Both countries are looking for ways to reduce their carbon emissions and can work together to create a mechanism for conducting research and development in geoengineering.
The United Nations Climate Change Conferences, also known as the COP Summits, are held every year. They bring together diverse states from all over the world to tackle the ongoing climate change challenges and potential impacts. Each state has its own timeline for reducing carbon emissions. This raises the question of whether it is too little too late for the planet. Climate finance was also a topic that emerged from the climate change summits. Developing economies insist on the need for additional funding and time to address the climate crisis.
This is why India, China, and other countries that have traditionally been at opposite ends of most issues are now on the same page when it comes to the climate crisis. Both countries are among the top three largest net carbon-emitting nations in the world and share a common view on climate change. The issue of the duration required to bring down the emissions and meet the global 1.5°C temperature threshold has been raised in both India and China. Alternative solutions are being suggested to speeden the process of reducing carbon emission. Geoengineering is here to help.
What is it and why it matters
In layman’s terms, geoengineering refers to the human involvement made in the Earth’s natural processes to counteract the effects of climate change. It involves large-scale interventions of the planet’s functioning by human actions in order to mitigate the extent of the crisis. The main principle used in the process is reducing the CO₂ content in the atmosphere through human intervention. This would allow the atmosphere to trap less heat, thereby slowing down global warming. It is considered both as an alternative to cutting carbon emissions and as a field of ‘scientific taboo’ due to its research infancy and any probable implications on the environment itself.
Geoengineering is primarily concerned with solar radiation management. This involves reflecting a fraction the incoming sunlight to cool the planet. This field has seen many attempts in the past. In 1965, president Lyndon Johnson’s scientific advisory committee suggested sprinkling reflective particles across the oceans to reduce the absorption of sunlight. Another process is through ‘stratospheric injection’ which involves spraying reflective aerosols into the stratosphere. Russian scientists have also attempted to do this in their SPICE Project. Scientists ended up pumping particles through high-altitude balloons that would scatter them once they reached a certain height in the atmosphere.
However, the majority of scientists were against these experiments. There were concerns that altering natural processes could lead to changes in precipitation patterns or reduce crop growth in certain regions. Another possibility was that the ozone layer might be further damaged. This type of blowback and the associated risk factor in the field could have other side effects and unintended consequences. There is no framework in place to regulate the use of solar engineering methods. Someone must step in to ensure responsible development of this field.
Development vs deployment?
India and China are currently faced with difficult decisions when it comes time to formulate climate-related policy. Both countries have large populations and huge carbon emissions. Geoengineering is an effective approach to building cost-effective models that address the effects climate change. This concept has been supported by natural phenomena and their resulting effects.
The eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 led to the release of over 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide (SO₂) gas into the atmosphere. The gas acted to reflect sunlight. According to climate scientists, this event caused a drop in global temperature of about 0.5C over the following two years. This shows the potential of this technology to be a fast-track solution for the climate crisis.
Recent calls have been made to stop all research on solar radiation management. The ‘International Solar Geo Non-Use Agreement’ was proposed by over 60 scholars (mostly from the West) arguing for a moratorium on research in the field. They claimed that the idea was still theoretical and that large amounts of sunlight could damage existing ecosystems and human settlements. This might be true, but it raises the question of whether primary research in this field should be prohibited.
India and China could be driving forward the conversation about credible research in geoengineering. Both countries have been leaders in developing world climate negotiations and can work together to develop a solid governance framework for regulating research and technology in the field. These techniques can be used to help developing countries meet their climate goals, if this is indeed a fast-track approach to tackling climate change.
While ethical considerations need to be taken into consideration, the countries can come up with a holistic model (that also considers possible negative consequences of geoengineering methods) that will allow for solar radiation management to be a possible climate policy option. National agencies can also be established to fund research in solar geotech and keep track on the results. Both countries must make it a priority to encourage development in this field.
The historical criticisms of the field and the concept of unanticipated human consequences of human actions mean that the framework must be robust enough for all the pitfalls. Both nations-states should make it a priority to promote responsible use of these techniques. Every governing mechanism for geoengineering methods and techniques should include a provision to prevent the degrading of the environment from human intervention. After extensive research has been done and the potential impacts of these geoengineering technologies have been identified, there must be a mechanism for deploying these technologies. Both India and China should advocate for a better research environment in geoengineering. This could change the way that states approach climate change and meet their climate goals.
Already, the concept of geoengineering or solar radiation management has been much debated. However, responsible development of the field cannot be stopped at this time without considering the potential consequences. The climate crisis has already been exacerbated. Any solution must be thoroughly explored before dismissing them. This is where India and China can play a key role. Both countries are looking for ways to reduce their carbon emissions and can work together to create a mechanism to conduct research in the field of geoengineering. This initiative will have benefits for both the developing world and humanity as a whole.
The writer is a Research analyst at The Takshashila Institution. These views are solely my own.