The European Union brings focus towards solar geoengineering

July 05, 2023

By Hassaan Sipra, Director of Global Engagement

Last week, the European Council and the European Parliament adopted a joint communication on the climate and security nexus that highlighted how the EU will address climate and environmental degradation through the lens of peace, security and defense. Under the section on international cooperation, a short but telling paragraph provided context for the EU’s position on climate interventions, with specific mention of solar geoengineering (or solar radiation modification). These deliberate, large-scale interventions into the Earth’s climate system have been receiving increasing attention over the past several years, as the clock to limit global temperatures to between 1.5oC and 2oC is ticking faster and faster.

The paragraph brings into focus the risks and unintended consequences associated with solar geoengineering, many of which are unknown at this stage. It is clear from the paragraph that the EU is taking a cautious approach to solar geoengineering, centered their position around risk, without making mention of any potential benefits of solar geoengineering. Significantly, the EU also calls for international efforts to comprehensively assess it, and develop rules, procedures and institutions for its research and governance. In the coming months and years, the EU will have to define its ambitions with respect to solar geoengineering more clearly, particularly with respect to moving discussions to appropriate fora.

The EU has already funded two projects, still ongoing, relating to solar geoengineering under the Horizon 2020 research program (totaling approximately $14 million Euros), which are providing insights into its regulatory challenges and ethical dimensions. The first project, led by TechEthos, argues that the EU should focus on defining solar geoengineering research activities and conditions for conducting research, as well as determining to what extent solar geoengineering can potentially alleviate climate impacts. Further, the project outlines the need for taking a holistic approach to the solar geoengineering debate, one where inclusivity, global justice and fundamental rights and protections are the primary considerations for decision making around action or inaction.

Second, the GENIE project is conducting a comprehensive assessment of solar geoengineering to inform policy makers on the critical questions of potential deployment through surveying different publics across countries– the “whether, when, how, and how much”. Their research finds high ambiguity in the debate, and that most publics and governance actors have not made up their minds on solar geoengineering yet. They conclude that direct experience with climate disasters was a better indicator for whether someone would be supportive of solar geoengineering, highlighting that publics and policy makers perceptions can change in the face of accelerated warming impacts.

In a world of 1.5oC warming, which is imminent, 4 billion people will face heatwave exposure and 3.5 billion people will face water stress. As impacts become more prevalent, the EU’s decision to make a statement regarding assessment of solar geoengineering is a step in the right direction – namely, that all options need to be better understood as potential approaches for reducing climate related suffering in the face of laggard mitigation and adaptation strategies. How the EU chooses to engage with the global community at large (particularly the Global South) on this subject in the near future will be crucial in determining the kinds of governance structures that come into being as a result. This EU statement is indicative of the growing momentum on solar geoengineering in the Global North, particularly as it comes out at the same time as the congressionally mandated report on solar geoengineering research and governance by the United States. This further signals that the conversation is moving forward seemingly without significant input from much of the global population in developing countries. DSG is focused on shifting these dynamics. It is imperative that decision-making around solar geoengineering take into account the need for building global capacity to engage effectively with these potential approaches to delaying climate change impacts.