Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced in the near future, society will be faced with severe climate change. Large-scale “geoengineering” is being considered as a possible response that does not depend on emissions reduction. One version is solar radiation management, which reduces net incoming solar radiation through atmospheric particle injection, cloud brightening, surface albedo modification, or other means for changing the earth’s heat balance. Another option is carbon dioxide removal, which extracts previously emitted greenhouse gases from the atmosphere using vegetation, chemical-based air capture, or ocean fertilization.

Geoengineering is a controversial idea for many reasons. The cost and effectiveness of all possible technologies remain highly uncertain. Additionally, the various options may have risks of their own, including unintended climate effects, ozone layer depletion, changes in precipitation, and adverse effects on ecosystems and agriculture. There may also be significant indirect effects, including the potential to undermine greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts. Individual nations or even independent actors may be motivated to pursue unilateral geoengineering, against the wishes of others. Ethical concerns are significant, and an effective governance structure is nonexistent.

The Borsuk Lab seeks to address many of these issues by leading an applied research project on geoengineering, with the goal of being a source of insight for consequential policy decisions on geoengineering research and possible implementation. We are driven by three research questions:

1. How should policymakers think about geoengineering as part of a strategy for confronting climate change?

2. How does the potential for geoengineering as a climate strategy affect incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

3. How can geoengineering be governed along with other options as part of an international response to climate change?