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Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions

Pascal Blickle


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Geoengineering is the only known way that we could hope to lower the earth’s temperature within years or even decades without crippling the economy. There may come a day when we don’t have a choice. Best to prepare for that day now. (Gates 2021, 177)

Policymakers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilisation at a sustainable destination. In fact, these are no more than fairy tales. (Dyke, Watson, and Knorr 2021)

1These two quotes from recent publications by philanthropist Bill Gates and a group of prominent climate scientists, respectively, reveal diametrically opposed viewpoints on the place of large-scale climate intervention technologies, which might be deployed in the more or less distant future to avoid a climate catastrophe. Bill Gates propagates preparing for a situation where climate change reaches a level at which mitigation and adaptation efforts do not suffice anymore by developing such technologies. The second view criticises the promise of such technologies and the concept of “net zero” that facilitates it, as this promise “helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now” (Dyke, Watson, and Knorr 2021). These recent publications show that large-scale technologies as a means to control climate change are not only present in science fiction novels but are seriously discussed as potential elements of climate policies.

2The present paper will engage with the debates surrounding such technologies by examining the rules of international law applicable to three specific technologies that are proposed as emergency solutions to avoid catastrophic consequences from climate change. By studying stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), ocean fertilisation, and artificial islands, I will attempt to offer insights into the ways in which international law shapes the debates on these technologies. Notably, I will ask whether and how the law prevents or facilitates their development and use. The precautionary principle and its application to these new technologies will be one of the central elements of this analysis. The aim of this paper is to reach conclusions that apply to a broader range of emergency climate technologies – and that may even potentially be helpful for understanding the dynamics behind other technological policy proposals.

3I will argue that, while international law currently does not provide any binding regime that is specifically applicable to such technologies, the law has a clear precautionary stance against these risky activities. However, this precautionary stance is at risk of being diluted by political discussions and attempts at adopting more permissive regulation. If the precautionary stance is diluted, the chances increase that these technologies are seen as serious policy options and distract from mitigation and adaptation. Delaying mitigation and adaptation might, in turn, make future reliance on emergency technologies more probable.

4In Chapter 1, I will introduce theoretical views from the literature on technologies as policy options and on climate technologies more specifically. Moreover, I will introduce two recurrent and fundamentally opposing framings of climate emergency technologies. The first framing shows these technologies as an inevitable tool for preparing for emergencies, the second as a distraction from effective climate action. Finally, Chapter 1 will also outline the role that the precautionary principle might have in regulating these technologies.

5Chapter 2 will be devoted to the three case studies. After a brief introduction of stratospheric aerosol injection, ocean fertilisation, and artificial islands, the rules of international law applicable to these technologies will be surveyed. In particular, I will highlight the different roles that international law can play in relation to these technologies.

6In Chapter 3, I will discuss the findings from the case studies in light of the theoretical views from the literature. Specifically, I will outline what the case studies tell us about international law’s treatment of technology as policy solutions and its position on emergency measures. Moreover, I will argue that international law provides insufficient safeguards against emergency technologies distracting from timely climate action, and that the so-called precautionary dilemma might be more distracting than helpful as a lens to evaluate these technologies.


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


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