Go back

The International Relations of Geoengineering

Published 10 Dec 2022
Ralph Housego

2015 to 2022 are now officially the eight warmest years on record.  The climate crisis is here and will only get worse. Thus, as abatement efforts to reduce emissions come too little too late, experts and policymakers are increasingly beginning to discuss what comes next. That answer might be geoengineering: the deliberate, large-scale technological intervention of the Earth’s natural climate system to reduce or reverse the effects of climate change.

The concept of changing critical natural processes of an entire planet’s climate system sounds like something plucked straight from the pages of Isaac Asimov or a James Cameron sci-fi epic. But geoengineering can already be feasibly accomplished. The process has two major approaches: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal. SRM techniques are the most technically developed and are the ones that feature most prominently and regularly in geoengineering policy discourse. SRM works by reducing the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere to offset the build-up of greenhouse gases (GHG). Rather than targeting the root cause of climate change, SRM aims to offset the symptoms i.e., global temperature rises. Some proposed SRM techniques are more ambitious, like constructing a massive sunshade positioned between the Sun and the Earth. But some techniques are far more feasible. Stratospheric aerosol injection would see the dispersal of reflective aerosols (such as hydrogen sulphur) in the stratosphere to reduce the amount of solar radiation entering the planet’s atmosphere. The cost of this is relatively low, scientists generally agree it would work, the technology already largely exists and it could be accomplished by a relatively modest outlay of state resources such as a fleet of modified aircraft.

So why all the apprehension and even outright pleas for it to be banned entirely? Because though geoengineering could more than likely reduce global temperature, the second order outcomes of these effects are nowhere near properly understood and the complexity of the Earth’s climate systems makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint dangerous tipping points or thresholds that geoengineering could cause. A great many experts predict that the reduction in the amounts of solar radiation reaching Earth as a result of SRM would have drastic impacts on the planet’s ecosystems and in turn, severely damage the food supply. Rainfall cycles would be among the processes most at risk, potentially having disastrous impacts on regions reliant on seasonal rainfall. Worst-case scenarios predict the adverse outcomes of climate change could be dwarfed in severity by the outcomes of geoengineering. What compounds this predicament is the issue of the ‘free driver’ problem. Unlike emissions reduction efforts which requires broad action across the planet and complex multilateral structures to facilitate it, geoengineering can theoretically be accomplished unilaterally by one state and that state could achieve whatever level of geoengineering intensity preference they have. If a state wanted to reduce global temperatures by 1 degree, it wouldn’t matter if a global majority of states wanted to reduce temperatures by only 0.5 degrees. The state with the highest preference would always win out.

Because of this ‘free driver’ dilemma, geoengineering poses an obvious security risk in the international power-based order. Though its malicious use will be of significant concern to states, the greatest security threat of geoengineering is its potential to inadvertently spark conflict. Its unilateral use by one state could very conceivably cause conflict with other states, as those states’ risk calculation could favour economic or even military action to halt geoengineering efforts rather than risk having to endure the adverse impacts of it. Similarly, states may decide engaging in geoengineering is worth such a security risk if it mitigates the damaging effects of climate change.

International law is of little use in governing geoengineering at this stage, with the global climate change architecture of the UNFCC and the Paris Agreement primarily concerned with limiting the rise of GHGs in the atmosphere and mitigating climate change. Few other extant international instruments make any explicit reference to geoengineering. The need for an international governing framework for geoengineering is clear. Lack of substantive action climate change mitigation by the industrialised world is only going to make the use of geoengineering a ‘when’ not ‘if’ question and though largely absent from major policy and public discourse today, geoengineering could very well become one of the major geostrategic flashpoints of this century and well into the next.

Ralph Housego is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations, Political Economy). Ralph currently works as a media analyst at GRACosway, a strategic communications and public affairs consulting firm, and as a research assistant at the digital government advocacy platform, Advoc8. He has previously interned at the tech-policy think tank RESET Australia and worked as a research and policy assistant at the European Australian Business Council, where he gained valuable exposure to the political and economic relationship between Australia and Europe. Ralph’s areas of interest centre on Australia’s trading relationships with its Indo-Pacific neighbours as well as broader geostrategic and economic issues in the region.

Ralph is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.