Geoengineering is not a newcomer to the discourses and action plans in climate change governance. And there is likely to be a push for greater research and development (R&D) on geoengineering given that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) reached a record high in 2018: the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) recently stated that “the gap between targets and reality” is “both glaring and growing”. While the technical and technological components of geoengineering are still under review, the governance aspect is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Besides social, economic, ethical and scientific challenges, what is particularly relevant in this context is the geopolitical and security implications of geoengineering in view of the inherent transboundary risks. China’s massive weather modification plans, particularly in the Tibetan Plateau, have set alarm bells ringing in South and Southeast Asia – regions that are dependent on the rivers that originate in Tibet. This could also increase tensions with regional rivals such as India, with whom bilateral relations have recently soured further.
Transboundary risks of geoengineering
Geoengineering is increasingly seen as an inevitable option. The climate is simply changing too fast and mitigation and adaptation is happening too slowly. Advocates of geoengineering call for additional efforts to avoid climate-related disruptions, even if conventional approaches are strengthened. The IPCC has also begun to emphasise the relevance of such techniques. Its 2013 assessment report outlines geoengineering techniques such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM), and their potential implications for the climate and other sectors. Such steps have essentially mainstreamed discussions on geoengineering and climate engineering.
Among the risks of geoengineering, transboundary risks are arguably the trickiest owing to their repercussions for international law, governance and security. According to some sections of the legal governance community, the presumed illegality associated with geoengineering stems from its impacts on other states (such as regional climate), thus impinging on their rights and territorial integrity.
China’s advances in geoengineering
China has been investing in geoengineering R&D too: it recently launched a US$3 million research programme. Unlike some of the ongoing programmes in the US — such as the one in Harvard, which is privately funded and amounts to more than US$20 million — the Chinese programme claims that it does not conduct any “experiments on our real planet” but instead explores the effectiveness and uncertainties of geoengineering, especially SRM, through computer modelling.
China’s advances put the country at a clear advantage in terms of R&D as a first mover among developing and emerging economies. Research suggests that China would not take the lead in developing and deploying geoengineering. However, its mega-engineering projects such as dams and cloud seeding indicate a willingness to go beyond the conventional methods to tackle climate change, particularly in light of its growing GHG emissions and commitments within the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Cloud seeding geoengineering is at times kept outside the purview of climate engineering discussions, but it has in fact been in use in many countries for a long time. Reports suggest that China plans to build the world’s largest cloud seeding system, or in other words, weather modification network, in the Tibetan Plateau, covering an area of 1.6 million square kilometres. This project, called “Sky River”, is being developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and involves the deployment of defence technology (“fuel-burning chambers”) to increase rainfall in the region.
Geopolitical and security ramifications of China’s geoengineering advances
The consequences of these recent developments in China are enormous for South and Southeast Asian countries that rely heavily on river basins such as the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong. If this technology is deployed on a large scale, as planned by China, it could practically alter not just the weather, but also the long-term climate in the entire region – unpredictably and irreversibly. It could lead to suppression of cloud development and precipitation elsewhere too, even though this is not entirely proven. Furthermore, the silver iodide used for cloud seeding is considered extremely harmful to aquatic life in freshwater, which could affect the livelihoods of millions of farmers and fisher-folk downstream.
In the past, neighbouring countries have accused China of not sharing data and information regarding its activities in the Tibetan Plateau. For instance, India has repeatedly broached the issue of recurrent floods in its Northeast to which suspicious Chinese activities — mainly dam building — could have contributed. Therefore, the Sky River project could further heighten geopolitical tensions between China and its southern neighbours.
Tackling risks is a priority
China has already used weather modification technology in the past, e.g. to ensure a dry opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Since these measures have so far been restricted to its own territory, the extra-territorial risks have never come into the limelight. However, the Sky River project and the geoengineering research programme portend what could be China’s future strategy in addressing the climate change issue.
In light of these heightened risks, pushing for more transparency and accountability on the part of states is an urgent matter. China ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), which prohibits states from engaging in activities having “widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.” China is also a party to the UN Convention on Biodiversity, which has put, as some claim, a “de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments” such as ocean fertilisation that could have adverse effects on biodiversity. It is important that the signatories, particularly the neighbouring countries, press China to adhere to the principles enshrined in these conventions.
There is a dire need to focus on strengthening these frameworks, as well as addressing transboundary risks associated with CDR and SRM techniques. Otherwise, countries that possess these technologies could have distinct advantages — including in terms of their military applications — over others that have lesser resources to develop such capacities, thereby creating yet another level of asymmetry in the international system. Climate diplomacy has a crucial role to play in bringing the security risks associated with climate engineering onto the global agenda, where they can be scrutinised under the public eye. Apart from the ongoing discussions on these issues at the UN, the scope of bilateral climate diplomacy also needs to be expanded to alleviate geopolitical tensions arising from geoengineering capabilities, including between countries such as India and China.
Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India.
[The views expressed in this article are personal.]