UNESCO IOC Executive Secretary Issues Statement on Risks of Geo-Engineering

UNESCO IOC23 October 2012: Following the recent communication to the general public of a large-scale climate engineering experiment carried out in July 2012, Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General and Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has issued a response.

A private company dumped 100 tons of iron off the coast of Canada, to deliberately fertilize the Pacific Ocean and trigger a plankton bloom, an intervention known as ocean fertilization or climate engineering. This incident was addressed during the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 11) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

In her statement, Watson-Wright defines geo-engineering as "the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system, in order to moderate global warming," stressing that despite the attention it is gaining, it is an option that "involves considerable uncertainty and risk." She highlights a 2011 policy brief titled "Engineering the Climate: Research Questions and Policy Implications," which stresses the urgent need to weigh the risks of any proposed activities, and ensure that any research is conducted responsibly and transparently. She then provides an overview of previous fertilization studies, pointing to the 2009 UNESCO publication, titled "Ocean Fertilization: A Scientific Summary for Policy Makers," which documented and analyzed such experiments' conclusions, finding that "large-scale fertilization could have unintended (and difficult to predict) impacts, not only locally, but also far removed in space and time." Given these uncertainties, she recalls, Parties to the CBD decided in 2008 that no further ocean fertilization activities should be carried out in non-coastal waters until stronger scientific justification is found, to be assessed through a global regulatory mechanism.

Noting that the scale of the recent experiment is unprecedented, Watson-Wright reiterates the IOC position that ocean fertilization activities other than legitimate scientific research should not be allowed unless they are conducted in agreement with the resolution adopted under the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972 (London Convention) and its Protocol, and should be conducted responsibly and transparently, with the potential benefits and risks equitably distributed. Watson-Wright states that "we cannot afford to gamble with the ocean," calling for taking responsibility for this global commons.

On the UN position on ocean fertilization, Watson-Wright points to the outcome document of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), which expresses concern over the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization, and resolves to continue addressing ocean fertilization with utmost caution, consistent with the precautionary approach. She further mentions Resolution 62/215 of 2007 of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), which encourages States to support further study and to enhance understanding of ocean fertilization. She recalls that CBD parties, IOC and Parties to the London Convention and Protocol have: urged Governments to ensure that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities, including an assessment of associated risks; and advocated for a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism to be put in place for these activities. [Watson-Wright's Statement] [Publication: UNESCO-SCOPE-UNEP Policy Brief] [IISD RS Story on the Summary for Policy Makers on Ocean Fertilization]