Fiu Mata’ese Elisara
Executive Director – O.L.S.S.I.
A decade ago, I was in Bonn Germany in 2008 attending the Convention on Biodiversity (C.D.B.) meetings as a Board member of the Amsterdam based Global Forest Coalition (GFC) which my organization Ole Siosiomaga Society is a member.
The issue of geoengineering technology was a very controversial topic then resulting in a historical CBD decision subjecting any kind of geoengineering to a moratorium with civil society successfully stopping many proposed geoengineering experiments. The geo-engineers however continue to make inroads bolstered by huge funding emboldened through the support from rich countries and wealthy investors.
The International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) has just released during its 48th Session 1-5 October 2018 in Seoul South Korea its special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels. The report makes specific reference to global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.
Interesting for many of us advocating the precautionary principle on geoengineering, the report confirms that ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’ (B.E.C.C.S.), very much part of many of the scientific geoengineering technology experiments and development, is not needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees if global emissions decline “well before 2030”.
In other words, there still seems to be hope and time! Small Island countries like Samoa that successfully pushed for this 1.5degrees outcome in the Paris Agreement must be very encouraged despite all odds. However, what is pivotally clear from this report is the urgency to not waste more valuable time on self-centred excuses and to stop procrastinating. It is an urgent call for political will of rich polluters and wealthy companies, amongst other recommendations, to immediately reduce emissions at source and comply with the C.B.D. moratorium on geoengineering technology.
Much has been written on the negative impacts of geoengineering such as B.E.C.C.s and other large-scale, land-based, ocean, and atmospheric mitigation approaches promoted under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.N.F.C.C.C.) that the world has been investing billions in research and development.
For many of us pushing climate change solutions through the inherent and generational livelihood practices of civil society, indigenous peoples and local communities, we especially welcome the science-focussed I.P.C.C. report finally recognizing the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge in tackling climate change. By showing that we can hit the 1.5-degree goal through rapid emissions cuts, the I.P.C.C. creates an opening for real climate solutions that should signal the end of the wishful thinking that has seen the rich investors engage in unproven and dangerous technological geoengineering proposals that have dominated suggested climate solutions.
But against the encouraging I.P.C..C report, we know the ironic reality given geoengineering continues to be strongly promoted as a technology solution to fix (techno-fix) the problems of climate change. It is a deliberate attempt by the rich to distract from the real priorities of fossil fuel emission reductions. A false mitigation solution that will worsen climate change and indeed does nothing but hurt the Paris Agreement.
So - What is geo-engineering?
Geoengineering is sometimes called “climate engineering” and involves scientific research on technologies and proposals to counter climate change. It is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract human-caused climate change.
A range of different geoengineering techniques has been proposed, in two broad categories – first, greenhouse gases removal (G.G.R.) directly from the atmosphere through such activities like afforestation, B.E.C.C.S., direct air capture and storage, ocean and marine fertilisation; and second, solar radiation management (S.R.M.) technologies that attempt to reflect some of the Sun’s energy that reaches Earth back into space through experiments such as brightening the albedo reflection capacity of clouds, injection of aerosols into the stratosphere, etc.
This initiative is all very well, but the priority is, and must be, to tackle the root cause of climate change by reducing emissions from human activities and adapt to impacts that become unavoidable. Mitigation of climate change, by reducing emissions and protecting natural carbon sinks, remains the main focus of our efforts to increase our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change.
I have written before about the deliberately negotiated injustices imposed on developing countries by the rich in the U.N.F.C.C.C. through the Nationally Determined Mitigation Contributions (N.D.Cs) that all countries are now obligated to comply with U.N.F.C.C.C. decisions.
Yet these are made to be voluntary reporting obligations, allowing the rich polluters to ‘cook their accounting books’ and conveniently escape from their historic polluting responsibilities, destroying the equity principle of common but differentiated responsibility. So despite the confidence of the I.P.C.C. report, the N.D.Cs have so far clearly fail the ambition needed to put us on track for limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees temperature rise.
The sad contemporary reality demonstrates that the lack of political will in rich country leaders to address climate change is showing its ugly head in the devastation, abject crisis, immensely costly climate related disasters reaping havoc in their own countries, and dominates television news around the world today. Discussions on how to reach the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris become urgently uncertain despite the ray of hope posed in I.P.C.C. report.
In the context of this unfortunate dilemma a retrospective view of the past continues to serve us well on the basis of our ongoing climate discourse. At the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010, a broad coalition of popular movements, civil society groups and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations from around the world launched the first global campaign against geoengineering.
Hands Off Mother Earth (HOME) became a global campaign to defend our communities and our common home, Planet Earth, against the threats of climate manipulation. HOME opposes geoengineering as a dangerous, unnecessary and unjust proposal to tackle climate change. Geoengineering perpetuates the false belief that today’s unjust, ecologically- and socially-devastating industrial model of production and consumption cannot be changed and that we therefore need techno-fixes to tame its effects. However, contrary to this false belief, the shifts and transformations we really need to face the climate crisis are fundamentally economic, political, social and cultural.
We must be committed to protecting Mother Earth and defending our rights, territories and peoples against anyone attempting to take control of the global thermostat or the vital natural cycles of planetary functions and ecosystems.
Healthy ecosystems and cultural and biological diversity are crucial to the well-being of all people, societies and economies. Geoengineering, whether on land, in the oceans or in the atmosphere, puts ecosystems, biodiversity and human communities at risk of potentially devastating impacts and side effects. It is incumbent on us to reject any further entrenchment of fossil fuel economies and reject geoengineering as an attempt to uphold a failed status quo and divert attention from emissions reductions and the real solutions to the climate crisis.
Carbon Dioxide Removal (C.D.R) geoengineering projects, including large scale monoculture tree and biomass plantations have severe negative impacts on land, water, biodiversity, food security and traditional livelihoods.
Carbon Capture and Storage (C.C.S.) aim to serve and perpetuate the fossil fuel industry. Additionally, BECCS would hugely amplify the impacts of plantations, disputing land needed for food production, threatening food security and biodiversity. Other carbon dioxide removal techniques, such as ocean fertilization, already implemented in the Pacific Ocean, would disrupt the marine food web and create oxygen deprived areas in the oceans.
Geoengineering technologies will disrupt local and regional weather patterns and further imbalance the climate, with potentially catastrophic effects for some regions, including on water availability and food production. The adverse impacts and side effects could cause more regional and international conflicts.
Geoengineering threatens global peace and security as some technologies that aim to manipulate climate and weather originated in the military and have a significant implication on future security of our world today. We heed the advice of science experts who oppose climate geoengineering because of the direct negative impacts of the technologies themselves, and harmful activities that are enabled by choosing a techno-fix approach that detracts from real solutions.
They are adamant that geoengineering techniques do nothing to address the root causes of climate change, and evidence points to a high likelihood that rather than improving the climate, they would make things worse.
Claim that ocean fertilization in dumping tons of iron-rich dust into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth in the hopes that it will absorb carbon and then sink to the bottom of the sea show that it will not have the desired effect, and could create “dead zones” by removing oxygen from the water
.In some cases, like Solar Radiation Management blocking sunlight by spraying chemicals like sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere or launching giant reflective parasols into orbit, could have a cooling effect. However, models show that such manipulations come with high-stakes risks where entire regions could face drought, and if SRM was started and then abandoned, global temperatures could rise very rapidly.
Carbon Capture and Storage is climate geoengineering technology where proponents claim that we can continue to burn fossil fuels if we just suck the carbon out of the air before it leaves the smokestack. CCS is extremely expensive and it’s not clear how well it actually works. If CCS becomes implemented at a large scale, where will the billions of tons of carbon be stored? Which communities and ecosystems will be put at risk of being poisoned when lethal concentrated carbon dioxide leaks?
The Samoa USD$52.5million IMPRESS (Improving Performance and Reliability of Renewable Energy Power System in Samoa) Project signed in August 2017 between UNDP and Government of Samoa is one we need to watch carefully.
In my view, it is based on the false claim that burning biomass is “carbon neutral” and capturing and burying carbon from such a “neutral” process will make it carbon “negative”. This faulty logic ignores that CO2 emissions from most recorded bioenergy processes that show emissions are large, even larger than for fossil fuels when the impacts on ecosystems and soils are taken into account. Massive hectares of land would have to be converted to growing trees and crops for bioenergy to implement large-scale projects of this kind.
Challenges on food security and sovereignty are ultimate real impact that we Samoans cannot afford or want to face in the future. It is heartening to see that the IPCC report launched in Seoul last week discourages bio-energy projects.
Geoengineering presents politicians and leaders with vested interests with an option to avoid making difficult choices. Rather than putting an end to combustion of fossil fuels, destructive industrial agriculture, and the pursuit of endless economic growth, they can take the less politically contentious path of offering support for a techno-fix. But it is clear that climate change stems from multiple sources embedded in an economic system based on constant growth and ever-increasing consumption. It cannot be addressed by a “magic bullet” techno-fix. Trillions of dollars in profit and infrastructure investments by oil companies could be devalued if emissions are regulated. Because of the vast profits and investments that could be lost if we truly address the root causes of climate change, geoengineering represents a dangerous moral hazard. If oil companies see geoengineering as a possibility, they can back a techno-fix and present it as a solution instead of powering down their operations.
Let me now conclude by suggesting that solutions to climate change already exist! Experts have supported that real, fundamental, ‘low to no risk’, beneficial, long-term solutions to climate change are already available. They include agroecology, reducing emissions and unsustainable resource consumption, implementing ambitious realistic emissions limits, investing in public transportation and livable and workable communities, stopping deforestation, conserving native forests, among many others.
The problem is not that these solutions don’t work! But that they are incompatible with ever expanding economy based on the exploitation of finite natural resources. Reducing emissions provokes opposition from big oil companies, public transportation is curbed by car manufacturers, large-scale agroecology raises the ire of industrial agribusiness conglomerates.
For real solutions to work, the I.P.C.C. report is finally discovering that the power of small farmers, indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge, local community livelihoods, forest peoples and workers must increase in relation to that of investors and industry.
The main barriers to their implementation are the polluting industries and their investors where the credibility and goodwill of any geoengineering proponent is in examining how much real effort they have put into advocating for real solutions to climate change and to assess where their money is coming from.
Sadly for the world and indeed all of us that reside in small island countries in vast oceans, and at the forefront of climate change disastrous impacts, costly investments in techno-fixes such as geoengineering continue to fail us as they continue to worsen climate and hurts the Paris agreement.