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Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions

Pascal Blickle

Chapter 1: Climate Emergency, Technology, and International Law

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1The current scale of mitigation efforts contained in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement “falls far short” of achieving the Paris Agreement’s temperature targets (Nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement 2021, para. 136). However, state parties to the Paris Agreement are obliged to “pursu[e] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C” (art. 2(1)(a)). This discrepancy between the international community’s objective and its current trajectory will likely increase pressure on policymakers to consider the deployment of large-scale technologies that can contribute to addressing climate change (Craik and Burns 2016, 5-6). For example, according to the calculations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all greenhouse gas emissions pathways limiting temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels rely on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies (IPCC 2018, 17). The Swiss long-term climate strategy of 2021 also relies on such negative emissions technologies to compensate for emissions that are not eliminated until 2050 (Federal Council 2021, 47-51). In the near future, solar radiation management (SRM) technologies might also be proposed as a serious policy option if emissions reductions and CDR do not suffice to control global warming (McLaren and Markusson 2020, 395). Similarly, debates on adaptation to climate change also increasingly feature large-scale technological solutions, e.g. technologies to modify storm and rain patterns or genetically modified organisms to make agricultural production more resistant to changing climates (Hällström 2008, 375). Technologies proposed for adaptation also include artificial islands or similar constructions that allow populations to replace territory lost to sea-level rise (Oral 2019, 430).

2This chapter will first discuss different definitions of technology and climate technologies and consider the value and risks of using technologies as policy solutions in a general manner. Then, it will present two common and opposing views on technologies and climate emergencies. The first view presents certain types of technology as inevitable tools to avoid a climate catastrophe. The second view deems the promise of such emergency technologies a distraction from serious mitigation efforts. Together with these two perspectives, different views on what constitutes an emergency and on research are introduced. Finally, the clash between risks associated with these technologies and risks linked to climate change, and the potential role of the precautionary principle in addressing this dilemma, will be discussed.

1. Technologies as Policy Solutions and the Dangers of Cheap Techno-Fixes

3Dusek defines technology as “the application of scientific or other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organisations, productive skills, living things, and machines” (Dusek 2006, 35). His definition thus includes not only machines or tools but also procedures based on scientific knowledge that do not rely on sophisticated machinery. The broadness of this definition is significant for this paper’s case studies, as some do not rely on any new, sophisticated machinery but use relatively simple equipment for new types of interventions in the environment. For instance, one of the proponents of a particular ocean fertilisation project described it with the words “we took a bag of iron, and we slapped it over one square kilometre [of the ocean]” (Biello 2012). No special machinery, only an ordinary ship, was needed to do this. Similarly, stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) relies on pumping sulphate into the atmosphere to reflect incoming sunlight. A hose could be used to spray chemicals into the atmosphere, which is not a significant innovation from a technical perspective (Keith 2013, 6-7). Instead, what defines these procedures and makes them new and remarkable as technologies is how they are used to manipulate the earth’s oceans and atmosphere – and ultimately its climate. Finally, Dusek’s definition also acknowledges that technology is deeply entrenched in today’s societies by referring to people and organisations.

4The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement include numerous references to technology, notably to technology transfer. However, these treaties do not define the term. The UNFCCC’s preamble merely indicates potential aims of technology in highlighting the usefulness of technologies “for achieving greater energy efficiency and for controlling greenhouse gas emissions in general” (preamble recital 22). Similarly, the Paris Agreement underlines the importance of technology “to improve resilience to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (art. 10(1)). With its reference to improving resilience, the Paris Agreement includes adaptation technologies in its scope, while the UNFCCC only contemplates technologies for mitigation. Technologies used in the climate change context can be labelled “climate technologies”. On its website, the UNFCCC secretariat defines climate technologies as “[t]echnologies that we use to address climate change” (UNFCCC, n.d.). It goes on to specify that this includes technologies for mitigation and adaptation. It lists renewable energy as an example of the former and drought-resistant crops, early warning systems, and sea walls as examples of the latter. Finally, it mentions “‘soft’ climate technologies, such as energy-efficient practices or training for using equipment” (UNFCCC, n.d.).

5In its 2000 special report on technology transfer, the IPCC adopts an expansive definition of technology, defining technology transfer as “the flows of know-how, experience and equipment for mitigating and adapting to climate change” (IPCC 2000, 3). According to this IPCC definition, climate technologies can be part of mitigation or adaptation. The IPCC defines mitigation as “the process of reducing emissions or enhancing sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs), so as to limit future climate change” (IPCC 2014, 76). Adaptation is understood as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to either lessen or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2014, 76). However, certain technologies can be argued to go beyond this conventional dichotomy of mitigation and adaptation (Bodle 2013, 468-469; Redgwell 2011, 179). This is the case of so-called geoengineering technologies, which have been described as “a third class of potential responses to the climate issue” (Dessler and Parson 2010, 155. See also Keith 2000, 248-249). SRM technologies such as SAI, i.e. technologies reducing incoming sunlight by increasing the earth’s or the atmosphere’s reflectiveness, are particularly hard to classify as adaptation or mitigation. These technologies arguably fall neither under mitigation, as they do not address greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, nor under adaptation, as their aim is not to adapt to the effects of climate change, but to stop climate change itself (Craik and Burns 2020, 8-9; IPCC 2012, 2-3).

6Emergency technologies to tackle climate change and its effects are not the first technologies to be proposed as policy solutions. Other technologies, including the use of genetically modified organisms to address world hunger or to adapt agriculture to climate change, have been compared to the present emergency solutions (Hällström 2008, 378-379). Similarly, solutions relying on the internet or artificial intelligence are increasingly prominent in proposals to solve various societal problems (Carr 2013). Such policies are often dubbed technological fixes or techno-fixes. Such techno-fixes are regularly criticised for attempting to solve complex social and economic problems through technological means without addressing the root causes (Scott 2012, 161). In particular, large-scale climate technologies are criticised for embracing the same growth-focused ideology that created climate change in the first place instead of questioning current economic development and consumption models (Hällström 2008, 380). Modern societies’ strong belief in techno-fixes – the idea that there is a technological solution to (almost) every problem – has been criticised as a “fetish of technology”, “techno-wizardry”, or “technocratic solutionism” (Carr 2013, 45; Harvey 2003, 3; Klein 2015, 255). More fundamentally, critics of techno-fixes also criticise the underlying “arrogance” of human attempts to dominate and control nature (Jamieson 1996, 331-332).

7Proponents of technology-based policies counter this criticism by highlighting the advantages of technological fixes, including the fact that reframing social problems as technological problems makes them easier, cheaper, and faster to solve (Scott 2012, 159). Moreover, they argue that technological solutions can be used to “buy time” to address more complicated underlying issues (Scott 2012, 163). This technology-friendly view is usually linked to some degree of belief in technological progressivism, the conviction that science and technology are the best means to improve human life and society (Scott 2019, 16). In the field of climate change, such technology-based thinking is particularly widespread, as climate policies are typically built on an understanding of the problem that focuses on the physical effects of greenhouse gas emissions and considers their reduction a primarily technical question (Saab 2019, 61-63). There is a wide variety of roles that technologies can play in such policies. For instance, low-emissions technology may reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing older technology, digital technology may make some travel redundant, other technologies may be used to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, or they may help farmers adapt their food production to climate change.

8In the history of climate change policy, a series of technologies have promised to contribute to solving climate change without significantly altering current economic patterns (McLaren and Markusson 2020; Dyke, Watson, and Knorr 2021). By promising to make costly mitigation efforts increasingly superfluous, these technologies, including nuclear power and negative emissions technologies, have shaped the models and targets on which climate change law is built – without ever delivering on their promises (McLaren and Markusson 2020, 395-396). Through their promises, however, these technologies might have increased the probability of ultimately needing to resort to them, as their inclusion in climate models and targets has arguably delayed mitigation (McLaren and Markusson 2020, 395).

2. Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions

9The technologies this paper will concentrate on are technologies that are proposed as emergency solutions to climate change. These technologies are all destined for large-scale application and thus present significant risks of large-scale environmental harm. In fact, to function as genuine emergency solutions, they have to be able to act quickly and at a scale significant enough to influence global climate systems or have large-scale impacts on systems that are relevant for adaptation to climate change. This global scope, in turn, creates the risk for harm on a global scale (Bodansky 1996, 309; Caldeira and Keith 2010, 57). The salience of potential risks is exacerbated by the fact that, due to their relatively low costs, many of these technologies, while having global impacts, can be launched unilaterally by a state or a group of states – or even by corporations or wealthy individuals (Bodansky 2013, 540-541, 548-549; Victor et al. 2009, 71-72). Unilateral deployment might be particularly attractive for authoritarian regimes, as it promises a fast and cheap solution whose success can easily be presented as the regime’s heroic accomplishment (Michaelowa 2021). Furthermore, as most emergency technologies have not yet been researched thoroughly, let alone been deployed, and due to the complexities of the climate system, the assessment of their risks is fraught with many uncertainties (Florin et al. 2020, 12). Therefore, even proponents of these technologies usually argue that they should only be used as a last resort (Nerlich and Jaspal 2012, 142).

10In order to describe the events to which these technologies might respond, terms like climate emergency, climate catastrophe, or variations of these terms are often employed (Horton 2015; Hulme 2008; Markusson et al. 2014; Nerlich and Jaspal 2012). This implies that using such technologies are justified when some type of grave emergency caused by climate change occurs and other means of coping with it are insufficient. Different metaphors are used to justify the use of large-scale technologies in such situations. Frequent framings present such technologies as a plan B, a backup plan, the last resort, or an insurance policy (Fragnière and Gardiner 2016, 16-18). While these variants of the emergency framing all present the proposed technologies as an alternative to mitigation, they convey different levels of reliance on the technologies. For instance, framing technologies as a backup plan or a plan of last resort suggests that they are only to be considered when all alternatives fail. However, the plan B framing suggests that the technologies are seen as the best alternative to current policies, while any other alternatives are at best plan C (Fragnière and Gardiner 2016, 16-18). Some proponents of the latter view even present technologies as the only presently available alternative to catastrophic climate change impacts in the future. For them, emergency technologies are plan A, as they consider that mitigation has already failed (Davis 2008, 950-951). At the same time, they often acknowledge the risky nature of their proposal but point to the even greater risks of the feared impacts of climate change (Davis 2008, 950-951).

  • 1 Note that this definition specifically excludes carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels that c (...)

11Many emergency solution technologies are frequently subsumed under the term “geoengineering”. The argument based on a catastrophe or emergency framing has even been styled the “master argument” of public discourse on geoengineering (Nerlich and Jaspal 2012, 141). The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have defined the term geoengineering as encompassing deliberate large-scale solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies (CBD Decision X/33, footnote 3).1 Nevertheless, there is no clear consensus definition of geoengineering. The report from an IPCC expert meeting on the subject notes that the concept of geoengineering has “com[e] to encompass a broad, and ill-defined, variety of concepts for intentionally modifying the Earth’s climate at the large scale” (IPCC 2012, 2). It further noted that “discussions of geoengineering in both academic and public contexts have sometimes convoluted characteristics from different techniques in ways that have unhelpfully confused discussions” (IPCC 2012, 2).

12The lack of a clear definition is also demonstrated by the fact that some experts claim that all forms of controlling climate change, including through behavioural change, can be considered geoengineering (Cairns and Stirling 2014, 33). It has also been argued that the distinction between geoengineering and other climate change responses might lie in the scale of the interventions, not their type (Keith 2000, 247). Others argue that the umbrella term geoengineering is not very useful because the different technologies typically subsumed under it do not have many common features that distinguish them clearly from other climate interventions (Heyward 2013, 26). Finally, geoengineering is sometimes also described as climate engineering, climate intervention or intentional climate change (Bodansky 1996; Fialka 2020; Jamieson 1996). This avoidance of the term “geoengineering” by some of its proponents points to the controversial nature of such technologies (Fialka 2020).

13Given this vagueness of the concept of geoengineering, this paper will not limit its analysis to technologies fitting one or another definition of geoengineering. Instead, it will study a broader range of technologies to demonstrate that a number of issues frequently discussed in the academic literature on geoengineering, and particularly in the literature on the emergency framing of geoengineering, also apply to other technologies if such technologies are framed as emergency solutions. This focus avoids problems caused by the lack of a clear definition of geoengineering. Furthermore, comparing different technologies independently from any definition of geoengineering will allow the analysis to go beyond the constraints that much of the literature puts on itself. An absolute dichotomy between geoengineering and other climate technologies may be counterproductive for discussing technological climate solutions in general (Heyward 2013, 26). Given the frequent focus on geoengineering in the literature, geoengineering literature will nonetheless be used for the analysis, and some of its findings will be applied to the present broader framework.

14A 2006 article by Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work on ozone depletion, is often credited for legitimising the emergency framing of certain large-scale climate interventions (Tuana 2019, 1-3; Preston 2011, 466. See Crutzen 2006). Crutzen’s article on solar radiation management arguably reignited scientific debate and research on such technologies, which had previously been subject to a de facto taboo for being considered too risky and distracting from mitigation (Tuana 2019, 1-3; Hällström 2008, 376; Keith 2013, 91-93). This new framing arguably also had the effect of depoliticising the debate on such controversial technologies. It has been suggested that such depoliticisation is provoked by creating the impression that there is no time for deliberation and due political process (Clark 2013, 2826). Conversely, others have argued that depoliticisation is caused by the fact that the deployment of emergency solutions seems too far away in the future for short-term political discussions to capture it (Clark 2013, 2826). The narrative of depoliticisation is linked to the idea of technocracy, where natural scientists are considered able to take decisions on technologies and their risks without the intervention of political actors (Anshelm and Hansson 2014b, 108; Horton 2015, 148-149). More generally, advocates of emergency technology often present politics as blocking climate change policies, namely mitigation, while emergency technologies represent a way out of this impasse (Anshelm and Hansson 2014b, 110-111; Gardiner 2013, 30).

15If certain technologies are considered justifiable in the event of emergency, defining what constitutes a sufficiently grave situation to justify recourse to such technologies becomes necessary. Determining such a level of graveness is challenging. Unlike climate catastrophes depicted in movies, actual events are unlikely to present an obvious, recognisable emergency moment that removes all doubts about the need to resort to emergency technologies (Bodansky 2013, 549). The UNFCCC does not provide a clear answer either. While it indicates that “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” is to be prevented, it does not indicate what level of danger is to be avoided (art. 2). In short, there is no consensus definition of climate emergency, climate catastrophe, or similar terms. Arguably, determining an objective definition is impossible in the first place, as these concepts are all necessarily socially or culturally constructed (Horton 2015, 148-149; Hulme 2008, 10-11).

16Climate tipping points are often presented as a type of emergency that large-scale technologies might address (Bickel 2013; Horton 2015, 148; Markusson et al. 2014, 282). Tipping points are triggered by a certain level of global warming and would cause significant and irreversible changes in the climate system (Bickel 2013, 152). However, as such tipping points are not well understood, few of them will be predictable in advance (Markusson et al. 2014, 286). This seems to make tipping points bad indicators for the necessity to turn to certain technologies. Alternatively, the failure of mitigation might also be considered a climate emergency justifying technological countermeasures (Markusson et al. 2014, 282). Nevertheless, here again, the question arises as to when mitigation efforts could be considered to have failed. Some might argue that this point has already been reached, as currently planned emissions reductions fall considerably short of what is needed to comply with the Paris Agreement’s temperature targets (Davis 2008, 950-951. See also Nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement 2021, para. 136). Alternatively, one could consider that mitigation has only failed once these temperature targets have been breached or once certain grave meteorological phenomena occur.

17Even if any of these definitions for climate emergencies were to become universally accepted as the trigger point for the deployment of large-scale technologies – which seems quite unrealistic as such –, the question remains as to who would determine that the threshold has been reached (Horton 2015, 148; Hulme 2009, 192). Such determinations might be reached in an international political forum, a scientific body such as the IPCC, or declared by a single state unilaterally. The legal and political context would certainly influence whose determinations states and societies consider legitimate to justify technological emergency interventions.

3. Researching Emergency Solutions: Sensible Precaution or Mere Distraction?

18The most prominent critique of the emergency framing of large-scale climate technologies claims that such emergency technologies and research into them distract from other efforts to combat climate change, notably from mitigation and adaptation. A study on common framings of geoengineering finds the emergency framing and the distraction argument to be the two most prominent and polarised views (Cairns and Stirling 2014, 34). The distraction argument can be presented in two forms. The first describes this distraction as a political strategy, deliberately diverting political will and attention away from mitigation efforts. Thus, emergency technologies are attractive for climate sceptics, as they allow them to argue against timely and robust mitigation measures (Bodansky 2013, 540). Similarly, the technologies provide attractive arguments to carbon-heavy businesses to maintain their current business models (Klein 2015, 281-283). In fact, many proponents of emergency technologies point to the low negative economic impacts and limited costs of such technologies compared to mitigation (Caldeira and Keith 2010, 57; Güssow et al. 2010, 914). Presumably hoping to maintain their business model, certain companies in the fossil fuel sector even finance research into these technologies (Klein 2015, 281-283; Muffett and Felt 2019).

19The second variant of the distraction argument sees the distraction less as a deliberate political project and more as the result of an unintentional shift of policymakers’ attention away from conventional mitigation (Anderson and Peters 2016, 183; Gardiner 2011, 166-168; Shepherd et al. 2009, 37-39). This reasoning is known as the moral hazard argument, which assumes that policymakers, or humanity as a whole, would take greater risks if they felt that technology provided them with insurance against climate change risks (Gardiner 2011, 166-167). In other words, the promise of future “miracle” technologies creates the impression that no mitigation efforts are needed in the short term. It has been argued that the inclusion of negative emissions technologies in climate models has already changed the objectives of climate change law and delayed mitigation action in the past (McLaren and Markusson 2020, 395). For carbon dioxide removal technologies alone, this effect has been estimated to have the potential to reduce mitigation by up to one third (McLaren 2020, 2425).

20Proponents of emergency technologies counter that political inertia is already so low that discussion of and research into these technologies are unlikely to have a considerable deterring effect (Gardiner 2011, 167). It is argued that such technologies address an already existing moral failure that is manifested through the lack of climate change mitigation (Preston 2011, 470). Tech-promoters also argue that, in any case, the stakes are high enough to justify the risk of a moral hazard (Gardiner 2011, 167). One author compares the development of emergency technologies to the use of seatbelts in cars, which are considered beneficial even if the additional technological safeguard might render some drivers more reckless (Caldeira and Keith 2010, 62). It has even been suggested that consideration of such technologies might stimulate increased action on mitigation, as “the very notion that something as drastic as geoengineering may be required dramatically underlines the seriousness of the problem” (Shepherd 2009. See also Shepherd et al. 2009, 43).

21Most emergency technology researchers are careful to underline that these technologies are not stand-alone solutions to climate change and highlight that they should not replace mitigation and adaptation as the core components of climate change policies (Preston 2011, 468-469). If genuine, such commitments to mitigation and adaptation as the centrepieces of climate change policies could diminish the distracting effect of emergency technologies (Preston 2011, 468-469). However, there is a risk that this commitment and general commitments to ethical research standards remain mere lip-service, particularly if they are not built into the design of research programmes (Jamieson 1996, 334). Furthermore, even if researchers’ commitment to not distract from other climate change action is genuine, the actual effects of a moral hazard on policymakers and society are likely to differ from ex-ante statements by scientists (Gardiner 2011, 167).

22Some authors have pointed out that the distraction mechanism might not only influence whether and how we pursue mitigation efforts but also how emergency technologies will be used. For instance, present distraction from mitigation efforts might mean that, if large-scale technologies are used in the future, any such technology would have to be used more intensely and thus potentially with more severe side effects (Lawrence 2006, 247). Moreover, the choice of specific technologies might be influenced by similar distractions. The prospect of even better technology in the future might lead to a preference for cheaper, riskier technologies with short-term effects – potentially only postponing negative impacts of climate change – over more sustainable technologies (Gardiner 2011, 168).

23As most technologies proposed as emergency solutions to climate change are in an early stage of development with significant doubts about their effectiveness and risks, questions do not only arise about their potential deployment but also about research into these technologies. Proponents of such research argue that it is necessary to prepare for future emergencies (Caldeira and Keith 2010, 62; Gates 2021, 177; Güssow et al. 2010, 916; Reynolds and Fleurke 2013). They argue that the absence of research entails the absence of reliable information on which policymakers will be able to assess the benefits and risks of different technologies and their variants (Bodansky 2013, 546; Branson 2014, 185-186). This absence of knowledge might then lead to bad, politicised decisions once the choice becomes imminent (Virgoe 2009, 117). Additionally, research might help predict what side effects have to be expected and determine what monitoring and other measures might be necessary to deal with these undesired effects (Lawrence 2006, 246). In summary, this perspective echoes the view that large-scale climate interventions can be used as an insurance policy or plan B. Like insurance that is bought before damage occurs, researching appropriate technologies is presented as a sensible precaution (Scott 2012, 154).

24Critics of emergency technologies warn of the dangers that not only the deployment of, but also research into such technologies entail. First, many of the risks of environmental harm associated with deploying such technologies are already present at the research stage (Rayfuse 2017, 72). As it is not possible to test such technologies’ potential to alter the global climate in small-scale experiments, large-scale tests might be necessary, making it difficult to draw the line between research and deployment (Bodle 2013, 467-468). If large-scale testing is conducted, the risk of global-scale environmental harm is thus not only present in deployment but also in research (Horton 2015, 150; Tuana 2019, 82-84).

25Second, research into emergency technologies might lead to lock-in or path dependency effects. A lock-in effect occurs when a given technology gains early momentum, caused, for instance, by political decisions, and subsequently suppresses competing alternatives (Arthur 1989). For emergency technologies, such an effect might notably be created by groups of researchers and developers that, as research progresses, acquire financial and reputational interests in the use of their technologies (Burger and Gundlach 2018, 279-280; Jamieson 1996, 333). Moreover, a widespread mentality of “if it can be done, it should be done” might create strong pressures towards implementing a technology once researchers have developed it (Jamieson 1996, 333). Increased research might also increase the danger of moral hazard, as it may enhance policymakers’ and the public’s confidence in emergency technologies and diminish the perceived need for mitigation (McLaren and Markusson 2020, 395-396). Finally, if funding is invested in researching these risky technologies, this will likely remove funding from other research into climate change, mitigation, and adaptation (Jamieson 1996, 333).

4. Clashing Risks and Precautions

26As we have seen, many of the proposed emergency climate technologies bear the risk of severe side effects. However, not using such technologies is also associated with risks because this means forgoing their mitigating effects on climate change. This dilemma may lead to regulators being confronted with complex risk/risk trade-offs (Fleurke 2017, 200). The precautionary principle is often advanced in the literature to address these trade-offs. The principle has been argued to be the most frequently invoked and most important rule of international law in assessing geoengineering – and arguably also other emergency climate technologies (Bodansky 1996, 316).

27The precautionary principle is one of the core guiding principles of international environmental law. It represents the idea of allowing anticipated actions to protect the environment even if the likelihood of damage is fraught with scientific uncertainty (Cançado Tridade 2015, 404). Trouwborst describes this idea with the maxim in dubio pro natura (Trouwborst 2007, 187). There is no unique, universally recognised formulation of the principle, but the Rio Declaration’s principle 15 is frequently cited as a reflection of the precautionary principle’s core idea:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

  • 2 For more treaties incorporating the precautionary principle, see Cançado Trindade 2015, 414-416; Sc (...)

28Numerous multilateral environmental agreements refer to the precautionary principle, including the UNFCCC (art. 3(3)).2 The problem with applying the precautionary principle to emergency climate technologies is that it may prove highly controversial “which way the principle cuts” (Bodansky 2013, 542. See also Fleurke 2017, 208-214). On the one hand, one could employ the precautionary principle to argue against the use of such technologies by referring to the risks involved with these technologies and the principle’s call to regulate these risks even if the risks are not certain (Bodansky 1996, 312). On the other hand, one could also argue in favour of the deployment of large-scale technologies by referring to the precautionary principle’s call for acting despite scientific uncertainty (Reynolds and Fleurke 2013, 104-106). According to the latter view, precaution is an empowering principle in the sense that it allows action that might otherwise not be justified (Reynolds and Fleurke 2013, 104). Given this uncertainty about the correct application of the precautionary principle to risky emergency technologies, some authors describe the principle as insufficient to deal with the uncertainties around emergency technologies (Bodle 2013, 460).

29As there are many diverging definitions and interpretations of the precautionary principle, a distinction between weak and strong versions, allowing for intermediary degrees, is sometimes proposed in the literature (Soule 2000; Sunstein 2005, 18-20). Alternatively, these two extremes can be labelled argumentative and prescriptive (Sandin et al. 2002, 289-290). A weak or argumentative precautionary principle merely allows regulatory action when there is no decisive evidence of risk. It does not restrict the range of factors that may be taken into account and weighed against the risks (Soule 2000, 313-316; Sunstein 2005, 18-19). Put differently, such a version of the precautionary principle only limits what arguments are valid by indicating that uncertainty is not an argument for inaction; it does not limit the possibility of arriving at the same conclusion through other arguments (Sandin et al. 2002, 289). Read textually, Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration is such a weak version of the precautionary principle (Sandin et al. 2002, 289). By contrast, strong or prescriptive formulations of the precautionary principle require regulators to consider risks as the predominant factor in decision-making; risk avoidance is the core value and cannot be weighed against expected benefits (Soule 2000, 316-323). Strong versions of the precautionary principle may even reverse the burden of proof and require the proponents of an activity to prove its safety (Cançado Tridade 2015, 409; Sunstein 2005, 19-20). For Trouwborst, it is the level of potential harm that determines, on a case-by-case basis, whether a weak or strong version of the precautionary principle is appropriate (Trouwborst 2007, 188). According to this conception, states are allowed to take precautionary action when the potential harm is “significant” and have a duty to do so when the potential harm is “serious and/or irreversible” (Trouwborst 2007, 188).


1 Note that this definition specifically excludes carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels that captures carbon dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere. See also Bodle 2010, 315-316.

2 For more treaties incorporating the precautionary principle, see Cançado Trindade 2015, 414-416; Schröder 2014, paras. 13-15).


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