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African Countries Call for Non-Use of Solar Geoengineering in UN Environment Assembly

The 6th United Nations Environment Assembly, held in February 2024 in Nairobi, will be remembered as one of the first intense multilateral negotiations about the potential role of “solar radiation modification”, or solar geoengineering, in addressing the climate crisis. The debate was initiated by Switzerland, which tabled a resolution that would have mandated the UN Environment Programme to convene a scientific expert group to assess information on this speculative suit of technologies that aim at cooling the planet by blocking parts of incoming sunlight.

Yet already the start of the negotiations did not bode well for the Swiss. They had originally proposed their resolution as a joint initiative of four countries, Guinea, Monaco, Senegal, and Switzerland. Soon it became known, however, that Senegal had withdrawn its support, and Guinea followed shortly thereafter. The first readings of the resolution in the preparatory Open-ended Committee of Permanent Representatives to the UN Environment Assembly made it abundantly clear that the call for an expert group was controversial and consensus far away. To save the resolution, the co-facilitators called for a series of informal and “informal-informal” meetings, where diplomats tried to find, in sweltering small rooms in the UN compound, a way out of the impasse. Again and again, the Swiss delegation submitted revised versions of their resolution – only to see these becoming subject to lengthy additions, whole-scale deletions, and bracketed reservations by opposing groups of countries. In the end, pulling the plug was all that was left for the Swiss. For them, it was a sad déjà-vu from 2019 when the country had tabled a first resolution on geoengineering, which also failed to reach agreement.

Broadly speaking, three blocks of countries emerged around the issue during the negotiations: First, the group of African countries, skillfully led by Djibouti, tabled various lines of critique against the Swiss proposal for a scientific expert group, calling instead for a repository of information to be established under UNEP, into which states and other stakeholders could submit a broad suite of solar geoengineering-related information as a way to advance transparency and information sharing. This African position was eventually supported by several other Global South countries, including Vanuatu, Fiji, Mexico, Pakistan and Colombia. The African group also reaffirmed the 2023 decision by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN/19/6), which had called “for a global governance mechanism for non-use of solar radiation management”.

As a second group, the United States and Saudi Arabia opposed calls for a multilateral information-gathering process or an inter-governmental consultation on such information, as prematurely putting “policy” before science. They also objected to a central role for UNEP herein and to any references in the resolution to future global regulations, to ethics and human rights, or a broad conceptualization of environmental impacts and damages from solar geoengineering, going beyond narrow climate-specific considerations.

Somewhere in the middle was the European Union, led by the European Commission and Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency. The EU seemed open to discussing a resolution on solar geoengineering but wanted to take it in a different direction: the EU proposed an extensive set of amendments to the original call for a technical expert group, calling among other things for a broader assessment approach, an explicit reference to the precautionary principle, a much wider understanding of “expertise”, and possibly some type of intergovernmental process or oversight relating to information-sharing on solar geoengineering. Most other countries aligned with these three main groups to varying extent, with Japan following the United States, Norway supporting the EU, and the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada trying to offer a softer, often vague stance somewhere between the EU and the US.

As discussions on the various iterations of the resolution proceeded, several central conflict lines became ever more apparent. For example, while the United States suggested that any assessment should also include consideration of the “benefits” of solar geoengineering, this was anathema to the African group of countries and others. These countries demanded instead a focus solely on the risks of geoengineering. They also opposed a framing of knowledge and information needs in narrow climate terms, and emphasized instead the environmental, social, economic, legal, political, security, and geopolitical dimensions of solar geoengineering, as crucial to include in any repository of information under a UN umbrella.

Fundamental disagreements thus also turned on the nature of scientific assessments, and what was to be considered relevant “expertise”. Should assessments be transdisciplinary, include social and economic impacts, discuss regulatory and global governance aspects, cover ethical and justice questions, and include local and Indigenous knowledge? For the United States, often supported by Saudi Arabia, the answer was a clear “no” to multilateral discussion of these broader considerations. Instead, they strongly favoured the WMO’s World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) – which has just started a targeted project on “climate intervention research” – as the main locus for assessing, advancing and making transparent research on solar geoengineering, and wanted the UN Environment Assembly to confine itself to “welcoming” these efforts. For many other countries, however, a sole focus on the WCRP was inacceptable. They saw this research programme as a narrow network of climate scientists, with little expertise in, or concern for, broader pertinent questions of social science, economics, regulation, ethics and justice, not to speak of global politics, multilateral governance or Indigenous knowledge. That the WCRP project on “climate intervention research” is co-chaired by a leading and outspoken SRM-researcher rang further alarm bells among some delegations.

A further line of contestation was the institutional form of the knowledge-gathering mechanism that a resolution could provide for. Should it be purely “scientific” and be run by scientists; or a broader “report” supervised by the UNEP Executive Director; or a process linked to, or ruled by, intergovernmental oversight? Again, the United States and Saudi Arabia wanted to see the scientists of the WCRP in the driving seat, while other countries, to varying degrees, preferred broader mechanisms and some type of inter-governmental involvement and oversight.

A few compromises that were tabled revolved around a simple “repository” of solar geoengineering information that would be neither a (formal) expert report nor a mechanism for multilateral oversight and control. But this minimalist compromise ultimately also did not find sufficient support, given persisting conflicts and an atmosphere of mistrust around how narrow or broad its remit should be, who would feed what kind of information into it, and what follow-up multilateral processes should or should not be linked to it.

Beyond contestations around the operational paragraphs of the resolution, its lengthy preambular paragraphs were also fiercely debated. Conflicts here revolved for instance around whether and how to acknowledge the Convention on Biological Diversity, which had decided on a de facto moratorium on geoengineering in 2010 but has not been ratified by the United States. Another core issue was whether and how the precautionary principle should be reflected in the preamble to the resolution. And, African countries showed firm leadership in demanding that the preamble of the resolution should acknowledge their earlier call for a global governance mechanism on the “non-use” of solar geoengineering – a proposal aligned with a call from the academic community, launched in 2022, for a “non-use agreement” on solar geoengineering that is now supported by over 500 scholars from 67 countries and endorsed by more than 1900 civil society organizations.

Where does the failure of the Swiss initiative leave us? Even though a formal resolution on solar geoengineering has not been agreed by the UN Environment Assembly, the two weeks of intense debate are likely to have deeper political impacts. For one, the negotiations seem to have strengthened the resolve of some countries of the Global South to take a strong, proactive and critical stance against the solar geoengineering agenda being pushed by a few Global North scientists, primarily based in the United States, along with philanthropic foundations that have pumped millions of dollars into expensive lobby campaigns. Africa stood firm in their opposition to a scientific expert group on solar geoengineering, and more Global South countries have now joined the African group, laying the groundwork for possible elevation of critical Global South voices and for further calls for a non-use agreement.

Also civil society remained firmly aligned in their long-standing stance against solar geoengineering. The formal interventions by the “Major Groups” of Women; NGOs; and Science and Technology, and the final joint declaration of all Major Groups affirmed their fundamental critique of solar geoengineering and their staunch support for a global non-use agreement.

The outcome of the 2024 UN Environment Assembly also raises questions around the UN Environment Programme’s future positioning in this debate. UNEP enjoys a good reputation in many quarters and is generally well trusted across the Global South. Yet in the end, UNEP remains an environmental programme with little power and a strong consensus-oriented culture. Potential scenarios of unilateral development and control of geoengineering technologies by a few powerful countries suggest that solar geoengineering surpasses traditional “environmental” policies. Instead, geoengineering is in essence an issue of unequal and shifting global power dynamics, mitigation delay for the wealthy, geopolitical conflicts, and for some also a novel threat of neocolonial imposition. For that reason, the road from Nairobi 2024 might well point towards additional institutional directions, beyond the UN Environment Assembly. Some have mentioned the United Nations General Assembly, where the Global South has a firmly established majority of votes. Others point to the mobilization of the human rights system of the United Nations. Even links to international criminal law, through the notion of ecocide that unilateral geoengineering could possibly constitute, have been suggested in the corridors. It is to be seen how African countries will build further on their strong leadership and strengthen emerging alliances with countries in the Pacific and Latin America, and perhaps with some progressive industrialized countries as well.

At the same time, the United States and its allies will continue with their emerging geoengineering research programmes, supported by their national academies and the machinery of private foundations of wealthy tech billionaires. For the hardened camp of solar geoengineering research advocates, the hyper-technical World Climate Research Programme could remain the main locus of attention for the next years.

Yet after this year’s UN Environment Assembly, it will be more difficult for geoengineering researchers to hide behind the claim of their lobbyists that this work is needed for the benefit of the Global South. The global context has shifted. African countries, in particular, have spoken firmly, calling in a UN setting for an international non-use mechanism on solar geoengineering. Those promoting and investing in more research that may lead to development of solar geoengineering technologies, need to acknowledge this new political reality of strong Southern rejection and fierce NGO opposition. Whether or not to engage in solar geoengineering research is not merely a matter of scientific debate and academic curiosity – it is a matter of fraught global conflict and political contestation around a speculative technology with wide-ranging, planetary-scale consequences, were it ever to be developed and deployed.

This blog was written with Aarti Gupta and first published on Citation: Frank Biermann and Aarti Gupta, "African Countries Call for the Non-Use of Solar Geoengineering in UN Environment Assembly". Blogpost. 11 March 2024.


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