Last week, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) met in Montreal. One of its agenda items was consideration of recent reports on scientific, regulatory, and social aspects of geoengineering. After days of review and discussion, SBSTTA agreed on a recommendation for the Conference of the Parties (COP) to consider in Hyderabad, India this October. The substance of the recommendation was fairly unremarkable, consisting simply of requests that the convention Secretariat provide future updates on geoengineering to the COP, particularly with respect to the relationship between climate engineering and indigenous peoples and local communities.
However, negotiations leading to this document entailed some significant conflicts over the framing of geoengineering, reflected primarily in the chapeau (introductory text) of the proposed recommendation. Initial language included reference to the precautionary principle as a possible basis for regulating geoengineering activities. In international discussions of geoengineering, the precautionary principle has typically been invoked as a rationale for prohibiting research and development. Presumably in response to the restrictive implications of formally noting the precautionary approach in this context, the Australian delegation expressed its opposition to this language and succeeded in having it bracketed, signifying lack of consensus and the need for further discussion (paragraph 10). Australia also proposed noting the potential benefits of geoengineering for biodiversity, rather than focusing solely on negative impacts. The Australians were less successful on this point, as their suggestion was opposed by representatives from Uganda and Norway and was not included in the final text of the recommendation (paragraph 6).
On a more concrete level, the final text includes a request that the IPCC take up the issue of geoengineering as it relates to biodiversity in its fifth Assessment Report (paragraph 14). This was proposed by the Canadian government, and opposed by the Canada-based, anti-geoengineering ETC Group. The ETC Group has a long history of involvement with the CBD, is intimately familiar with its institutional machinery, and has a local presence in Montreal (home of the CBD Secretariat). These factors give ETC Group an advantage in pursuing its agenda within the CBD, which largely explains the group's focus on acting to oppose geoengineering through the Convention, as well as its resistance to transferring relevant deliberations to other bodies where ETC Group has less influence. In this instance, "ETC Group objected, saying that it would be more appropriate for SBSTTA to provide input on biodiversity in the context of what IPCC does" (p. 11). Unfortunately for ETC Group, its objection was overridden.