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Going Negative: The Next Horizon in Climate Engineering Law

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As the global community struggles to turn the Paris Agreement's commitments into meaningful emission reductions and the United States turbulently reverses its climate policies, the potential role of "negative emissions technologies" and other climate engineering approaches is drawing increasingly serious attention. These technologies are engineering on the grandest scale: climate engineering seeks to offset the effects of anthropogenic climate change by either altering the solar radiation reaching the earth's surface or changing the composition of the atmosphere itself. Specifically, negative emissions technologies would directly remove greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the ambient air and help to remove accumulated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by historical emissions. After over a decade of debate, substantive research and planning associated with negative emissions technologies and solar radiation management have begun to inch forward. But this movement is happening in unexpected ways, and some of the most important decisions and commitments are occurring outside of the spotlight.

Although proposed climate engineering approaches recently have grown into a bewildering array of potential technologies, most proposals tend to fall into two distinct categories: solar radiation management (SRM) technologies and CO2 removal (CDR). SRM technologies would seek to reduce the amount of solar radiative energy that reaches (or stays) at Earth's surface. This type of "sunscreen" has been proposed in many forms, including the distribution of spacebased mirrors to deflect sunlight or modification of cirrus cloud structures to reduce their retention of reflected radiation. The SRM approach attracting the most attention, however, is the dispersal of aerosol particles in the stratosphere, probably by airplanes. By artificially mimicking the haze created naturally by major volcanic eruptions, SRM arguably could lower the surface temperature of Earth's surface quickly and (comparatively) cheaply without altering the composition of its lower atmosphere or reducing the amount of GHGs already present from historical emissions.