Geoengineering governance-by-default: an earth system governance perspective


Geoengineering—the deliberate interference in the climate system to affect global warming—could have significant global environmental and social implications. How to shape formal geoengineering governance mechanisms is an issue of debate. This paper describes and analyses the geoengineering governance landscape that has developed in the absence of explicit geoengineering regulation. An Earth System Governance perspective provides insight into the formation of norms resulting from an overlap in international treaties and from the actions of engaged non-state agents. Specifically, the paper explores the instruments and actors having effect in existing formal and informal geoengineering governance mechanisms. It finds that geoengineering is subject to a form of ‘governance-by-default’. This is due to a situation in which state actors have not resolved the tension between two legal norms: that of ‘precaution’ and that of ‘harm minimisation’. This governance-by-default is characterised by uneven regulation from existing multilateral agreements established for other purposes, an absence of regulation specifically focused on geoengineering, guidance from an international ambition to hold global average warming below 2 °C and to achieve net-zero emissions in the second half of the century, and strong normative engagement by the research community. Governance-by-default is likely to be a stopgap development until more enduring and focused governance emerges.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    There is no consensus in the geoengineering literature whether large-scale biochar, which is plant-based charcoal used to increase soil carbon retention, or large-scale afforestation should also be included in the definition of CDR.

  2. 2.

    As it is not clear where to draw the line in considering which actors become agents and which do not, Dellas et al. (2011) recommend cataloguing actors involved in an issue area and then clarifying which of those actors has become authoritative, highlighting that ‘the source of authority underpinning agency may be found in agents’ capacity to be more responsive and participatory than public institutions, in the unresponsiveness of state bureaucracies, in effective and efficient problem-solving and finally in their ability to gain the recognition of key audiences as innovative and successful problem-solvers’ (2011, p. 93).

  3. 3.

    There is another discussion to be had about the informal influence of actors at the national level. The public debate around geoengineering is heterogeneous and complex, as evidenced through different media portrayals and the perspectives underlying popular literature. Networks of highly active conspiracy theorists have developed. A survey of 3000 individuals across the USA, Canada, and the UK found that 2.6% of those questioned completely believe that there are covert government activities spraying atmospheric contaminants and 14% partly believe it (Mercer et al. 2011). Anecdotal evidence suggests that many individuals who believe in these ‘chemtrail’ conspiracies attend academic conferences, and there are reports of such people having abused and threatened geoengineering researchers (Cairns 2014). The views of these groups were noted by the US Congress during committee hearings on geoengineering (House Hearing 111 Congress 2010).

  4. 4.

    Moral norms are not considered here, as this would require insight into actors’ convictions, which may not be reflected by their actions.


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Talberg, A., Christoff, P., Thomas, S. et al. Geoengineering governance-by-default: an earth system governance perspective. Int Environ Agreements 18, 229–253 (2018).

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  • Climate change
  • Climate engineering
  • Solar radiation management
  • Carbon dioxide removal
  • International law