Climate Engineering and the Sustainable Development Goals: The Tangled Web of the Anthropocene

A report released by C2G2 at the end of May is an interesting exercise in bringing two important global challenges into conversation.  Carbon Removal and Solar Geoengineering: Potential Implications for Delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals is a noble effort to tie what policy makers should do about climate change with what they should do about poverty and global development.

Carbon removal and solar geoengineering are the two main proposals for fighting back against climate change by deliberately engineering a cooler climate. In the former, chemical or biological techniques are deployed to draw carbon out of the atmosphere at a large enough scale to reverse the harmful trends of rising carbon concentrations. In the latter, technologies would reflect back a portion of incoming solar radiation in order to artificially reduce the heat accumulating in atmospheric and terrestrial systems. (This is proposed as a stop-gap measure while something is done about greenhouse gas emissions). Solar geoengineering could be accomplished by putting reflective particles into the stratosphere, by brightening marine clouds, or by lightening the color of the ocean, the urban environment, or agricultural lands.

CE surveyThe C2G2 report considers a number of different forms of these technologies for their potential to impact the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  These goals are the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals, put in place in 2000 to provide an aspirational target for improving the condition of many of the world’s poorest populations.

To many people’s pleasure and surprise, considerable progress was made on many of these metrics by the end of the 15 year challenge. In anticipation of their sunset in 2015, the Millennium Development Goals were renamed, expanded, and refined at the 2012 Rio Summit in order to provide an ongoing motivation to build on the earlier success.

The goals set out a broad range of socially and environmentally desirable targets. These include creating gender equality, ending poverty, making available affordable clean energy, providing universal access to clean water and sanitation, and building sustainable cities and communities.

The main motivation for putting climate policy and development policy into the same conversation is that they are quite clearly linked.  Climate change provides an ongoing and escalating threat to the attainment of many of the SDGs.

Climate impacts are likely to create extraordinary economic burdens for some of those least able to bear them, potentially exacerbating the poverty that the SDGs are seeking to eradicate. Climate impacts may reduce access to water in certain areas while creating a dangerous excess of water in others (thanks to the increasing severity of storms and rain events). They might lead to negative health impacts by creating new disease vectors as insect populations shift due to changing environmental conditions. They might also result in increasing hunger as traditional crops become increasingly unsuitable for certain warming regions.

The possibility of reducing these climate impacts through climate engineering provides one of the main motivations for contemplating what would otherwise be considered an outlandish technical fix. Engineering a cooler climate might be assumed to support the highly desirable development goals articulated in the SDGs.

At the same time as potentially providing great benefits, some climate engineering strategies have the potential to exacerbate the challenges the development goals are designed to address. For example, the report points out that bioenergy with carbon capture and storage might add to hunger by displacing food crops in favor of energy crops in some regions. The same land use changes might also create additional threats to biodiversity. The large-scale mining of minerals for enhanced weathering of rocks creates the possibility of new threats to human health among affected populations. The injection of stratospheric aerosols to reduce temperatures could lead to undesirable health impacts through the destruction of the ozone layer. It could also lead to reduced energy security due to impacts on the efficiency of photovoltaic panels. Climate engineering and development will not always line up to create win-win relationships.

In addition to identifying areas of known potential conflict between climate engineering proposals and SDG’s, the report also identifies areas in which there remain major gaps in current understanding.  These include knowledge about how different climate engineering techniques might contribute to inequality and, conversely, how they might stimulate innovation that serves the public interest. The report points out that not enough is known about how the promise of climate engineering might dampen enthusiasm for greenhouse gas reductions or about how the technologies proposed might impact energy security.

By waving some important red flags and by identifying areas in which much more needs to be known, the report delivers the valuable service of connecting one important ethical discussion in the Anthropocene (climate ethics) with another (development ethics). As in many policy arenas, the full consequences of one action path on other relevant goals needs to be carefully considered prior to deciding how to proceed.

Through making this first connection the report provides a second, more sobering service. It demonstrates how the type of global management on offer through technologies of the Anthropocene ratchets up the ethical complexity of policy-making by several degrees.

Hannes Flo

It is not just that any future climate management has ethical complexities of its own (e.g. Who sets the thermostat? Who governs the endeavor? How does one know when to stop?). These dimensions inevitably intersect with a number of other dimensions in development ethics (e.g. Does this climate policy have the potential to exacerbate hunger? Might it decrease biodiversity? Does it create a set of new infrastructure demands that compete with other vital infrastructure needs?). Even if you can find answers to the questions in the first domain, you need to enter a second domain and secure a second set of answers.

In one of its primary incarnations, the Anthropocene is the recognition that human impacts are global in scale and temporally enduring. Fixing impacts of this kind demands strategies of matching scope.

But in another incarnation, the Anthropocene points to the growing reality that in trying to address one problem planetary managers might inevitably create another. Global scale earth systems management is complex in a way that few other challenges can match. Not only are today’s environmental challenges bigger in scale than any that have come before. They are also, by their nature, inevitably entangled with other challenges.

The C2G2 report brings home the fact that the problems of the Anthropocene demand a whole different order of reflection. It suggests a new way to understand John Muir’s famous dictum that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

We had better hope that our species is up to this monumental new task.


Climate engineering graphic from 2012 Encyclopedia Britannica
Crop image by Hannes Flo


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