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Geoengineering refers to a broad spectrum of technologies that are large-scale and designed specifically to counter the impacts of climate change.1 While geoengineering is still at the conceptual stage, some individuals believe that the deployment of these types of technologies may help prevent the worst climate change impacts. They therefore argue that more attention be given to geoengineering research in order to understand and test these technologies. On the other hand, others fear that geoengineering may cause its own host of unwanted large-scale environmental and social impacts. Still others express concern that a focus on geoengineering and related research may provide a pretext for not reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Many indigenous peoples and communities living in small islands, high-altitude and Arctic environments are already exposed to the consequences of a warming world. These changes are having an impact impact on their livelihoods and access to natural resources, with potential changes to identity and culture.2 As a result, indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of calls for global action. But even though geoengineers claim it will reduce impacts, indigenous peoples and local communities continue to express concerns. Should geoengineering be retained as an option for combatting climate change? Does geoengineering’s potential for reducing the impact of climate change on biodiversity and resources outweigh the risks of negative impacts on biodiversity and society?
At the international policy level, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity are considering whether geoengineering may compromise on the goals of the Convention. The Secretariat has released a set of draft documents for peer-review which can be found here. Prepared for consideration by the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, these documents review current research on geoengineering and set out the different possible impacts of geoengineering techniques.
For the time being, geoengineering has not been implemented on a large scale and many proposed techniques are only at the research and development stage, primarily using computer models. Some small-scale field testing has been conducted or proposed. For example, ocean fertilization has been conducted in the Southwest Atlantic Sector of the Southern Ocean by an Indo-German research team.3 In 2011, a proposal to pump water into the sky using a large balloon and a 1 km hose was suspended due to public protests.4
There is a broad range of geoengineering technologies and various ways of conducting geoengineering research. Can some projects be considered safe enough for research to proceed? Should we pursue certain approaches while abandoning others? For example, a report of a series of congressional hearings conducted by the US Committee on Science and Technology recommended that some proposed techniques such as space mirrors or desert-based reflectors were too expensive or too environmentally or politically risky for further research.5
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1 Some discussions on the definition of geoengineering can be found in the CBD draft report on the impact of geoengineering on biodiversity http://www.cbd.int/climate/geoengineering, IPCC Third Assessment report WGIII: Mitigation Section 4.7 Biological Uptake in Oceans and Freshwater Reservoirs (http://www.grida.no/publications/other/ipcc_tar/) , and the Royal Society report: Geoengineering the Climate http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2009/8693.pdf
4 Natural Environment Research Council. 4 Oct 2011. Update on SPICE project. http://www.nerc.ac.uk/press/briefings/2011/05-spice.asp. See also Vidal, G., 2011. Giant pipe and balloon to pump water into the sky in climate experiment, Guardian, [online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/31/pipe-balloon-water-sky-climate-experiment.