Geoengineering as a Response to Climate Change The London Convention and London Protocol

In its September 2009 study, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty offsite link (2009 Study), the Royal Society of London, the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences, noted that the impacts and costs of climate change will be “large, serious, and unevenly spread.”   2009 Study at p. ix.  These impacts may be reduced to some extent by adaptation and they may be moderated by mitigation, especially by efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG).  The primary GHG emitted through human activities is carbon dioxide (CO2).  However, global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions have largely been unsuccessful and there is little confidence that the necessary reductions will be achieved on a scale and within a time frame that can to avoid serious consequences to the Earth, its ecosystems and its populations.  For that reason, human manipulation of the climate is being discussed and debated by the scientific community as a possible recourse. 2009 Study at p. 1.  These interventions generally fall into two categories: (a) Carbon dioxide removal offsite link (CDR) techniques which address the root cause of climate change by permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and (b) Solar radiation management offsite link (SRM) techniques which attempt to offset the effects of increased GHG concentrations by causing the earth to absorb less solar radiation.   Such measures are often described as “geoengineering,” offsite link which the Royal Society has defined as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.”  2009 Study at p. ix.

Because any effort to geoengineer the climate will be attended with risks, a clear set of guideposts is essential.  Shortly after publication of the Royal Society study, a group of academics and researchers proposed a core set of high-level principles called the Oxford Principles offsite link which sought to embody significant public concerns about the research, development and possible deployment of geoengineering technologies.  These five foundational principles draw attention to the need to create adequate governance arrangements for such research and development.

Among the international bodies which may be positioned to debate and discuss geoengineering governance arrangements, the London Convention and London Protocol offsite link (LC/LP) have taken initial steps in that direction by considering mechanisms for the regulation of a category of geoengineering which they define as marine geoengineering offsite link.  The LC/LP are the principal global regimes for the protection of the marine environment from pollution caused by ocean dumping or by the deliberate disposal into the sea of waste or other matter.  The LP, which will ultimately replace the LC, bans all ocean dumping except for a limited number of materials listed in an annex to the Protocol.  However, “dumping” is defined to exclude the ”placement” of materials in the marine environment for purposes other than disposal.

In 2007, the Parties to the LC/LP expressed concern about efforts to experiment with or demonstrate ocean fertilization offsite link, which involves the addition of nutrients to nutrient-depleted areas of the open ocean for the purpose of increasing phytoplankton production which, in turn, may absorb atmospheric CO2.  In 2008, the Parties adopted Resolution LC-LP.1 on the Regulation of Ocean Fertilization offsite link, deciding that ocean fertilization activities, other than for purposes of legitimate scientific research, should be considered contrary to the aims of the LC and LP.  The resolution called for the development of an ocean fertilization assessment framework that can be used by the Parties to assess scientific research proposals on a case-by-case basis.  That Assessment Framework offsite link was adopted in 2010 in Resolution LC-LP.2. offsite link

On October 18, 2013, the Contracting Parties to the London Protocol unanimously adopted an amendment offsite link to the LP which is intended to provide for the regulation of, not only ocean fertilization activities that have been assessed as constituting legitimate scientific research, but of other marine geoengineering activities as well.  Resolution LP.4(8).  These activities might include such things as enhancing ocean alkalinity, mineralization of rocks in the seabed, or deposition of crop wastes on the deep seabed.  Eligible activities are to be listed in a new Annex 4 to the Protocol.  That Annex currently lists only ocean fertilization.  The Resolution also provided a new generic “Assessment Framework for Matter that May Be Considered for Placement Under Annex 4.”  That Assessment Framework, which is reflected in Annex 5 to the LP, must be used by Parties before issuing permits for activities listed in Annex 4, and may become the basis for developing more specific assessment frameworks for particular placement activities. 

“Marine geoengineering” is defined offsite link under the LP as “a deliberate intervention in the marine environment to manipulate natural processes, including to counteract anthropogenic climate change and/or its impacts, and that has the potential to result in deleterious effects, especially where those effects may be widespread, long-lasting or severe.”  The definition is necessarily broad in order to provide the flexibility to respond to new activities and techniques in the future, and may potentially include activities not related to climate change.  It is not unlimited, however.  The activity must be deliberate, it must be designed to manipulate natural processes to achieve a desired outcome, and it must have the potential to cause pollution.  Moreover, the amendment is not intended to apply to other established uses of the sea which may affect the marine environment such as the harvesting of marine organisms, the placement of artificial reefs, oil spill response, or the production of energy from wind, waves, currents, or ocean thermal energy conversion.

At their November 2014 meeting, the Parties to the LP took further steps toward establishing a mechanism for regulating marine geoengineering by adopting two guidance documents offsite link.  The first provided a description of arrangements for establishment of a roster of independent international experts who are qualified to advise the Parties on the assessment of marine geoengineering activities listed in Annex 4.  The roster, at the outset, will be limited to experts on ocean fertilization. The second guidance document is intended to provide Parties with a recommended, non-binding procedure for considering whether and, if so how, new marine geoengineering activities of potential concern should be addressed.  It recommends steps that can be followed to determine the potential for a proposed activity to cause marine pollution and what further action, if any, should be considered, and includes advice on the information that is likely to be needed and the process for assembling and reviewing such evidence.  This guidance is intended to apply to both the LC and LP Parties.

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.