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Africa takes a stand against solar geoengineering at UN Environment Assembly.

African countries have led a successful push against solar geoengineering – in which sunlight would be reflected back to outer space to combat climate change – at the UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi.

“Solar radiation modification” in which solar radiation is reflected back into space, for example by deliberately releasing sulphur dioxide to block the sun’s rays from reaching the Earth, is one of a number of forms of geoengineering under consideration in response to rising global temperatures. Another proposed method includes the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Supporters of such technologies believe they could play a role in slowing down climate change. Critics have warned, however, that a range of catastrophic impacts could emerge if geoengineering techniques fail to work as intended.

At the UN Environmental Assembly, held in Nairobi last week, Switzerland proposed a resolution that was widely interpreted as seeking to pave the way for a de facto moratorium on solar geoengineering, imposed in 2010, to be relaxed.

At the conference, the African group was at the forefront of opposition to the Swiss proposals, reflecting fears that the technology could have unforeseen impacts on the continent. Some African countries, such as Senegal, had initially backed the resolution but ultimately changed their positions.

This eventually caused the Swiss delegation to withdraw their resolution on the last day of the conference, thus leaving the 2010 moratorium untouched for now.

Swiss officials said that their goal was simply to establish an expert working group that would evaluate the risks and benefits of such technologies, ensuring that international oversight is maintained.

With global temperatures last year surpassing the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, policymakers are considering more drastic measures to combat climate change. February 2024 was the ninth consecutive month in which a new global monthly temperature record was broken.

As well as solar radiation modification, other techniques that have been mooted include marine cloud brightening, in which salts would be sprayed into clouds so that they reflect more sunlight; and ocean fertilisation, which would involve dumping iron or other nutrients into the oceans to stimulate phytoplankton growth – the phytoplankton would sequester carbon, which would be stored on the ocean floor when they die and sink

However, the full effects of these technologies remain unproven and the possible side effects are poorly understood. African ministers had previously called for global governance mechanisms to ensure the non-use of solar radiation management at a conference last August.

“Even if solar geoengineering is only deployed over the northern hemisphere, it will disrupt local and regional weather patterns and further imbalance the climate, with potentially catastrophic effects for Africa, including on water availability and food production,” Mfoniso Antia, a programme manager at the NGO Hands Off Mother Earth Africa, said in a statement.

“I’m happy for Africa’s leadership on geoengineering at UNEA-6, which builds on the African Ministerial Conference on the Environments decision on the non-use of solar geoengineering technologies.”

Several countries, including the United States, supported the African position in Nairobi. But sceptics suspect that US opposition stemmed from not wanting the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) to take charge of the governance of geoengineering, rather than because of concern over geoengineering itself.

And with various billionaires, including Bill Gates, having established ventures that aim to experiment with radical solutions, the debate over the technology is far from settled.


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