This interview was conducted by Mirko Hohmann and Joel Sandhu for the ‘The Global Governance Futures 2025’ programme which brings together young professionals to look ahead and recommend ways to address global challenges.
GGF: Akiko, you were personally involved in the UN climate change negotiations in 2009, and have followed the debate closely since. Did the issue of geoengineering play a role during these negotiations? How have the discussions on geoengineering changed at the UN since your time there?
AS: When I was participating in the UN climate change negotiations during the Copenhagen Summit (COP15) in 2009, the issue of geoengineering was receiving little attention from the policymakers and played little role during the actual negotiations. Leading up to COP15, the single most important goal clearly was to agree upon a new legally-binding framework that could succeed the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period. Therefore, the core of the negotiation was to persuade countries to commit themselves to reduce emissions from their territories. Geoengineering, however, can be seen as leading away from mitigation efforts, so it remained outside the discussion in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In addition, the idea was much more hypothetical than it is now.
In my perception, the level of attention has increased since 2009. The fact that the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 explicitly addressed geoengineering options indicates that the science community has begun to seriously engage in the topic. There has also been an increase in government funding, for example in the UK, and a research group recently proposed to carry out a small-scale field experiment in two years’ time. However, while there is a rapid increase of interests among researchers, the awareness among policymakers and the public remains low. It is therefore still premature to argue that geoengineering has actually started influencing the UNFCCC negotiations or policymaking process on climate change in all countries. But this might soon change.
GGF: Do you think the UN should become a more active player in this area? And how do you think could Japan contribute to an effective governance structure for the practice and regulation of geoengineering?
AS: The deployment of geoengineering technologies will have cross-boundary effects and a global scale of positive or adverse impact on the environment. It can raise security concerns as well as ethical issues. Considering that only a few countries can afford to research and develop such technologies, information sharing and disclosure of research results is an important issue to discuss. For that reason, there is a need for governance structures that ensure inclusive consultation. The UN can provide forums for such consultation. For example, the framework of Convention on Biological Diversity or the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution has partly involved in the discussion on geoengineering. But regarding the UNFCCC, I think we need to carefully consider when and how to put geoengineering on the table. If we put it there without clear future prospect, there will be a risk that countries use it as an excuse to move away from setting ambitious mitigation targets under UNFCCC.
After all, a lot of uncertainties remain, such as the possible impact of geoengineering technologies on reducing climate change, possible (adverse) environmental impacts, costs or development time. Still, considering the latest rapid development of this topic, it is necessary to start an informal consultation on how to develop a governance structure before large-scale experiments are to be undertaken. Japan has not been a front-runner in this area, but I think the Japanese research community and policymakers need to be more active in exploring the possibility of geoengineering and its governance structure.
GGF: Having discussed geoengineering at length with the fellows of the Global Governance Futures 2025 round who represent different countries and professional experiences, what do you think is particular about this debate in Japan compared to the debate in so-called developing countries?
AS: Current research as well as most debates about geoengineering are still take place in developed countries, and even among those, only a few countries, such as the US, the UK or Germany, are very actively engaged in research. To my knowledge, research on geoengineering in Japan has been much less active than in these countries. Research has only just begun, and it will take time to examine how the academic and policy community as well as the public will perceive further explorations in geoengineering. Yet, given that this topic will have a global impact, Japan has to explore possible research collaborations and dialogues with other countries.
The impacts of climate change are disproportionately affecting developing countries. Similarly, they will be most affected by possible adverse effects on the environment by deploying geoengineering technologies. On that account, the current situation, where limited information sharing and limited discussions are provided to developing countries, is problematic. More opportunities for these countries to receive information and various views on this topic would be beneficial. It could also create a basis for the future cooperative and comprehensive governance.
GGF: Do you see geoengineering becoming an increasingly important option to tackle global warming if international climate negotiations fail to reach agreeable goals?
AS: If global warming continues with no effective global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions - meaning that the target of remaining below a 2°C temperature rise is likely to be missed - expectations towards geoengineering, as a measure of “last resort“, will gradually increase. And even if there was a successful agreement, I think geoengineering will remain one of the research areas to reduce warming, maybe just not in the mainstream debate.
At the same time, whether geoengineering can be an option or not will depend on the technologies’ concrete impact on reducing global warming, their potential side effects on the environment and the balance of costs and benefits. Ethical concerns on drastically intervening in nature need to be addressed to gain broad public support. Rules on how to manage geoengineering technologies, for both public and private actors, have to be developed to ensure a safe, fair and transparent way of using it.
Akiko Suzuki is a deputy director in the Financial Affairs Division at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is a Global Governance Futures 2025 fellow in the Geoengineering working group. Akiko joined the Ministry in 2004 and focuses predominantly on environmental issues and development assistance. The views expressed are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the organization she belongs to.