It is the right time that Pakistan starts exploring the research and governance options regarding climate geoengineering (CGE). Although Pakistan has a tiny share in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is considered amongst one of the most climate-vulnerable countries.
In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed intense climate-related phenomena like heat waves, droughts in interior Sindh, smog in Punjab and massive floods during the monsoon season. These climate change-related phenomena have caused and will continue to cause, enormous social and economic losses to Pakistan, and there is need of remedial measures if adaptation and mitigation fail to deliver adequate protection for climate change-related impacts.
CGE is defined as large scale human intervention to avoid, reduce, or restrict the adverse impacts of climate change, and consists of two distinct methods. The first, referred to as solar radiation modification (SRM), uses a variety of techniques to reflect or scatter sunlight to decrease the amount of solar radiative energy in the atmosphere, which offsets a portion of the warming caused by increased GHGs. The second method, referred to as carbon dioxide removal (CDR), uses different biological and chemical technologies to remove and permanently store CO 2 in the atmosphere to draw down the existing stock of CO 2 in the atmosphere.
At present, CDR is considered a costly technology, (for example, it is still less expensive to reduce CO2 emissions than remove existing emissions) but is still considered more feasible in comparison to SRM, which has greater risks and uncertainties. Given Pakistan’s weak economic situation and limited contribution to global GHG emissions, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be interested in implementing CDR techniques without any international financial and technical assistance. However, for the research purposes, Pakistan should start exploring the options CDR.
To the extent that Pakistan can develop technical and policy capacity in CDR, it is more likely to attract investment and support. In the long-term, CDR is likely to be a necessary policy response, and Pakistan ought to be putting itself into a position to participate in these efforts now.
Despite the promise and opportunity of CDR, Pakistan’s more important focus in climate geo-engineering may be in relation to SRM, which is likely to be less expensive and could bring more immediate temperature relief. However, SRM has significant transnational implications, since it would operate on a global scale. Thus, Pakistan needs to develop its research program in a careful manner.
Pakistan’s neighbors like China and India have already started scientific research programs on climate engineering. Pakistan, China, and India are three nuclear-armed neighboring states with almost `1/3 rd population of the world and it is unlikely that any one of them would prefer to remain out of step with a major technical development in the region.
There are four critical reasons for Pakistan to start seriously researching and deliberating over CGE. First, by beginning the research on CGE at this stage, Pakistan can assume a crucial role in future global discussions on climate engineering. Developing countries need to take the lead in global discussions on CGE. There are leadership opportunities for Pakistan in this field. Second, the geopolitics of the region and interests of China and India in CGE requires Pakistan’s policymakers and scientists to be well prepared on the subject. Third, CGE can have a transnational impact on food security and melting of glaciers, so even if Pakistan does not engage in CGE itself, it could become an unintentional beneficiary or victim of CGE activities.
As a result, Pakistan needs to be able to detect, monitor, and assess the risks of other countries’ CGE proposals and activities. Fourth, the peace and security aspect of CGE demands that Pakistan’s policymakers fully understand the potential use of solar radiation management as an offensive technology.
There are significant ethical aspects to pursuing climate engineering, as some critics argue that it is morally unjustified in interfering so drastically in the natural environment of the planet earth.
Secondly, there are concerns that if CGE becomes a feasible option, it will reduce the urgency and incentives for other states and large-scale emitters to reduce their carbon emissions.
The need for research and governance of CGE stems primarily from this very fear because, without research, policymakers do not know whether CGE is beneficial or dangerous. Moreover, without initiating a policy debate, there are risks that CGE, particularly solar radiation management, may fall in the hands of “rogue elements,” which could be destructive for any country.
Currently, most of the research on technical and governance aspects of CGE is carried out in western countries. But now is the time that scholars and scientists from developing countries should debate regarding climate engineering so that they are well prepared to discuss the feasibility of CGE.
In this regard, the Ministry of Climate Change and Ministry of Science and Technology in Pakistan could jointly establish a research group which can study the governance and scientific aspects of climate engineering for Pakistan and the region. Moreover, the exchange program of Pakistani students and academics with Chinese counterparts could also be a positive step.
It is unlikely that Pakistan or any other responsible nation-state would like to deploy or experiment climate engineering at large-scales without the consent of the international community, but the knowledge and ability to assess and potentially implement the technology would provide an edge in international negotiations where CGE issues are certain to arise.