article / 13 Apr 2021

Setterwalls advises Harvard University on controversial climate research program

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Setterwalls has acted as legal adviser to Harvard University to provide legal advice in connection with the controversial test flight at the Swedish Esrange Space Centre. The experiment has become subject to intensive debate and, after facing significant criticism, been postponed.

– It feels good being able to input an objective perspective in this debate which has become so heated, says Håkan Fohlin, partner at Setterwalls.

As part of the work to tackle climate change, a group of scientists at Harvard University intended to explore solar geoengineering, or solar radiation management, with a test flight at the Esrange Space Centre in Kiruna, Sweden. Solar radiation management is yet an unproven kind of climate manipulation, the intention of which is to release solar radiation reflecting particles in the atmosphere with the purpose to decrease global warming. The experiment was due to take place in June 2021 and would involve a test flight without any particle release, in order to gain experience on how the method, potentially, could work. However, following the Saami Council, Greenpeace and the Society for Nature Conservation as well as a number of other Swedish and international environmental organisations, expressing deep concerns for the environmental risks that the method could have, in its final form, the test flight has now been postponed.     

Harvard wants to take a position on the continuation until its advisory committee can make a final recommendation based on a robust and inclusive public engagement in Sweden. The recommendation shall include a societal review on solar geoengineering research focused on ethical and moral issues, including an understanding of the Indigenous perspective. This will contribute to a growing body of research and practise about public governance of geoscience research.

Excellent feedback for Setterwalls’ environmental practice
To ensure that the test flight would be compliant with Swedish law, the Harvard scientists required Swedish law legal expertise. Following interviews with several Swedish law firms the assignment was finally entrusted and awarded to Setterwalls, whose environmental law practice recently was top-ranked by the ranking institute Chambers Europe as one of the best in Sweden. Håkan Fohlin, project leader and responsible partner, is proud of the confidence put in the team.

– Setterwalls being selected for this assignment is excellent feedback for the law firm in general and the environmental practice in particular. It is an extremely knowledgeable and experienced team including several of the most experienced Swedish environmental law experts, including among others Anders Linnerborg och Tove Skärblom, says Håkan Fohlin.

“Possible solutions should at least be explored”
One of the experts on the project’s technical advice panel is the professor and previous astronaut Christer Fuglesang. He regrets that the project has been postponed and believes that the solar radiation management as a possible solution at least should be explored before ruled-out.

– We do not know if decreased emissions of CO2 gases will be sufficient to keep the temperature increase on Earth at acceptable levels. Therefore other possible solutions should at least be explored. Even if research does not result in the complete application of the method, it could lead to new valuable knowledge, says Christer Fuglesang.

Contributing an objective perspective
Håkan Fohlin is pleased that Setterwalls has contributed an objective perspective on a topic that has become so controversial.

– In a second phase, Harvard’s project would involve less material than what’s released every minute by a commercial aircraft, so the debate has become marked by a lot emotions. Therefore, from Setterwalls’ perspective it feels very good that we have taken part and been able to contribute. By our legal memorandum, which confirms that the relevant test flight would be Swedish law compliant, we help to shed light on the matter from an objective, legal, perspective, Håkan Fohlin concludes.

Setterwalls legal memorandum is published in its entirety on the research project’s website.

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