Geoengineering and Carbon Sequestration

In America, there is a fierce debate as to whether CO2 is a “pollutant” or not. This seems utterly silly at first, because what’s in a name? But in fact the conversation isn’t about nomenclature, it’s about jurisdiction – whether EPA is obligated to regulate CO2 emissions or enjoined from doing so.

It appears a similar quandary is emerging about geoengineering. There are those who argue that there is a global moratorium on geoengineering to prevent climate change. It seems surprising that we have any sort of global agreement at all regarding climate. But in fact there is such a thing, dating back to late October of 2010. On the other hand, it “isn’t legally binding“, whatever that means.

And what it means is in doubt. From the latter link:

The Nagoya agreement grants an exception for smaller studies conducted in a “controlled setting”, but only if they are thoroughly assessed and “justified by the need to gather specific scientific data”. Ken Caldeira, a geochemist who studies geoengineering at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, finds the agreement’s language vague and confusing. “What does ‘specific’ mean? Who is to determine the necessity of the data? How do I demonstrate a need to do anything?” he asks. Caldeira is also concerned that the agreement does not distinguish between controversial geoengineering technologies intended to block out the sun and less problematic techniques, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One thing is clear enough: that carbon sequestration by ocean fertilization is excluded. But should it be? The idea of “fixing” global warming by crudely putting in place an extra anthropogenic forcing toward global cooling absolutely terrifies me in its blatant foolishness: it continues the tendency to imagine that climate change is a concern about a single number, a scalar. The plan is akin to the college student who drinks more and more alcohol each night and more and more coffee each morning. It’s hard to imagine a happy ending.

But carbon sequestration is another matter entirely – it really could, in principle, solve the problem. So it’s perhaps unfortunate that ocean fertilization is included in the “geoengineering” umbrella. And it’s perhaps fortunate that the agreement has no teeth.

As I judge it, everybody seems to agree nowadays that no formal international agreement is in reach, but everybody should try to find technical solutions. In other words, whether or not his movie was boring, Lomborgism wins by default. Everyone seems convinced that there is not the remotest possibility of a treaty for decades. Oddly, we have very effective international treaties about money.

Lomborgism looks like a long shot to me. But we shouldn’t stand in its way if it’s the only shot we’ve got. So my sense of it is that while there should never be hard-to-reverse geoengineering to change the albedo of the earth, any way of pulling carbon out of the air should be considered. So I am having a hard time being horrified about somebody breaking the moratorium to try carbon sequestration.

A controversial American businessman dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean as part of a geoengineering scheme off the west coast of Canada in July, a Guardian investigation can reveal.

Lawyers, environmentalists and civil society groups are calling it a “blatant violation” of two international moratoria and the news is likely to spark outrage at a United Nations environmental summit taking place in India this week. Satellite images appear to confirm the claim by Californian Russ George that the iron has spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. The intention is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the ocean bed – a geoengineering technique known as ocean fertilisation that he hopes will net lucrative carbon credits.

I was not aware that there is some suggestion that the tribe had been scammed, but indeed attributes Jim Thomas “of ETC” thus: Thomas of ETC said George convinced the villagers to set up a company to channel more than $1 million of its own funds into the project. He promised it would help sell carbon credits and that would earn money for the community. ETC certainly has staked out a position against ocean fertilization. But given that the fertilization effort was successful, it makes little sense to read this as a scam. Clearly some substantial sum of money was spent doing the deed. So at present I am maintaining some doubt about ETC’s implications.

On the other hand, concerns expressed by ocean biologists are another story.


  1. Quick question: do we understand the atmosphere well enough that we can predict the effects of CO2 removal accurately? E.g. an ice age induced by removing too much CO2 is also not what we want.

  2. Try being horrified about his dishonest dealings with the Haida Gwaii:

    "...“The village people voted to support what they were told was a ’salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention,” Guujaaw told the Guardian..."

  3. More about it:

    "...University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver said research shows that some parts of the ocean are iron limited and that iron can cause a plankton bloom, but there is no proof it has an effect on salmon..."

    "...Given George’s history, “it is unlikely he got anyone qualified to co-operate with him,” said Miller..."

    We need to discourage this kind of lone-cowboy illegitimate faux-science activity.

  4. There's definitely a point about "cowboyism". The world is too small for people to act independently as a general rule.

    But consider that what he is after is carbon credits. It's a good sign that there is enough expectation of carbon credits to support this sort of action.

    Also, it definitely raises a question of what scale of carbon sequestration constitutes "geoengineering". What if I did some biochar enhancement on my own property? Is that "geoengineering"?

    I am not saying that I'm enthusiastic about this - last I heard the prospects for iron fertilization were rather limited and the lack of a legal authority on the high seas is clearly a problem. But it raises some very interesting questions, which makes it the sort of story we are most interested in hereabouts.

  5. I think from the articles that it's the Haida Gwaii who were misled to believe they could sell carbon credits, and that Weaver thinks they will not be able to sell any; so they are out a million or two dollars. That SOB should be jailed for this.

    [See the update to the article. Please let us know if you find more evidence about this aspect of the story. Thanks! -mt]

  6. Whether anyone approves or not, we can expect a lot more of this, increasing over time. Almost noone* is prepared to make the lifestyle changes that would result in the only effective solution, a total pullback from burning fossil fuels of all types, efficient or not. We are enamored of technology. We addict on it by the second (getting smaller and shorter, witness twitter) and "believe" in it more than anything else. In the service of country, god, and apple pie, people are going to want a quick fix and dam' the consequences.

    My fear, from looking at the various options, is that each "solution" is likely to make things worse, and not even provide more than a couple of years "celay" followed by a rebound including all the "hidden" accumulation of greenhouse gases. Hiding the effect is one of the worst things we can do, but given our addiction to cosmetics, the only likely action. This is just one opening salvo in a big fat war.

    (*btw, guilty as charged)

  7. It's an interesting question but I think it is fair to suggest not worrying about this aspect.

    I think overshoot is the least of the problems with this particular approach. The risks I see are about regional ocean biology and chemistry.

    It's amusing to speculate about a world where too much carbon has been withdrawn, but it's a completely implausible outcome. Removing carbon will always be a cost center on the local scale. It is unlikely that there will be any motivation to continue once the concentration is stabilized.

    Doing anything at the scale of global energy use will have huge drawbacks. Finding the least damaging path is the goal.

    In this regard, we should treat irreversible changes very different from the strategies that need to be actively maintained. This one is in the latter category. If it should ever do its job (along with many others, this one not having the potential to solve the problem by itself) we can simply stop fertilizing the ocean as there will be no reason to do so.

  8. APTN update:

    Guardian really sticking it to Canada. Given the Harper Conservatives' stupidity over science, gutting of Environment Canada and penchant for secrecy, it may take a while for the whole story to come out.:

  9. I don't have time to read carefully and think about it right now. But I haven't seen Russ George's scientists named and I would like to know if there are any qualified people involved in this.

    Another article:

  10. And more about the village and long term association with Russ George:

  11. No more would I be inclined to trust Russ George. Not much sign of scientific rigor here:

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