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UN environment chief warns on lack of climate engineering controls

The UN’s top environmental agency chief has warned that a rush into experimental techniques to cool the atmosphere by partially blocking the sun risked harming wildlife, oceans, the ozone layer and crops, after a failure by governments to agree on how to control geoengineering.

“To look at it purely as a risk-risk within climate, what happens if we do not decarbonise versus what happens if we deploy [climate engineering] . . . is a false narrative for the whole of the global environment,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN environment programme, told the Financial Times.

Nations failed to back a proposal by Switzerland and Monaco for a scientific research group to examine technology to block the sun’s rays, at a UN assembly in Nairobi last week.

The resolution was withdrawn after opposition from a group of African countries which fear it could legitimise methods that are experimental. Countries including Kenya argued any agreement should include a reference to calls for a pact not to use the technologies under examination, according to an amended draft seen by the FT.

Environmental groups and some countries are strongly opposed to an idea being piloted in the US of injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to create mists that deflect solar radiation.

They also raise wider concerns about the potential unintended consequences of any attempts to change weather patterns artificially.

“It is known that it could likely impact biodiversity,” Anderson said. “It is known that it could likely impact our oceans. It is known that it could likely impact our ozone layer.”

Despite these fears, Anderson supported Switzerland’s proposal in the hope it would lead to more formal discussions of the environmental risks posed by so-called geoengineering, she said.

A recent UNEP report acknowledged the concerns about so-called solar radiation management but described it as “the only known approach that could be used to cool the Earth within a few years”.

The UN had too often been brought in “when technologies have already done damage”, Anderson had said in closing remarks at the UN’s environment assembly in Nairobi.

She cited cautionary examples including the partial destruction of the ozone layer by man-made chemicals, which were only addressed in the Montreal Protocol in 1987 after being widely used in the 1970s, and the harmful effects on human health of lead in petrol, which was not phased out globally until 2021.

A previous Swiss-led resolution on assessing geoengineering technologies also failed to receive backing at a previous UNEP assembly in 2019.

“We’re talking about planetary scale intergenerational pollution to fight planetary scale intergenerational pollution,” said Mary Church, geoengineering campaign manager at the Centre for International Environmental Law.

“It doesn’t address climate change at its root cause and does nothing to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

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