February 28, 2024

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COP28: New UNESCO report warns of ethical risks of Climate Engineering

The UNESCO headquarters building located in Paris.

Paris, 29 November 2023 – Ahead of COP28, UNESCO’s first report on the ethics of climate engineering assesses the risks and opportunities of these new climate manipulation and modification technologies, and offers concrete recommendations for research and governance.

As climate disruption continues at an alarming pace and humanity falls short of CO2 emission reduction targets, climate engineering (also called geoengineering) has gained attention as a potential solution. Due to both the immense promise and significant risks of such large-scale interventions in the Earth’s natural systems, UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) has published its first ever report on the Ethics of Climate Engineering. It proposes a comprehensive global ethical perspective on climate engineering technologies and lists specific recommendations for their possible use.

This report considers the broad range of climate engineering technologies which vary in effectiveness and cost and fall under two main categories. Carbon Dioxide Removal involves drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, for example by building industrial-scale carbon removal infrastructure or planting trees to absorb CO2 naturally. Solar Radiation Modification involves reflecting sunlight back to the space, for example by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere or painting roofs in light colors.

Assessing the risks

The report raises concerns that climate engineering could undermine existing climate policies and divert funding from vital emission reduction and adaptation efforts. The high cost of developing and deploying these tools could also exacerbating global inequalities between countries of different economic weight, especially in terms of the distribution of risks. Geoengineering tools could also have the potential for military or geo-political use, which calls for strengthening global efforts for their governance.

The experts also point out that, given our current knowledge gaps, these techniques cannot yet be relied on to significantly contribute to meeting climate targets. Due to a lack of perspective and experience, we cannot anticipate the consequences of these interventions on the climate. For example, they could initiate chain reactions with considerable risks to human, oceans, global temperatures, and biodiversity. Creating a dependency on climate engineering technologies also raises the question of when and how to phase them out, as well as the impact of doing so. Therefore, the primary goal of any research program on climate engineering should be to better identify and reduce the uncertainties around climate change actions.

UNESCO’s recommendations

The report makes several recommendations for researching and governing climate engineering including:

  • States have a legal obligation to prevent harm, and therefore must introduce legislation that regulates these new forms of climate action.
  • Scientific research on climate engineering must be based on clearly ethical standards consistent with international law.
  • Countries must consider the transboundary impact of their climate engineering decisions.
  • The governance challenge of implementing such techniques worldwide requires open and responsible collaboration between all countries, as well as constant monitoring.
  • Marginalized communities on the frontline of climate disruption and those most likely to be impacted must be fully considered and involved in climate engineering policies.

UNESCO will share this report and its conclusions with its 194 Member States so that this major issue is taken into account in the intergovernmental discussions which will be held during COP28.

“In the face of the environmental emergency, we should consider all options at hand, including climate engineering. However, their deployment should not come at the expense of the commitments made under the Paris Agreement, and not without a clearly established ethical framework. UNESCO will work with its Member States to build such a framework”, said Gabriela RAMOS, UNESCO Assistant-Director General for Social and Human Sciences.

« Climate engineering may be risky, both in its interactions with the climate, and in its potential for exacerbating existing risks and introducing new ones. Before pursuing these new technologies, we must fully understand their effects and ethical implications. Any debate on climate engineering must be both an ethical and a political one, reflecting the conflicting interests between different regions and communities”, said Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem, Chair of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology.

Read more

UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST)

Press contact

François Wibaux, f.wibaux@unesco.org.

Clare O’Hagan, c.o-hagan@unesco.org.

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