05 April 2010

The "Oxford Principles" for Geoengineering Regulation

The Economist concludes that the recent effort to develop guidelines for regulating geoengineering of the climate -- Asilomar 2.0 -- did not make much progress in this direction, but that it did largely endorse a set of principles put forward n the UK.

Here is a description of the meeting from the print story:

IN 1975 scientists expert in a new and potentially world-changing technology, genetic engineering, gathered at Asilomar, on the Monterey peninsula in California, to ponder the ethics and safety of the course they were embarking on. The year before, they had imposed on themselves a voluntary moratorium on experiments which involved the transfer of genes from one species to another, amid concerns about the risk to human health and to the environment which such “transgenic” creations might pose. That decision gave the wider world confidence that the emerging field of biotechnology was taking its responsibilities seriously, which meant that the Asilomar conference was able to help shape a safety regime that allowed the moratorium to be lifted. That, in turn, paved the way for the subsequent boom in molecular biology and biotechnology.

Another bunch of researchers, accompanied by policy experts, social scientists and journalists, gathered in Asilomar between March 22nd and 26th, hoped for a similar outcome to their deliberations. This time the topic under discussion was not genetic engineering but geoengineering—deliberately rather than accidentally changing the world’s environment.

Geoengineering is an umbrella term for large-scale actions intended to combat the climate-changing effects of greenhouse-gas emissions without actually curbing those emissions. Like genetic engineering was in the 1970s, the very idea of geoengineering is controversial. Most of those who fear climate change would prefer to stop it by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Geoengineers argue that this may prove insufficient and that ways of tinkering directly with the atmosphere and the oceans need to be studied. Some would like to carry out preliminary experiments, and wish to do so in a clear regulatory framework so that they know what is allowed and what is not.

How did the meeting turn out? The conclusion of the Economist jibes with what I've heard from many colleagues who attended, including three colleagues at CU, in short, despite a few bumps in the road and relatively modest conclusions, the meeting advanced the discussion of regulation:

In retrospect, the Asilomar meeting may come to be seen as a step towards that respectable system, but probably only a small one. The participants did not produce clear recommendations, but they generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.

The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.

What are these "Oxford Principles"? You can find them online here in PDF and below:
The Oxford Principles

Principle 1
: Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good.

While the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of a geoengineering technique should not be prohibited, and may indeed be encouraged to ensure that deployment of a suitable technique can be effected in a timely and efficient manner, regulation of such techniques should be undertaken in the public interest by the appropriate bodies at the state and/or international levels.

Principle 2: Public participation in geoengineering decision-making

Wherever possible, those conducting geoengineering research should be required to notify, consult, and ideally obtain the prior informed consent of, those affected by the research activities. The identity of affected parties will be dependent on the specific technique which is being researched - for example, a technique which captures carbon dioxide from the air and geologically sequesters it within the territory of a single state will likely require consultation and agreement only at the national or local level, while a technique which involves changing the albedo of the planet by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere will likely require global agreement.

Principle 3: Disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results

There should be complete disclosure of research plans and open publication of results in order to facilitate better understanding of the risks and to reassure the public as to the integrity of the process. It is essential that the results of all research, including negative results, be made publicly available.

Principle 4: Independent assessment of impacts

An assessment of the impacts of geoengineering research should be conducted by a body independent of those undertaking the research; where techniques are likely to have transboundary impact, such assessment should be carried out through the appropriate regional and/or international bodies. Assessments should address both the environmental and socio-economic impacts of research, including mitigating the risks of lock-in to particular technologies or vested interests.

Principle 5: Governance before deployment

Any decisions with respect to deployment should only be taken with robust governance structures already in place, using existing rules and institutions wherever possible.
In my forthcoming book, The Climate Fix, I explain why most forms of geoengineering should never be deployed. That discussion will have to await another day.