LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A push to launch a high-level study of potentially risky technological fixes to curb climate change was abandoned on Thursday at a U.N. environmental conference in Nairobi, as countries including the United States raised objections.
“From our perspective, that’s a huge disappointment,” said Franz Xaver Perrez, environmental ambassador for Switzerland, which had proposed the U.N. assessment with the backing of 11 other governments.
“Some of these technologies could have huge impacts at a global scale - and if things have that dimension, there may also be a need for multilateral controls,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Kenya.
“Geoengineering” technologies, which are gaining prominence as international efforts to curb climate-changing emissions fall short, aim to pull carbon out of the atmosphere or block some of the sun’s warmth to cool the Earth.
They could help fend off some of the worst impacts of runaway climate change, including worsening storms and heatwaves, backers say.
But opponents argue the emerging technologies pose huge potential risks to people and nature, and could undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not least because many are backed by fossil-fuel interests.
Rapidly slashing emissions - mainly by switching to greener power and preserving forests - remains the cheapest and safest way to fend off worsening droughts, floods, storms and other impacts of global warming, scientists say.
Observers at the U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi said the Swiss-backed proposal was rejected in part because it called for a “precautionary principle” approach to geoengineering the climate.
That principle says great care must be taken in starting activities that have unclear risks for human health or the environment.
The United States, Saudi Arabia and Brazil were among the strongest opponents of the U.N. environmental body taking up consideration of geoengineering technologies, with Japan also expressing reservations, meeting participants said.
Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative, described the resistance to the “precautionary principle” language as “a little bit surprising”.
But the discussion of the issue at this week’s meeting was nonetheless a useful step toward creating rules to govern research into the technologies and possibly their eventual use.
“What’s important is that governments actually seriously took this on and negotiated,” he said. “That’s the beginning of governance.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a volunteer body of leading climate scientists, is also expected to address the issue in its next flagship report, due out in 2022.
The Convention on Biological Diversity, which issued a non-binding moratorium on the use of geoengineering technologies in 2010, may also consider them in a post-2020 strategy now being developed, observers said.
Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering, additional reporting by Nita Bhalla in Nairobi; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate