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Geo-Engineering Ban Likely at COP10 this Week

Outcome of talks on access and benefit sharing and conservation plan remains uncertain.

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Three seats out of four were still empty this Friday in the Media Center at the Congress Center in Nagoya, Japan, where delegates from 193 countries are meeting for a UN conference on biodiversity this week and next. Outside, too, protesters in polar bear suits and demonstrates being beat back by police were nowhere to be seen. COP 10 is a far cry from the Copenhagen climate talks that made headlines for weeks straight last winter.

Yet articles on the meeting are slowly starting to appear in mainstream newspapers outside Japan – and their message is decidedly dismal. Nagoya Has to Do Better, declared a New York Times editorial on Tuesday. Putting the matter more bluntly, the online version of German magazine Der Spiegel asked in a Monday headline, Copenhagen Repeat? (Ahmed Djoghlof, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, vehemently objected to the parallel to the disastrous climate talks. “There is no comparison with Copenhagen at all. At all!” he insisted at a press conference Friday.) And England’s Guardian scooped them both with a blog predicting failure way back in August.

These articles are quite right to ask whether Nagoya will end up just one more instance of countries failing to work together to forestall environmental doom – and beyond that, if agreeing on a new set of targets would even be an effective way of halting what scientists call the sixth mass extinction event in earth’s history.

As of Friday, delegates remained locked in difficult negotiations over the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Protocol, which is now the central issue of the conference (see my Monday post below or this article). ABS probably won’t be resolved until next week, when environment ministers take the place of the bureaucrats here now. And without an ABS protocol, many developing countries say they won’t agree to a Strategic Plan to halt biodiversity loss. The two issues have become fatally entwined in a political bargaining game.

Nevertheless, a number of proposals on the table at COP 10 lie outside the big Strategic Plan-ABS package. Of these, one of the hottest topics has been a proposed ban on geo-engineering.

Playing with Mother Earth

Geo-engineering” refers to the large-scale techno-fixes some hope will help slow global warming. So far, researchers have proposed everything from ocean fertilization (dumping iron or nitrogen into the sea to stimulate plankton growth, which would suck carbon from the atmosphere) and cloud whitening (spraying seawater into the atmosphere to make clouds whiter, so they reflect more sunlight out into space) to glacier blankets (swaddling the North Pole in material that would block the sun’s rays and prevent melting). Scientists worry these massive schemes could have equally massive impacts on biodiversity.

“For the climate to take notice, it has to be large scale. Even things that may not be harmful on a small scale [pose threats],” said Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group, a civil society group at COP 10 that has strongly opposed geo-engineering. For instance: Will artificial trees that suck up CO2 and bury it underground elbow out real forests? If we spout sulfate into the stratosphere in hopes of reflecting sunlight, what will happen to the ecosystems down below when those particles eventually return to earth? Will man-made clouds over the Arctic disrupt monsoons in Asia and wind patterns in Africa?

A new report from ETC Group characterizes the technology as “a political smokescreen...by wealthy nations to avoid undertaking real domestic emission reductions.” Other observers note that global warming is itself a major threat to biodiversity, and - given the world’s slower-than-sluggish progress on reducing emissions - geo-engineering could be a crucial tool to fight climate change. But Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), says other, safer, options abound.

“We know from invasive species that when we introduce a rogue element it can have dramatic and extraordinarily expensive consequences. We have to be careful not to make the same mistakes on an unprecedented scale through geo-engineering. Mangroves, sea grasses, and salt marshes absorb probably half of all CO2 emissions from the transportation sector. It’s better to invest in these natural systems that have already been proven in the laboratory of life than to put money into geo-engineering,” he said. The IUCN’s Francois Simard agreed. “We are not against the concept, but we don’t know enough. It’s really dangerous to play with nature,” he said.

Agreement Likely

At COP 9, held in 2008 in Bonn, Germany, countries put into place a de-facto moratorium on ocean fertilization. The ban is “de-facto” because the text doesn’t actually use the word “moratorium,” but has in effect kept countries from using the technology. Now, delegates are considering a similar ban for all geo-engineering projects. According to the proposed text, researchers, companies, and governments will have to prove a technology won’t harm biodiversity before deploying it on a large scale (there is a controversial exception for small-scale trials).

“We have very little information right now [on these impacts] so it would actually be quite comprehensive. It takes a precautionary approach,” said the Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat’s Jaime Webbe, who has been in the meetings. She said that regardless of whether countries agree on an Access and Benefit Sharing Protocol or Strategic Plan, they will very likely adopt a de-facto ban on geo-engineering in the coming week.

“Countries have very different positions on the technology overall, but this text focuses just on biodiversity impacts. We’re almost all on the same page on this decision,” said Webbe on Friday.

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Winnie Bird
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist and translator focusing on the environment and architecture. From 2005 to 2014 she lived in rural Japan, where she covered the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster for publications including the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Yale Environment 360. When she’s not writing she can usually be found in her vegetable garden. She currently lives in the California Bay Area.

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