The UN Human Rights Council report on CDR and SRM

August 25, 2023

By Hassaan Sipra, Director of Global Engagement

Ahead of its 54th regular session, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently released an Advanced Unedited Version of its report titled, Impact of New Technologies Intended for Climate Protection [NTCPs] on the Enjoyment of Human Rights. Requesting the report from an Advisory Committee at its 48th regular session in 2021, the UNHRC emphasized the need for States to ensure their obligations to human rights in response to climate change. The current failure of policy and decision-makers to bring climate change under control is threatening human rights and is paving the way for global discussions on the research and potential deployment of climate interventions – deliberate, large-scale manipulations of the global climate system.

The UNHRC report focuses on the human rights implications associated with carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation modification (SRM), controversial techniques meant to remove emissions from the atmosphere or to offset some types of global warming impacts by increasing the planet’s solar reflectivity, respectively. Key distinctions between the two technologies are regarding the state of interest, cost, time and uncertainty. CDR is rapidly growing from both a technological and investment perspective, is resource intensive, and will take decades to scale –  longer than it will take the world to reach 1.5oC of warming; SRM is inexpensive, and could potentially be operationalized in the near term, but comes with massive  uncertainty.

The Advisory Committee is steadfast throughout the report that climate mitigation must remain the priority, stating “The current focus of climate action should be to deploy existing, tested and safe measures and technologies using a rights-based approach in line with the IPCC findings” (para 29). However, I agree with Dr. Pete Irvine’s assessment that the report argues against CDR and SRM, focusing only on risks and side effects, without any indication of potential benefits the technologies might entail.

For SRM in particular, the report makes a stunning case for the physical risks, citing “unpredictable changes in hydrological patterns, harm to the ozone layer, dimming, reduced photosynthesis, crop growth changes resulting in decreased food production and access, as well as further cascading risks in the social and political systems and relations associated with the aforementioned” (para 17). It fails to mention potential benefits such as reduction in heatwave severity and frequency, slowdown of glacial melt, lowered probability of extreme precipitation, as compared to the business-as-usual climate scenario that we are currently facing. Given the limited amount of impacts based research on the risks and benefits of SRM at this time, drawing the conclusion that SRM would pose an outsized threat to human rights without first reducing uncertainties through research is not appropriate. 

As the scientific knowledge in this field is continuing to grow, resolving the high degree of uncertainty associated with SRM impacts is needed from a human rights perspective. This means rather than a moratorium, greater efforts towards designing research that asks the right, inclusive questions is necessary, particularly as it relates to perspectives from the Global South. SRM can potentially limit suffering or it could lead to more, yet we also know that runaway climate change is already causing major destruction. Human rights are already being violated. Adding the dimension of SRM research and consideration to the suite of climate change response options can help clarify the justice elements inherent within climate change policy. 

The report also describes the governance challenges associated with SRM – noting the difficulty with establishing any international agreement (para 28). While the report cautions against the use of SRM, it couches that sentiment within the need to build better and early governance frameworks – “All the above leads to the conclusion that the deployment of NCTPs today would be contrary to the human rights and environmental framework. Even in the hypothetical scenario that there is no choice but to deploy NTCPs to address climate overshoot, the potential vastness of the adverse impacts and risks make imperative that a strong global rights-based governance framework, be set-up well in advance” (para 57).

It is here that the report shines and sends a clear message that aligns with the DSG mission and vision. It argues for multilateralism and governance frameworks, demands inclusiveness in decision-making, and stresses accountability and oversight. The report contends that the current North-South divide that exists in research and decision making around the topic is a “form of indirect colonization” (para 59), and that access to information and public participation need to be ramped up greatly to understand the role such technologies can play in dealing with the climate crisis. It reiterates that deploying SRM without a strong understanding of its negative impacts will have implications for human rights, particularly among already vulnerable communities. 

The recommendations of the UNHRC report suggest the use of the precautionary principle when it comes to SRM research and potential deployment, but also advocates for a moratorium on fossil fuel use. As we know this is not yet happening, we must also consider the potential for shifting political demand for SRM as temperatures continue to rise into the next century. At present, the field is still nascent, and needs both restrictive and enabling mechanisms for its development. As the report concludes, “The lack of a mechanism to prevent the development of harmful SRM techniques should be addressed in a manner that includes the Global South, climate vulnerable states and communities.” While arguing for inclusion, this statement also makes an assumption that perspectives on SRM research from the Global South are known. However, there is more work to be done to build knowledge and perspectives in an unbiased way. Co-evolving research and governance frameworks with inclusion and leadership from the Global South is the only way to build a pathway towards just and human rights centered outcomes.