26 April 2022

The Regulation of Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions

The use of large-scale technologies as emergency solutions for avoiding catastrophic climate change is highly controversial, notably because of risks of large-scale environmental damage and the danger of distracting from sounder climate policies such as mitigation and adaptation. In his master dissertation, Pascal Blickle explores the ambiguous regulation of these technologies. His findings, which he details in this interview, won him the 2021 Mariano Garcia Rubio Prize and are now published in open access thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

In a seminar about climate change and international law, I learned about proposals for building artificial islands to tackle the problems of small island states that might slowly disappear due to sea-level rise. The “science-fiction-like” nature of this idea intrigued me, and I discovered that there were other technological proposals to address climate change and its impacts that sound similarly extreme. Some of these technologies are referred to under the umbrella term “geoengineering”. However, for the purpose of my thesis, I chose a slightly more extensive range of technologies that I call “emergency technologies” because they are typically presented as quick and cheap last-resort fixes that could be deployed when no other measures are capable of avoiding catastrophic climate change effects. While a range of fairly different technologies may fall under this heading, they all present similar challenges for international law, particularly for international environmental law and climate change law.

Can you describe your thesis questions and methodology?

My thesis examines how international law regulates “emergency technologies” and whether the law hinders or facilitates their use within the realm of future climate policies. In particular, I looked at the role that the precautionary principle could play in regulating the use of these technologies. I looked at three different emergency technologies as case studies: stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), ocean fertilisation, and artificial islands. For each of these technologies, I examined how different areas of international law influence potential future deployment.

What are your major findings?

I found that, while few binding rules explicitly address these technologies, various instruments and rules of international law may potentially be relevant for their use. These rules take on different and partly conflicting roles towards the technologies. Some rules of international law focus on the risks for environmental damage involved in such large-scale interventions and call for precaution. At the same time, other rules encourage research into these interventions and may also facilitate their funding and deployment at a later stage. Despite these ambiguities, I found that there is a strong precautionary core of rules that opposes such risky endeavours. The International Law Commission (ILC) has recently confirmed the centrality of “prudence and caution” for technologies involving “intentional large-scale modification of the atmosphere” in Guideline 7 of its Guidelines on the Protection of the Atmosphere. However, there is a risk of diluting this precautionary stance if states adopt rules directly applicable to these technologies in the future. Indeed, such new regulation – which some states propose – might give the impression that “emergency technologies” are already available and constitute viable alternatives to climate change mitigation and adaptation, which might distract attention from essential mitigation and adaptation efforts. As a matter of fact, both the effects and side-effects of all emergency technologies are still unclear, and they are far from being ready for deployment.

What are you doing now?

I am currently working at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern, where I work on multilateral policy concerning a large range of topics.

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Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions: The Role(s) of International Law was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Pascal Blickle’s master dissertation (supervisor:  Professor Anne Saab), which won the 2021 Mariano Garcia Rubio Prize.
Find more information about this prize here.

How to cite the dissertation:
Blickle, Pascal. Climate Technologies as Emergency Solutions: The Role(s) of International Law. Graduate Institute ePaper 40. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2022.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Sarah Barry/