Emmett Climate Engineering Project

Climate Engineering Governance Project

The Emmett Institute announces a new project to study the governance of climate engineering (CE) technologies. The three-year project, funded by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project, will be directed by Professor Edward A. (Ted) Parson, Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law and Emmett Institute faculty co-director.

"Climate engineering" (CE) describes various intentional interventions that would modify the global climate system, aiming to offset some of the harms from elevated greenhouse gases and resultant climate change. Several CE approaches have been proposed, which modify either the Earth’s carbon cycle or its radiation balance. The strong global temperature targets stated at Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015) - holding global heating to 1.5 or 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial levels - will very likely require some form of CE to be achievable, either carbon removal (often called "negative emissions"), reducing incoming sunlight, or both. Some CE interventions appear potentially able to substantially reduce climate-change risks, in ways that mitigation and adaptation alone - even if pursued with greatly increased urgency - cannot. But CE cannot offset all impacts of elevated greenhouse gases. It thus is not, and cannot be, a complete response to climate change, and must be considered a supplement, not a replacement, for the essential activities of cutting emissions and adapting to unavoidable climate changes. Whether CE capabilities on balance reduce climate-related risks or make them worse (and introduce serious new risks) depends on how they are used, to what ends, by whom. If used competently, prudently, and legitimately, they may help a lot; if used incompetently, recklessly, rivalrously, or relied on too much, they may make matters worse. Which of these outcomes happens will depend on how these potential interventions are governed.

Given the sharp tension between potential large benefits and risks, and the unavoidably global impact, CE technologies pose novel and severe challenges to governance, particularly at the international level. While these challenges are most obvious for the prospect of future global-scale implementation, proposals to research potential CE methods, effects, and risks - including small-scale field experiments with negligible direct environmental impact - have also raised controversy, based on concerns about public acceptance, the controllability of capabilities once developed, and the prospect of undermining support for essential mitigation and adaptation. CE research has consequently also seen sharp debates over its governance, in addition to the distinct but connected questions of governance of potential future deployment.

This new Emmett Institute project will examine governance challenges posed by CE technologies and potential responses. Examples of questions to be addressed include:

  • What risks are posed by small-scale CE research? How severe are these, and how can programs, policies, and oversight methods be designed to control them?
  • At what point would CE research projects become matters of international concern, and what international coordination, oversight, or other governance would they require?
  • How will CE interact with other parts of climate policy? How can institutions or decision processes help make these interactions strengthen, rather than weaken, mitigation effort?
  • What capabilities will be needed for peaceful, competent, prudent control of future proposals for CE deployment? What feasible early steps can build such capabilities?
  • What role can an early moratorium play in the development of such capabilities?
  • What are the implications of potential regional variation in CE effects? Under what conditions might such variations pose security threats, and how can these be mitigated?
  • What governance challenges are posed by the imperfect observability of CE interventions and effects? What monitoring, attribution, or governance advances might address these?
  • What feasible early steps might reduce the resultant risks if, at some future time, a major state proposes or announces a CE intervention, or charges that someone has done one?
  • How might a high-level consultative body like a World Commission help build understanding and norms, and so support early development of governance capacity?