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Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions

Pascal Blickle


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1Technologies proposed as emergency solutions to climate change have varying tasks and roles. Stratospheric aerosol injection, ocean fertilisation, artificial islands, and similar technologies address different aspects of climate change and do so in very different ways. However, some common key characteristics justify grouping them to study them and their treatment by international law. First, these technologies promise relatively quick and easy solutions, which requires them to act rapidly on a large scale. Therefore, they intervene directly in global environmental systems, particularly the oceans or the atmosphere, and this involves considerable risks for environmental damage. Second, these technologies claim to solve the problems created by climate change in a cheap and “painless” way, in the sense that they suggest addressing these challenges without requiring fundamental interventions in the economic order.

2The promise of rapid and cheap solutions to climate change makes these technologies appear as ideal solutions for those pessimistic about the scale of current mitigation and adaptation efforts and thus interested in backup solutions to avoid catastrophic climate change-induced events. Moreover, they also provide an interesting option for those looking for ways to address climate change without fundamentally altering current economic models. These technologies might even serve as an excuse for postponing meaningful climate action if presented as a backup plan. This promise of a backup plan thus also entails, in addition to the risks of the technologies causing environmental damage on an unprecedented scale, a risk that these technologies prevent necessary mitigation and adaptation without delivering on their promises. Emergency technologies might follow the example of nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and other technologies that have promised an “easy way out” from climate change, never materialised, and thus delayed mitigation (McLaren and Markusson 2020). Further studying these past examples of technological promises to better understand their impacts on climate policy might potentially help identify strategies to avoid similar delaying effects from emergency technologies.

3The present paper has focused on the role of international law in steering the prospects of large-scale emergency climate technologies. Through three case studies, different technologies and the legal regimes applicable to them have been explored and compared. Currently, international law does not provide clear and binding rules on the use and governance of such technologies. Nonetheless, it takes a strong precautionary stance against such risky projects. However, some factors risk undermining this precautionary position. Notably, some legal regimes contain rules that, read in isolation, might be employed to facilitate these innovations despite precautionary law. In particular, climate change law – while also containing precautionary language – provides rules on the promotion of technologies and research that might be interpreted in this sense.

4Certain actors may also attempt to question the precautionary principle’s relevance for the regulation of these technologies by contending that precaution does, in fact, favour taking risks to counter the dangers of climate change. Others do the same by claiming that technology-friendly interpretations of precaution are at least as convincing as the opposite position and that international law is, therefore, in a “precautionary dilemma”. Moreover, with strong political opposition against precautionary regimes, new regulatory attempts are likely to focus more on the facilitation of new research than on preventing the risks involved with the technology’s use. The Paris Agreement’s support of carbon sinks and focus on temperature rather than GHGs may facilitate such an approach, notably concerning solar radiation management and carbon removal technologies. The latter might also strongly profit from the current prominence of climate policies focused on “net zero” (Dyke, Watson, and Knorr 2021).

5Finally, what would be the ideal governance regime for emergency climate technologies? Given the risk for great environmental harm, a moratorium on the deployment of such technologies seems the least that the spirit of international environmental law requires. The current moratoria under the CBD and the LC/LP appear too weak to effectively fulfil their task of guarding against adventurous experiments involving risky technologies, especially as their encouragement of research involves substantial risks of lock-in. Credible opposition by international law to emergency technologies would particularly be necessary to break the cycle of bold and unrealistic technological promises diluting efforts for mitigation and adaptation (see McLaren and Markusson 2020).

6Adopting rules and resolutions allowing or encouraging research into emergency technologies arguably has the contrary effect of portraying them as viable and realistic options for future climate change policy. Therefore, new regulation may increase the risk of emergency technologies distracting from mitigation and adaptation and thus contributing to creating the kind of emergency that is likely to generate further calls for their deployment. In other words, the promise of emergency technologies risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if international law does not impose the necessary safeguards. What would thus be needed are other regimes supporting and strengthening the existing moratoria instead of diluting them.

7Finding consensus for strengthening precautionary regulation of climate emergency technologies is currently highly unlikely in any multilateral forum. The UNEA debate on geoengineering has shown that the US and other states with fossil-heavy economies are likely to strongly oppose any proposal that threatens to constrain the use of emergency technologies in the future (McLaren and Corry 2021, 21). In this context, the current situation without a clear universal regulatory framework might actually be preferable to pursuing new governance instruments. As even mentioning the precautionary principle or the primacy of mitigation is opposed by certain key players, the only politically feasible result would arguably be a weak statement calling for more research. Such a result would likely do more for future deployment than for preventing such technological high-stakes gambles. Once legal instruments start addressing a specific technology or group of technologies, the risk of technological lock-in appears. Given this prospect, it might thus be preferable to leave the issue of emergency technologies dormant for now. However, further research would be necessary to confirm this presumption or to identify an ideal governance format. Applying the vast existing literature on lock-in effects to climate emergency technologies notably promises insights into this effect’s probability and possibilities to avoid it.

8Geoengineering and other climate emergency technologies have already been discussed in the scholarly literature for more than two decades. While formal discussions in political fora – namely the LC/LP and CBD – started in 2007, they appear to have petered out a few years later. Particularly in climate change negotiations, these technologies are said to be a constant “elephant in the room” that is never directly addressed (Craik and Burns 2016, 5-6). An increasing sense of urgency might, however, reignite this debate and direct it into new directions. The recent proposal of a resolution on geoengineering at the UNEA seems to prove that some states are willing to revive such discussions. The ILC’s current work on the protection of the atmosphere and sea-level rise might also provide opportunities for such debate to be revived in the legal realm.

9Beyond the legal regimes discussed in this paper, other fields of international law might receive more prominent roles in addressing emergency technologies in the future. For example, international criminal law might become relevant for assessing damage created by large-scale climate technologies. If current proposals for the inclusion of the crime of ecocide in the Rome Statute are adopted, environmental damage from large-scale climate emergency technologies might, under certain conditions, qualify as ecocide (see Sands et al. 2021). Criminalising the causation of extensive environmental damage might alter the weight given to the risk of creating such damage in the evaluation of new 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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