Planktos Sinks To The Bottom Of The Ocean  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Grist sentimentally reports that Planktos' plan to combat global warming by seeding the ocean with iron has run out of funds.

Planktos, the company that proposed fending off global warming by seeding the ocean with iron dust, has failed to get enough funding to go forward with planned tests. Under the Planktos business plan, iron fertilization would encourage phytoplankton blooms, which would suck up extra CO2, allowing the company to sell carbon offsets. But it was not to be: According to the Planktos website, "A highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders has provoked widespread opposition to plankton restoration in the environmental world." We can just see 'em, shaking their iron fists at us.



Alex Steffen has a much more detailed look at the event in "Planktos, Geo-Engineering and Politics".
A great fluttering has arisen out there around the news that Planktos, the company which aimed to make a killing by selling carbon offsets from fertilizing ocean algal blooms with iron dust, has pulled the plug on their field tests, but not before grumbling that they'd been done in by a “highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders.”

The Planktos failure ought to draw our attention even more clearly to what I am starting to think is a question we just need to get settled: should geo-engineering be part of our tool chest for confronting climate change, and under what conditions?

Though I feel strongly about the issue, I recognize that opinions differ. As the debate over my last piece Why Geo-Engineering is an Idea Whose Time Has Gone showed, smart and credible people can clearly differ on this question, and some believe in the necessity of the Big Fix.

In the comments, Andy Revkin said:
So, at least as a backstop, they say (and this group includes the likes of Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Sciences), why not include significant research along this path as part of a menu of responses to global warming -- including mitigation of emissions, adaptation to unavoidable change (and garden-variety climate threats), and a concerted quest for next-generation energy options?

to which Alan AtKisson added:
If "tipping points" are for real, and it simply doesn't prove feasible to get the world moved off of carbon energy (while also keeping people fed and employed) quickly enough, then every humane solution that *is* feasible must be on the table for serious review, including the family of interventions called "geo-engineering". ...No one is saying "start the pre-fab volcanos." But *not* to research the options for stabilizing possible runaway climate change would at this point be inethical.

So, it seems to me there are two main positions held by credible people that run counter to my argument, nicely typified by our allies here. The first is that geo-engineering is part of a menu of responses, and we ought to explore the range of our options, perhaps incorporating massive engineering as part of those responses. The second is that we need a backstop, some sort of last-ditch proposal should we at some point find that we have already pushed the climate past catastrophic tipping points.

There are two giant problems with these positions as I see it.

The first is that existing proposals won't work, not the way we want them to. Both the two main contenders -- seeding the oceans (ala Planktos) and filling the upper atmosphere with sulfate particles (what some call the artificial volcano approach, best presented by David Keith in his TED video) -- run up against the same problem: they have the potential to wreak unholy havoc on the chemistry of the oceans, with dire consequences for pretty much all life on Earth.

That's because seeding the ocean would take CO2 out of the atmosphere by encouraging giant slicks of algae to grow and suck into the water, where it would raise the acidity of the ocean itself, while the artificial volcanos approach wouldn't actually take any CO2 out of the atmosphere at all -- it'd merely temporarily shield us from the heat effects of what we've already put up there, and much of that CO2 would in turn find its way into the ocean as well. That acidity, in turn would kill off all sorts of critters, disturb all sorts of unseen-and-yet-vital natural processes, and quite potentially cook our goose just as thoroughly as climate change itself... not to mention that acidification would generate massive GHG emissions feedback loops, thus worsening the very problem we sought to solve in the first place.

What's more, the really is very little evidence that any planetary interventions on the scale we're talking about here will actually work. Space mirrors are a joke; hacking plants to make them suck more carbon out of the air could impoverish the topsoil and lead to more invasive species; the list goes on.

John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said,
"The 'geo-engineering' approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects."

That's why talking about geo-engineering as a means to "reboot" the planet's ecosystems is so off-base. We don't actually know that much about the planet, its natural systems and their workings at these scales (if any massive, centralized research project is called for, a much more complete biological survey of the Earth is probably it). What, for instance, might the impacts be on the critical ecosystem services provided by other natural systems?

Here's the other problem: not only is geo-engineering unlikely to work, but we don't need it and discussing it as a fantasy option is, I think, politically dangerous at a time when so much of the debate about the crisis we face already floats in a mist of surreality. Put another way, discussion of geo-engineering offers a distant, quite likely illusory benefit in exchange for a real and immediate political harm.

We've known for at least twenty years that climate change demanded action; we've had a high degree of certainty for at least ten, and for at least the last couple years, the scientific alarms have been ringing at a deafening volume. Yet we have very little real action on the ground -- indeed, per global CO2 emissions have continued to rise -- precisely because those who benefit most from the status quo have waged an entirely intentional (and fairly well-documented) campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change, raise the specter of economic crisis, question the need for speedy action and, most recently, to question whether or not such action can succeed even if we undertake it (moving, as Al Gore quipped, straight from denial to despair).

So we're left with a political struggle which pits those who believe we must act, can act in time and can do so in a way that leaves us better off against those who don't really want us to act at all, and will drag their heels until rising seas wash the ground out from underneath their feet. That's climate politics, circa 2008. To believe otherwise is to set yourself up to get played for a sucker. (You can guess which side I'm on.)

To meet this crisis, we need a tidal wave of innovation, of clever policy, of entrepreneurial thinking and new technologies. There are a huge number of important niches where we need real egineering breakthroughs -- greening air travel and putting out coal fires spring immediately to mind. But none of these things alone will be enough.

Our biggest challenge is not technological. It is not a question of policy. It requires no further scientific validation to address. Our biggest challenge is to change our own thinking and the thinking of our fellow citizens. We need to encourage widespread planetary thinking; we have to start preparing people to take actions commensurate to the scope of the emergency.

And that's precisely where talking about geo-engineering as if it were a proven option becomes so dangerous. It is already being spoken of in mainstream media sources as the solution for our failure to adequately cut CO2:
Geo-engineering cannot replace emissions reductions. The less CO2 you have to balance with sulfates, the more effective geo-engineering would be. But reducing CO2 emissions by, say, substituting solar and nuclear for coal will only delay climate change. Any net emissions will eventually tip the atmosphere into dangerous territory.

This argument, of course, dovetails nicely with the latest spin from those benefitting from the status quo: "A sane climate policy? Too expensive, too slow, too late bound to fail. But don't worry, we've got our best people working on a backup plan." Or, as the Guardian reports the Bush administration's position:
"The US has also attempted to steer the UN report, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), away from conclusions that would support a new worldwide climate treaty based on binding targets to reduce emissions... The US response, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, says the idea of interfering with sunlight should be included in the summary for policymakers, the prominent chapter at the front of each IPCC report. It says: 'Modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy if mitigation of emissions fails. Doing the R&D to estimate the consequences of applying such a strategy is important insurance that should be taken out. This is a very important possibility that should be considered.'"

But the reality is that we already know how to dramatically reduce emissions. Many of the things we need to do to fight climate change, even to launch a full-scale war against it, are things we'd want to do anyways, and done properly, at the right scales, with transparency and democratic oversight, the offer very little risk (compared to any of the geo-engineering proposals currently topping the charts) and a high degree of reversibility

Even acknowledging that our goal must be very soon be carbon-negative economic growth and an environmentally-beneficial ecological handprint, the technological and social innovations needed are entirely within our scope, given our current capacities. It's even quite likely that many of the steps we'd need to take to get there are economically beneficial, especially when the true costs of our current patterns (and their future consequences) are taken into account.

What we lack is the political will.

I can't see how geo-engineering will change that. Even if one of these proposals could work, the politics around them make Bali look like a diplomatic cake-walk. I've already written quite a bit about the naive assumption that governments which lack the political will to follow comparatively simple scientific counsel and take comparatively safe actions can be trusted to properly oversee mega-scale centralized engineering projects. But the political minefields don't end there. Just as a for instance, who, under international law, actually has the authority to deliberately change the chemistry of the world's oceans, with unpredictable results?

As Scott Saleska of the University of Arizona asks:
Let's say air capture, or any of the many geoengineering options being widely discussed... ends up being feasible in a few decades. And let’s say we actually reach the point where we can, as Roger Pielke suggested, tune the atmosphere’s CO2. What level do we tune it to? And who gets to decide that level? The "worst off" individual (to follow Rawls famous "Theory of Justice")? Then we probably let the Maldivians decide, since under current projections, sea level rise could completely wipe them off the map. Places like Russia, on the other hand, would probably prefer to have some moderate global warming, because that probably would give them better agriculture in Siberia, and ice-free ports on the north Atlantic.

And here we are led to what may be to me the most damning shortcoming of geo-engineering: These proposals are not actually very smart or cutting edge. They are a set of 20th century proposals kitted out in 21st century drag. This is the response you'd get if you took a bunch of 1950s scientists with slide rules and crew cuts, put them in a room, and showed them An Inconvenient Truth. "First, we build a space mirror, then, if that doesn't work, we'll fall back to the artificial volcano... it may be a long shot, but nothing else will save the American way of life!"

Many of the scientists who are being cited by the chattering classes as proponents of geo-engineering are worried about the idea moving beyond the thought-experiment stage. Take Paul J. Crutzen, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, who, though often cited as a proponent of geo-engineering, is "not enthusiastic about it":
"It was meant to startle the policymakers... If they don't take action much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we have to do experiments like this."

Or as the folks at RealClimate put it:
The problem is that geoengineering a sunshade is being sold as insurance long before anybody has any dea whether it would work and what the unintended consequences would be. It's not really insurance. It's more like building a lifeboat, but a lifeboat based on a design that has never been used before which has to work more or less perfectly the first time the panicked passengers are loaded into it. The problem is that by the time we know enough to have any confidence at all in this lifeboat, CO2 may have risen to the point where the lifeboat becomes not just a backup, but a necessity. Would diverting 1% of the world's climate research funds into this problem clarify the issues in time? I doubt it. Would devoting 10% a year to the problem be worth it? I doubt that, too, in comparison to more pressing research needs.

A number of marine scientists have called for a ban on any geo-engineering of the oceans. Climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert's proposed 10 year moratorium on geo-engineering efforts goes farther still. I'd like to propose a further step: what if we table all discussion of geo-engineering as a strategy for 10 years, primarily by instituting a moratorium on funding research into any specific geo-engineering interventions.

We can -- and should -- increase funding into climate and biological sciences; we can and should increase funding into all manner of green technologies and innovations; we can even have serious discussions about how we might evaluate and design geo-engineering approaches in the future. But for the next ten years, we ought to concentrate on the business at hand: building a prosperous, fair and carbon-negative society as quickly as we possibly can.

Before we call out "to the lifeboats!" let's both try to stop the ship from sinking, and make sure that the lifeboats actually exist.



Of course, the dream of large scale carbon sequestration in the ocean will never die - Energy Daily has a look at another idea - this time to pipe CO2 straight into the ocean depths - "Into The Abyss: Deep-Sixing Carbon".
Imagine a gigantic, inflatable, sausage-like bag capable of storing 160 million tonnes of CO2 - the equivalent of 2.2 days of current global emissions. Now try to picture that container, measuring up to 100 metres in radius and several kilometres long, resting benignly on the seabed more than 3 kilometres below the ocean"s surface.

At first blush, this might appear like science fiction, but it"s an idea that gets serious attention from Dr. David Keith, one of Canada"s foremost experts on carbon capture and sequestration. Keith will talk on the subject at the 2008 Annual Conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston at a session entitled Ocean Iron Fertilization and Carbon Sequestration: Can the Oceans Save the Planet?

"There are a lot of gee-whiz ideas for dealing with global warming that are really silly," remarks Keith, an NSERC grantee and director of the Energy and Environmental Systems Group at University of Calgary-based Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy.

"At first glance this idea looks nutty, but as one looks closer it seems that it might technically feasible with current-day technology." But, adds Keith, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment, "it"s early days and there is not yet any serious design study for the concept."

The original idea of ocean storage was conceived several years ago by Dr. Michael Pilson, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, but it really took off last year when Keith confirmed its feasibility with Dr. Andrew Palmer, a world-renowned ocean engineer at Cambridge University.

Keith, Palmer and another scientist at Argonne National Laboratory later advanced the concept through a technical paper prepared for the 26th International Conference on Offshore Mechanics and Arctic Engineering in June 2007.

Keith sees this solution as a potentially useful complement to CO2 storage in geological formations, particularly for CO2 emanating from sources near deep oceans.

He believes it may offer a viable solution because vast flat plains cover huge areas of the deep oceans. These abyssal plains have little life and are benign environments. "If you stay away from the steep slopes from the continental shelves, they are a very quiet environment."

For CO2 to be stored there, the gas must be captured from power and industrial point sources, compressed to liquid, and transported via pipelines that extend well beyond the ocean"s continental shelves. When the liquid CO2 is pumped into the deep ocean, the intense pressure and cold temperatures make it negatively buoyant.

"This negative buoyancy is the key," explains Keith. "It means the CO2 wants to leak downwards rather than moving up to the biosphere."

The use of containment is necessary because CO2 will tend to dissolve in the ocean, which could adversely impact marine ecosystems. Fortunately, says Keith, the cost of containment is quite minimal with this solution. He and his colleagues calculate that the bags can be constructed of existing polymers for less than four cents per tonne of carbon.

The real costs lie in the capture of CO2 and its transport to the deep ocean. "If we can drive those down," he notes, "then ocean storage might be an important option for reducing CO2 emissions."

2 comments

Anonymous   says 1:41 PM

To continue the quest of finding short names for some of these things/concepts...

The sulfate aerosol injection scheme sounds similar to something out of Highlander II... which is probably where The Matrix got it.

TO wit The Highlander Project
SP

Your post is one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful that I have found on the topic. Thanks for that. I agree with many
of your points, most geo-engineering approaches are extremely impractical, and any distraction from reducing carbon emissions is going in the wrong direction. Yet, IMHO, it is vital to promote ocean carbon-cycle research. Besides
alternative energy, I consider it the most important research we can do right now. Though, technically inaccurate, it may be essentially true that "Save the algae, Save the planet."

Given that 100% green energy is necessary to stablize the climate, it is NOT sufficient. Unless we do something significant to reduce CO2 already in the air, even if we were 100% carbon-neutral today, the earth will warm for centuries. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, underwater coastal cities, and famines are just a few of the potentially catastrophic results. These may cascade -- 10 to 20 years from now some country may just get desperate enough to try something, anything, including dumping iron in the ocean. If that's Japan or China or the like, it could get ugly.

Iron fertilization is the only approach (that I have seen) that at least holds the potential for a practical and safe means to reduce global CO2. Maybe not. The only way to find out is to research the heck out of it. Start small, thorough and longitudnal, responsibly. I totally agree great caution is called for, as we cannot afford to screw up the oceans -- more than we have. I am not a proponent of massive ocean fertilization. I am a strong proponent for massive research on the ocean carbon cycle in order to understand what fertilization would do.

Planktos was by no means perfect, but their small scale efforts would have at least started some active research. Its passing is a missed opportunity for some early data. I would agree that pure science research is preferable to for-profit enterprises, but as long as they act responsibly, something is better than nothing. That model works in many other areas. I'm all for a Code of Ethics and peer reviews and authorizations, but ignoring a potential fix doesn't move us forward.

Rather than a moratorium on ocean research, now is the time for a full-court press, a moon-shot level of research, so in 10 or 20 years we will have a lot more real information. That is business we should start handling ASAP. A billion for ocean carbon, now please! As much as I am a proponent of space travel, we need to solve our climate problem here more than landing on the moon or Mars. How about a 10-year hiatus on that, and redirect NASA to study the oceans intensely with satellites?

Maybe it will turn out that a well-tuned moderate program of seeding will turn out great, maybe not. I would at least like to explore the possibility of leaving the earth to my son and the next generation in some semblance of the condition we have enjoyed. Figuring out, as a world, how much to moderate the climate, if we could, is a much better problem to have than a climate uncontrollably out of whack. If we wait 10 years to begin to figure out how to build a proper lifeboat, we could build a really poor one in a hurry, or the ship may have already sunk, like our coastal cities...

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