Climate Law 5, 111–141 (2015)

Geoengineering is moving from modelling to field experiments, with potentially significant environmental, social and ethical impacts. Impact assessments are normally undertaken to determine the risks of such activities. But new research suggests international law is currently insufficiently tailored to the particular assessment challenges posed by geoengineering.

Neil Craik from the University of Waterloo, Canada, reviewed existing customary international and treaty law on environmental impact assessments to consider how legal principles might apply to geoengineering experiments. He found some concerning gaps.

Assessments are normally triggered by the likelihood of significant environmental damage, but that may be insufficiently precautionary in light of public concern about geoengineering and its uncertain impacts. Moreover, assessments normally focus on physical impacts, but social and ethical concerns around the moral hazards of geoengineering and technological lock-in may need to be included in the process. Also, despite the inherently boundary-crossing nature of geoengineering, there is currently no international institution through which consultations over assessments can occur.

Lawmakers have considerable work to do before they can confidently claim that environmental impact assessments can provide scientific, normative and public justifications for geoengineering to move into the field.