Solar Geoengineering Research and the Technologies of Common Concern


  Solar Geoengineering Research and the Technologies of Common Concern

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Solar geoengineering as a potential response to climate change is receiving increasing scientific and policy attention. Solar geoengineering technologies propose to cool the Earth’s temperature by reducing the amount of radiative energy absorbed by the Earth through methods that scatter or reflect sunlight back to space.

The conduct of solar geoengineering research is highly controversial due to the potentially severe and unevenly distributed environmental risks associated with solar geoengineering technologies as they scale-up. In addition, there are social and ethical concerns associated with solar geoengineering research, such as the potential moral hazard it presents and the long term governability of a technology that seeks to influence climatic conditions on a global scale, that are largely decoupled from the physical impacts of research activities. Because of these concerns, there is high demand for international governance of solar geoengineering research, but the physical characteristics of small scale research are unlikely to attract existing international legal rules since at early stages the physical risks of research are not likely to be transboundary nor will they exceed the threshold of a “likelihood of significant harm”. The international regulation of solar geoengineering is further complicated by the uncertain legal status of activities occurring in the atmosphere. One potential legal avenue is the concept of “common concern of humankind”, a class of international legal problems, such as climate change, biodiversity and ozone depletion, that raise global concern, but defy traditional understandings of transboundary harm. The legal content of common concern has recently been questioned (by the ILC, in connection with atmospheric protection), and, to date has not been applied to technologies. However, solar geoengineering raises a set of concerns that might best be governed with reference to this concept. This paper explores the legal possibilities and implications of identifying technologies of common concern, using solar geoengineering, (which might be considered the ‘easy case’), as an example. Particular attention is paid to whether questions of common concern can be identified through objective criteria, and the potential normative content of common concern, as a legal category. In this latter regard, it is argued that the duty to cooperate, which triggers a set of flexible procedural obligations has strong potential to push states towards transparent and justificatory governance arrangements for emerging technologies.


  • Associate Professor Neil Craik
    Associate Professor Neil Craik, University of Waterloo