A Controversial SRM Resolution Was Withdrawn at UNEA-6: Here’s our Takeaway

March 19, 2024

As for-profit entities and startups step into the unregulated fray of solar geoengineering, the concept has rarely been the object of debate on the international stage. But this changed when Member States gathered in February in Nairobi for the 6th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) to negotiate two dozen resolutions to further the global environment agenda. One of the most controversial resolutions on the table addressed Solar Geoengineering (also known as solar radiation modification or SRM), which refers to intentional large-scale interventions to reduce the amount of radiation reaching the Earth to cool the planet. Member States were unable to reach a consensus, and the resolution was eventually withdrawn. 

Four years ago, Switzerland presented a similar resolution at UNEA-4, which was withdrawn after days of tense negotiations reached a stalemate. But this time, articles  abounded suggesting that the resolution on solar geoengineering was rejected by climate vulnerable nations. While most climate vulnerable countries stated serious concerns about solar geoengineering, the media coverage of these negotiations miss some useful nuance and context. 

Some Important Context

Until recently, solar geoengineering was a little-known concept both within and outside the climate community. But awareness of this issue is quickly spreading as GHG emissions continue to rise, for-profit companies start venturing into the contentious realm of modifying the Earth’s reflectivity and early stage research governance is seeing challenges without international agreements or standards in place.

Last year, despite international discussions and research scrutiny, a U.S.-based startup “Make Sunsets,”  sparked controversy after releasing aerosol-filled balloons in Baja California, Mexico without the consent from the Mexican government and local communities. Mexico responded by moving to ban such experimentation and large-scale deployments within its borders. 

More recently, an Israeli startup by the name of Stardust Solutions has been reported to have begun indoor testing of a system to disperse a cloud of reflective particles, the composition of which has not been disclosed by the company. The Wall Street Journal reported that limited outdoor testing is planned in the coming months. 

Meanwhile, several UN bodies who had been keeping a watching brief on these approaches have now released reports in the recent months. The UN Environment Programme convened an independent, multidisciplinary expert panel that published “One Atmosphere“, a report highlighting important knowledge gaps in SRM research, the importance of governance to guide research and decision-making and the need for inclusive discussions on this subject. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) produced a draft report on the “Impact of new technologies for climate protection on the enjoyment of human rights” and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) published a report on the ethics of climate engineering.

The Negotiations Process 

First, some background on the deliberating environment. UNEA is the “world’s highest-level decision-making body for matters related to the environment” and has universal membership with 193 Member States. Over eight days, Member States deliberated on the content of all proposed resolutions. 

The SRM resolution, proposed by Switzerland (for a second time), called for an ad-hoc group of experts to produce a detailed assessment report. These discussions took place in the presence of observer organizations, including DSG. From our perspective, the withdrawal was not an outright rejection of the issue by climate vulnerable countries, but rather the result of a lack of sufficient capacity and time to build positions in an environment in which prominent actors who have deeply polarized views on this issue influenced these discussions outside of the negotiating room and further confused the process.

Overall, most Member States clearly share similar concerns about the moral hazard SRM poses – that it should in no way be considered a silver bullet solution to the climate crisis and that the focus of climate action needs to be mitigation and adaptation. 

Throughout the negotiations, many climate vulnerable country representatives echoed reminders of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) “moratorium” on SRM experimentation, the importance of the precautionary principle, and the need to acknowledge calls for a non-use agreement. Conversely, some countries, such as the U.S., expressed concerns that science was a prerequisite to policy and that UNEP would be duplicating efforts with the recently announced World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) lighthouse activity to produce a transdisciplinary report on SRM research. There was, however, unambiguous pushback to this notion, with the need for early governance, including for research, emphasized by others. 

Perhaps most important were the specific additions from a widely diverse set of countries. Mexico called for more inclusive participation, Brazil for capacity building, and India and Saudi Arabia asked for language that would not prejudge the outcome of SRM. Many pointed to the need for a governance process that would allow informed decisions on this challenging subject based not only on scientific evidence, but also on social, ethical, and geopolitical considerations. Almost all countries participating in deliberations saw the need for these discussions regardless of their position on SRM, especially if there is ever going to be an effective moratorium on the use of these approaches. 

The African Group (AG), comprised of some of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, was the only UN regional group to deliberate on this issue as a block. The AG’s concerns rested mostly on the moral hazard of SRM. In particular, the AG wanted the resolution to reflect one of the key decisions that had been adopted in August last year during the Nineteenth ordinary session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) in which the Ministers called for a “global governance mechanism for non-use of solar radiation management”. 

But despite its strong opposition to SRM, the AG didn’t oppose the adoption of the resolution. In the spirit of collaboration to reach a consensus and based on earlier deliberations, the Group took the initiative to propose a new text requesting the Executive Director of UNEP to prepare an options paper on the establishment of a repository of existing scientific information, research, and activities on SRM, including submissions from members states and stakeholders, to be made available and accessible to all Member States, stakeholders, and institutions. This proposal was adopted to serve as the basis for onward discussions, the details of which, unfortunately, did not reach consensus. 

Our Takeaway 

While Member States’ views on the subject were divergent and agreeing on a final text was challenging to say the least, the overwhelming majority – including climate vulnerable countries –  saw the value in adopting a resolution and engaging on this difficult issue. I would even go as far as to say that these countries are well aware that mechanisms like the CBD “moratorium” are non-binding, and have been insufficient to stop companies from developing commercial activities; they understand that if they are uncomfortable with SRM, they will need effective ways to shape decisions. 

Whether countries are for or against SRM research or further development, governance is critical. The stakes are high: we cannot afford to ignore the risks posed by rogue actors stepping into this unregulated space, nor can we allow SRM research or discussions to be confined to the Global North. 

Looking Forward 

If another resolution is brought forward at UNEA-7, and if this issue is to be discussed fairly, an inclusive capacity-building process must take place well ahead of the deliberations. Each and every Member State deserves a fair chance to weigh in on such a critical question in an informed way. Only then can there be a degree of convergence that would allow for Member States to adopt a commonly agreed text. Equally as important, there needs to be more civil society and community voices to represent a wide diversity of views. 

As much as the adoption of a resolution on solar geoengineering at UNEA-6 would have paved the way toward an inclusive governance process, we recognize the challenges of agreeing on a text that strikes just the right balance to satisfy the diverging positions of Member States. It was encouraging to see so many countries actively engaged on this topic. Though the governance challenges remain, we come home with a sense that our mission as honest brokers seeking to elevate the voices of climate vulnerable communities and nations in decision-making is as relevant as ever, and stand ready to support Member States and civil society alike in this challenging endeavor.