Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

China Doesn't Want a Geoengineering Disaster

| Feb. 21, 2023

Beijing and Washington share an interest in rules for climate experimentation.

For three decades, geopolitical wrangling between the two largest carbon emitters, China and the United States, has stymied every major global climate accord. But even reconciliation between Washington in Beijing is unlikely to avert a grim prognosis. A 2021 study in Science suggests that to achieve the global Paris Agreement goal of holding atmospheric warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, China’s emissions would have to peak almost immediately and then plummet. All but the most optimistic observers doubt that this will happen.

In high-emissions scenarios, the cost of adaptation to a warming planet could reach $500 billion annually in developing countries alone by 2050, according to United Nations estimates. Most countries lack the financial resources, expertise, and long-term political will to adapt effectively. Even China, which has boldly set a target of becoming a “climate-resilient society” by 2035 knows that it cannot totally insulate itself from the global impacts of rapid warming, which could include food price shocks and mounting instability in the developing world.

That’s led a growing number of observers to consider geoengineering, a suite of techniques for artificially counteracting the effects of accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Compared to decarbonization and adaptation, which are multidecade processes that could cost many trillions of dollars, geoengineering promises a relatively cheap quick fix and a potential bridge to hold global temperatures down until humanity invents cost-effective technologies to draw atmospheric carbon readings back down to stable levels.

But there is a big problem with geoengineering: The research and deployment of geoengineering interventions lie almost entirely outside the reach of existing international law. Without a robust global governance framework and clear guardrails to prevent unilateral deployment, this could potentially unleash geopolitical as well as ecological havoc.

The good news is that the United States and China have clear, demonstrated interests in the responsible global governance of geoengineering. Unlike during squabbles over emissions, where industrial policy and growth concerns often clash with a mandate for reduction, the two powers share a clear set of concerns. Both governments recognize the potential benefits of the technology and are actively subsidizing research. Both sides also understand that the status quo of no meaningful regulation poses an open-ended national security threat, not least because it risks provoking a technological arms race and increases the probability that geoengineering techniques could be militarized by third parties.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Moore, Scott and Eyck Freymann.“China Doesn't Want a Geoengineering Disaster.” Foreign Policy, February 21, 2023.

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