Reflections from COP28 on our way to UNEA-6

February 02, 2024

It was at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences that I first heard about solar geoengineering 5 years ago. Even though I had already been engaged with the environmental movement at the local and international level for a couple of years then, geoengineering had never been part of the discussion in the spaces I found myself in, nor had the term come across in the many books, documentaries and news I’d consumed to inform myself about the climate crisis. So it came as a surprise to me to learn at that International Symposium on Climate Geoengineering that there were scientists exploring ways to directly intervene in the climate system to cool the planet – like many others have said it before, I thought that could only be science fiction. Apart from being surprised, I also felt scared and a bit angry. Because when I looked around the room in the two days of conference I seemed to be the only young participant, and it felt daunting to learn about technologies that could be implemented in the coming decades without having anyone else from my generation receiving that information as well. And I knew then that I would take that matter into my own hands and work in raising awareness about solar geoengineering in the years to come, with special attention given to future decision makers.

“I‘ll start by saying I truly wish we weren’t here talking about this,” I said in one of the many panel discussions about climate altering technologies during COP28  last year. I said that because I hoped that we wouldn’t even have to be contemplating the dire effects of the climate crisis in the first place. I hoped that we would have already phased out fossil fuels, had resilient cities to live in, reforested our precious wildlands and so many others – my wishlist is extensive. But I’m not naive, and I know we’re far from achieving all that, including the 2030 Agenda. So I understand why solar geoengineering discussions have started to occupy spaces like COP, even if those discussions still take place on the margins, and not in the negotiation rooms. 

From COP27 to COP28, there was a huge jump in the number of side events talking about climate altering technologies. Last year was also filled with more seminars and conferences about the topic. Perhaps that means more organizations and individuals are losing hope in our capacity for major near term climate action and looking for alternatives to prevent climate collapse. Regardless of the motives, the increased attention being given to solar geoengineering underscores the need to ensure that climate and intergenerational justice are the basis of the discussion. But despite having more attention being given to climate altering technologies, the fact that many people and institutions still refuse to talk about it on the basis that it is “too controversial” is worrying. This is especially true when a large part of this refusal comes from the climate justice movement, because if they are not constructively engaging on this matter too, the risk of having more of the “business as usual” mindset in solar geoengineering discussions might increase. 

With that in mind, as we head towards the next United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), I hope that we will have more allies in the quest to make solar geoengineering governance inclusive to climate vulnerable communities. After a failed attempt at UNEA-4 in 2019 to request the creation of an Ad Hoc Independent Expert Group to assess the status of both carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering technologies, Switzerland has resubmitted a similar resolution for UNEA-6. Although this time focused only on solar geoengineering, and supported by Guinea, Monaco and Senegal. 

Unlike the COP spaces where solar geoengineering discussions are mostly civil society-driven (and very few civil society organizations at that), at UNEA the conversation will be led by Member States. If the proposal of having a UN Expert Group looking into solar geoengineering is accepted, it means that this matter could soon be discussed in the negotiation rooms at COP too. And for us to make countries accountable for their decisions on the matter, we will need union in the environmental and climate movement when it comes to facing solar geoengineering. For that to happen, we need more civil society representatives to be vocal and active in the SG space, apart from the few usual suspects.

I truly understand the reasons for not wanting to engage. Like I said before, I am disappointed we have reached this low point where we have to look for options beyond mitigation and adaptation. But that is why I decided to get engaged in this space in the first place 5 years ago, when I realized that solar geoengineering would be on the global decision making table whether I liked it or not. I thought, “I might as well do the best I can to make those discussions intergenerationally and climate just.” Turning our backs on tough conversations when we have science telling us we are on the verge of reaching irreversible tipping points can sometimes feel akin to climate denial, or accepting the inevitability of huge human and environmental losses. And I don’t want to fit into any of these categories.

I look back at COP28 with a feeling of despair, not only for climate action being dangerously slow, but also for seeing that SG discussions are still taboo for many. Misinformation on this matter has been pushing people apart, when we should all be on the same side: aiming for climate justice. But I look ahead at UNEA-6 with hopes that if Member States this year decide to move forward with the creation of an expert group to look into solar radiation modification, we will be creating more spaces to advance effective governance mechanisms for such technologies, followed by trustworthy and responsible science. Even though several questions remain, the more people we have working on solar geoengineering together with climate justice principles in mind, the better. And that’s something to look forward to.