The EU wants to crack down on rogue efforts to alter the atmosphere

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It’s surprisingly easy for someone to mess with the makeup of Earth’s atmosphere, regardless of the consequences that could have for our planet. Now, as part of its plans to address security risks posed by climate change, the European Union is calling for talks on a potential international framework on how to treat deliberately atmosphere-altering technologies, AKA geoengineering.

The idea with geoengineering is to deploy new technologies that might be able to cool the planet down. The tactic that’s caused the most uproar lately is called solar geoengineering, which are basically attempts to manipulate the planet’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space.

The issue is that scientists aren’t quite sure how much good that would do or whether geoengineering might inadvertently trigger new problems. That’s why the European Commission says the world needs to start thinking about rules on geoengineering. Without them, climate vigilantes could decide to go ahead with their experiments without any oversight or accountability. In fact, that’s already started to happen, albeit on a small scale.

“The risks, impacts and unintended consequences that these technologies pose are poorly understood, and necessary rules, procedures, and institutions have not been developed. These technologies introduce new risks to people and ecosystems, while they could also increase power imbalances between nations, spark conflicts and raises a myriad of ethical, legal, governance and political issues,” says a joint communication adopted by the European Commission today.

Back in 2010, a de facto moratorium on large-scale geoengineering came out of a United States biodiversity conference. It’s vague, excludes small-scale experiments, and might only apply to initiatives deemed harmful to biodiversity.

The document says the EU wants to “promote” new international talks on how to potentially govern geoengineering efforts, as well as “support” efforts to better understand the risks such experiments could pose. More broadly, the document outlines around 30 different actions the EU plans to take to address security risks posed by climate change, like establishing a data hub on climate and environment security within the EU Satellite Centre.

Climate change itself could technically be thought of as the result of geoengineering. By burning tremendous amounts of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution, humans have released enough greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere to change the climate. Global temperatures are rising, and that’s bringing on more severe storms, droughts, heatwaves, and other disasters.

Geoengineering to counteract global warming, however, could pose new challenges. There still isn’t a lot of research into what exactly the consequences could look like, which is why the EU is calling for it now. Early studies suggest that releasing particles into the atmosphere that reflect sunlight could undo decades of work to repair the ozone hole over Antarctica.

Nevertheless, a solar geoengineering startup called Make Sunsets caused a stir after it released several balloons carrying sulfur dioxide over the past year. The reflective sulfur dioxide particles were supposed to mimic the way debris from volcanic eruptions reflect solar radiation. For example, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines lowered the average global temperature by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) for a little over a year.

But sulfur dioxide pollution can also potentially cause acid rain and irritate people’s lungs, and releasing enough of it could worsen the Antarctic ozone hole. Make Sunsets’ experiments were probably way too small to cause any measurable adverse side effects, but it was enough to spook some people.

Mexico moved to bar solar geoengineering experiments in January after Make Sunsets launched balloons there without getting any prior consent. Make Sunsets responded to the ban by releasing a few more sulfur dioxide-carrying balloons from Reno, Nevada, in February. The company claimed to have gotten a green light from the FAA, although officials told The Verge they never gave any official approval because it wasn’t required.

The incident shows that rogue actors can hop around to avoid local laws, and that bolsters the argument for new international guidelines on geoengineering — especially if what they do in one place might have implications for the whole planet.

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