million miles above the Earth to prevent a portion of the sun's rays from hitting the planet, thereby reducing global warming.

_          Albedo enhancement: Increasing the reflectivity of the Earth's surface by planting whiter or shinier crops, or covering desert regions or mountains with reflective white material.

Implications: The artificial manipulation of radiation could wreak havoc on the fragile balance of complex ecosystems that have taken millennia to evolve. Solar radiation management is a blunt instrument (often referred to as 'Plan B'), an emergency measure theoretically used to cool the climate in catastrophic situations. Increasingly, however, it is being considered as part of a permanent planetary management, where different variables could be optimised to deliver a made-to-order climate.3 It is well established that geoengineering's impact on regional climates would be diverse and not sufficiently understood with current modelling techniques. The countries capable of deploying such technologies would effectively have one hand on the thermostat and the other on the water cycle.

2. Carbon dioxide removal

-           Ocean fertilisation: Promoting carbon sequestration deep at sea by using iron or nitrogen to artificially stimulate the growth of phytoplankton.

-           Ocean upwelling or downwelling enhancement:  Using giant pipes to bring nitrogen or phosphorous-enriched waters up from the deep ocean in order to cool surface waters and enhance ocean sequestration of CO2.

-           Genetic engineering of algae: Using genetically engineered algae, often created through synthetic biology techniques, to cover urban buildings, open ponds, or the surface of the ocean in order to capture CO2.

-           Carbon-sucking machines or synthetic trees (air capture): Extracting CO2 from the air by using liquid sodium hydroxide (or other materials), which is converted to sodium carbonate; the 'excess' solid carbon dioxide is then buried in the soil or dumped in the oceans.

-           Biochar: Planting huge quantities of biomass and burning it by pyrolysis (low oxygen environment) and burying the concentrated carbon in the soil, a proposal backed by the corporate-driven International Biochar Initiative. The industrial production of biochar claims traditional Amazonian terra preta as its ancestor, but the practices differ both qualitatively and in scale.

-           Carbon capture and storage: This umbrella heading most often refers to capturing CO2 at source (before it enters the atmosphere) and storing it in the oceans or in terrestrial geologic formations. It is generally not considered a geoengineering technique as it aims to capture CO2 before it is released to the atmosphere. Nonetheless, it is problematic from an environmental perspective as an accidental and/or sudden release of stored CO2 could provoke climate disruptions.

Implications: When used on a large scale, carbon dioxide removal technologies that aim to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere after it has been emitted can destroy, unintentionally modify or trigger unpredictable side-effects on complex ecosystems, such as our oceans. The duration, reliability and safety of carbon sequestration (by biological or mechanical means) on land or in the sea are mostly unknown. Moreover, a massive investment and scale-up would be required before there would be a noticeable impact on the climate. Many of these techniques require unsustainable inputs or land/ocean use changes that will negatively affect the marine food webs and the livelihood of thousands of peoples subsisting on artisanal fisheries.


3.         Weather modification

Weather modification has a long and chequered past, including hostile use in the Vietnam War, and is today practised in dozens of countries in some form or other - despite lack of scientific proof of its effectiveness. The impact of weather modification can be more local and short-term, but it is, nonetheless, historically and scientifically related to the geoengineering enterprise.

-           Cloud seeding (for precipitation) has been around since the 19th century, promising rain to farmers whose crops are suffering from drought, and later as a military technique to hinder troop movements. While based on dubious science, alleged impacts on nearby fields can be serious, provoking conflicts between neighbouring communities that think the cloud seeders have stolen their rain.

-           Hurricane suppression or redirection: Patent claims are already pending on unproven technologies to suppress or change the direction of hurricanes.

Implications: Weather modification techniques have already shown local impacts but we do not know what other changes in regional weather patterns have been created by their use. Diverting hurricanes and modifying storms could have potentially devastating global and regional impacts. For example, it is entirely conceivable that the path of a hurricane could be artificially deviated, either intentionally or accidentally, toward an unsuspecting population.

Who is the geoengineering lobby and what are they doing?

The geoengineering lobby is a diverse group of entrepreneurs, scientists, think-tanks and policy makers of varying political persuasions, including both alarmed environmentalists and former climate change sceptics. They may have different rationales for controlling the climate, but they are all calling for more research dollars and for authorisation to experiment with these technologies. They have multiple plans, rationales and strategies for geoengineering:

Plan A (Action) - Geoengineering is faster and cheaper than carbon taxes and emission reductions. Let's get on with it! (e.g., Copenhagen Consensus Center's Bjorn Lomborg, Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson, and the American Enterprise Institute)

Plan B (Backup) - We must prepare an emergency Plan B because we are heading toward certain climate catastrophe (e.g., UK Royal Society, Carnegie Institution/Stanford University scientist Ken Caldeira, University of Calgary scientist David Keith).

Plan C (Commerce) - There is good money (and carbon credits) to be made from geoengineering (e.g., ocean fertilisation company Climos, the network and lobby group International Biochar Initiative).

Plan D (Defence) - Control of the climate, especially regional control, gives military advantage. It's a security issue (e.g., Star Wars architect Lowell Wood, US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency-DARPA).

Plan E (Environmentalists) - Ecological emergency means we need to look seriously at preparing for deployment (e.g., Frozen Isthmuses Protection Campaign; Environmental Defence Fund).

How does geoengineering threaten biodiversity?

Rather than protecting or restoring the Earth's ecosystems - already under severe strain from human activities - geoengineering's sole interest is to 'enhance' or 'correct' them in order to produce an effect on the global climate. This is akin to releasing one invasive species to destroy another: it only compounds the problem it was meant to solve. In the geoengineering paradigm, the climate crisis is perceived as separate from poverty, hunger and biodiversity loss. The political question of who is responsible for global warming is ignored.

But aside from obvious (or yet unknown) side-effects, any unilateral initiative to manipulate the Earth's systems will impact everyone, and it is widely acknowledged that there will be 'winners and losers' in these schemes. Geoengineering poses tremendous risks to biodiversity and ecosystems depended upon for food, livelihood and survival by marginalised local and indigenous communities in developing countries. The table on this page summarises some of the potential impacts of different geoengineering techniques.

Why else is geoengineering unacceptable?

It can't be tested: No experimental phase is possible - in order to have a noticeable impact on the climate, geoengineering must be deployed on a massive scale. 'Experiments' or 'field trials' are actually equivalent to deployment in the real world because small-scale tests do not deliver the data on climate effects. For people and biodiversity, impacts would likely be massive as well, and immediate and possibly irreversible.

It is unequal:  Developed-country governments and powerful corporations (who have denied or ignored climate change and its impact on biodiversity for decades but are responsible for most of historic GHG emissions) are the ones with the budgets and the technology to execute this gamble with Gaia. There is no reason to trust that they will have the interests of more vulnerable states or peoples in mind.

It is unilateral: Although all geoengineering proposals run into the tens of billions of dollars, for rich nations and billionaires, they could be considered relatively cheap (and simple) to deploy. The capacity to act will be within the hands of those who possess the technology (individuals, corporations, states) in the next few years. It is urgent that multilateral measures are taken to ban any unilateral attempts to manipulate Earth ecosystems.

It is risky and unpredictable: The side-effects of geoengineered interventions are unknown. Geoengineering could easily have unintended consequences due to any number of factors: mechanical failure, human error, inadequate understanding of ecosystems and biodiversity and the Earth's climate, unforeseen natural phenomena, irreversibility, or funding interruptions.

It violates treaties: Many geoengineering techniques have latent military purposes and their deployment would violate the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD), which prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification.

It is the perfect excuse: Geoengineering offers governments an option other than reducing emissions and protecting biodiversity. Geoengineering research is often seen as a way to 'buy time', but it also gives governments justification to delay compensation for damage caused by climate change and to avoid taking action on emissions reduction.

It commodifies our climate and raises the spectre of climate profiteering: Those who think they have a planetary fix for the climate crisis are already flooding patent offices with patent applications. Should a 'Plan B' ever be agreed upon, the prospect of it being privately held is terrifying. Serious planet-altering technologies should never be undertaken for commercial profit. If geoengineering is actually a climate emergency back-up plan, then it should not be eligible for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism or any other offset system.                                                       

The above is extracted from ETC Group's briefing paper 'Geoengineering: Gambling with Gaia' (October 2010). The full briefing is available on


1    See Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Connecting Biodiversity and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: Report of the Second Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Biodiversity and Climate Change, CBD Technical Series No. 41, 2009.

2    ETC Group does not define geoengineering exclusively in relation to the climate. While real, the climate crisis is also a convenient pretext for geoengineering. In another political context, geoengineering strategies could be applied to crises (e.g., water shortages and imbalances in the nitrogen cycle). James Fleming has pointed out the lack of logic in constraining the definition of a technology by its stated purpose. See James Rodger Fleming, Fixing the Sky: the Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 228-230.

3    See, for example, 'Optimizing Climate Change Reduction,' Carnegie Institution, Department of Global Ecology, 2010, which reports on a study by Ken Caldeira and George Ban-Weiss that asked 'how, if people decided what kind of climate they want, they would go about determining the aerosol distribution pattern that would come closest to achieving their climate goals'; available at

4    Many of these impacts are discussed in Alan Robock, '20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea,' Bull. Atomic Scientists 64, No. 2, 14-18, 59, doi:10.2968/064002006.

5    Ibid. and Jeff Goodell, How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pp. 207-208, and James Fleming, op.cit., p. 168.

6    See policy statement on geoengineering adopted by the American Meteorological Society, available at


7    'Scientific Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Fertilization on Marine Biodiversity,' Convention on Biological Diversity, Technical Series 45, 2009, available at

8    K. Denman, 'Climate change, ocean processes, and ocean iron fertilization,' Marine Ecology Progress Series 234, 2008, pp. 219-225.

9    Private companies have already sold carbon offsets on the voluntary market for sponsoring ocean fertilisation activities. See, for example, ETC Group and ICTA news release, 'Dumping on Gaia,' 19 June 2007; available at

10   C. G. Trick et al., 'Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high nitrate low chlorophyll areas,' Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 February 2010 (10.1073/pnas.0910579107), available at

11   Dominic Woolf et al., 'Sustainable Biochar to Mitigate Global Climate Change,' Nature Communications, 10 August 2010, available at See also NGO press release challenging these findings: 'Nature Communications article shows "true colours" of biochar advocates: Groups condemn implied land-grab for biochar,' 30 August 2010, available at

12   See A. Ernsting and R. Smolker, Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction?, February 2009, available at

13   K. Driver and J. Gaunt, 'Bringing Biochar Projects into the Carbon Market Place,' Carbon Consulting, Blue Source, Carbon War Room, Conoco Phillips Canada, May 2010.

*Third World Resurgence No. 242/243, October-November 2010, pp 26-30