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Risky Business

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February 28, 2007

Risky Business

Climate change “quick-fixes” are good for business, but may prove disastrous for the environment

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Encana’s compound in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, home of the world’s largest carbon-sequestering operation. Oil companies see potential in carbon sequestration, but many environmentalists view it as a Band-Aid solution. Photo: Petroleum Technology Research Centre

"With the impacts of climate change becoming more evident every day and the need for action more urgent, it's likely that rich, panicky governments will gamble on quick-fixes rather than risk inconveniencing their electorate and/or offending industry." This is the warning expressed in a recent report from the Ottawa-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).

"Every crazy idea is being brought out and dusted off to try out on policy makers," says Pat Mooney, co-author of the report and executive director of the ETC Group.

The focus of the report, entitled Gambling with Gaia, is geoengineering. Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the environment by humans to bring about environmental change, particularly to counteract the undesired side-effects of other human activities.

Among the scientists covered in the report is Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, whose controversial geoengineering essay proposes to blast particles of sulphur into the stratosphere – increasing particulate pollution – to shield the Earth from the sun's rays. Crutzen presented his findings at the UN conference on climate change in Nairobi in November 2006. An Associated Press report notes that Crutzen said he was "not enthusiastic" about the proposal, but made it to startle policymakers into realizing that "if they don't take action [on climate change] much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we have to do experiments like this."

Despite his intent, the Nobel Laureate noted that the reception to his idea was "more positive" than expected. The article notes that during the same week as the UN convention, NASA's Ames Research Center was hosting a closed-door, high-level workshop on Crutzen's proposal and other geoengineering ideas for fending off climate change.

Geoengineering isn't only being discussed behind closed doors. Experiments have also begun on the open ocean, reports the ETC Group. Since 1993, there have been at least 10 experiments to seed sections of the ocean's surface (from 50 to 150 square kilometres) with iron filings. The European Union and at least nine national governments – including Canada's – have supported these "iron fertilization" projects. The experiments are based on the argument that iron nurtures plankton growth -- and plankton absorbs carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

It's not clear whether carbon dioxide absorbed by plankton will remain permanently sequestered, however. "You can't get two scientists to agree on the results," says Mooney. "Some say they see great potential in the field. Others say that the carbon dioxide may be captured temporarily, but might pop up again in a few weeks." The consensus that does exist, continues Mooney, is that this is "risky business."

After one expedition in 2002, in which three tonnes of iron particles were dumped into the ocean, the project's chief scientist, Dr. Kenneth Coale, told Popular Science: "What is still a mystery is the ripple effect on the rest of the ocean and the food chain." One fear, notes Popular Science, is that huge plankton blooms, in addition to gorging on CO2, will devour other nutrients. "A fertilization event to take care of atmospheric CO2 could have the unintended consequence of turning the oceans sterile," said Coale.

Despite the uncertainty within the science community regarding whether iron fertilization works, or if it has unintended consequences (like the sterilization of parts of the ocean), the business community is moving forward.

Planktos Inc. is a self-described "for-profit ecorestoration company" based in San Francisco with offices in Europe and British Columbia.

In 2007, Planktos will begin what its website terms: "plankton restoration, by replenishing forest-sized areas of ocean with natural iron-rich dust, just as Mother Nature does." This will provide the company with "saleable carbon credits for emerging environmental markets."

By purchasing carbon credits, companies or individuals can "buy the right to pollute" according to ETC's report, "by investing in projects that are deemed by 'experts' to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide." For example, Plaktos will "negate" your SUV's annual carbon footprint for the bargain basement price of fifty bucks.

The problem, says Mooney, is that there's no scientific proof that carbon dioxide absorbed by the plankton won't be re-released. "But companies serving the carbon market need only keep carbon dioxide out of sight for long enough to cash their cheques," says ETC's report. "If the carbon dioxide pops back up to the surface in a year or five, proving its source could be extremely difficult."

In Weyburn, Saskatchewan, home of the world's largest carbon-sequestering operation, another geoengineering experiment is already well underway – and is proving highly profitable. Oil giant Encana is compressing carbon dioxide and pumping it 1500 metres underground.

According to a February 10 article in the Globe and Mail, this system of sequestering carbon dioxide prevents the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere and "wreaking havoc with the environment," and "is seen by some experts as the ultimate solution to global warming." Encana, however, has other reasons to pump carbon dioxide underground. Its ultimate function is to force more crude oil to the surface; the company's output has jumped from 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day since beginning the practice.

For projects that won't profit from carbon capture and sequestration (those that won't see an increase in output), companies like Shell and Suncor are looking for Canadian government support to develop the technology. This is not where the government should be spending climate change funds, says Lindsay Telfer, director of the Sierra Club's Prairie Chapter. "We're talking about some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, there's no reason why government needs to be subsidizing this development."

Much like carbon sequestration in the oceans, it's not yet clear if carbon sequestered underground would actually stay there. Even if carbon dioxide does stay underground, "carbon capture and sequestration is a Band-Aid solution," says Telfer. "We need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels towards more renewable energy sources."

Both Telfer and Mooney recognize the value of geoengineering research and the important role technology can play in addressing climate change – they have no illusions about the immediate need for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – their concern, however, is that government and industry will be seduced by quick-fix technological 'solutions' that don't address root problems – and that might not even combat climate change.

"We need to look at the root problem that's driving climate change. We know it's burning of fossil fuels, but what is the system that that's happening in?" asks Telfer. "Part of that root cause is that we have a toxic economy." Our economic system promotes the idea of "infinite growth," a concept, she says, that is fundamentally unsustainable.

Humanity (primarily in the West) consumed more resources after the Second World War than all of human history before that, says Mooney. And global energy demands are expected to jump 60 per cent between 2002 and 2030. Not only is this environmentally unsustainable, he says, but a fundamental injustice.

Benefits and impacts of 'development' and technology are not equally felt, says Mooney. Right now, between 300,000 and 500,000 people die in developing countries each year due to the impacts of climate change, he says. He's concerned that geoengineering 'solutions' will also hurt those with the least money and power on the planet. "Who gets to adjust the mirrors in the stratosphere?" asks Mooney, referring to another geoengineering scheme that would place trillions of sun deflectors in the stratosphere. "And if you stop crops from burning up in the US, do you burn up the crops in Africa instead?"

Geoengineering "doesn't at all address the inequities in impacts," says Telfer. She notes that if we do manage to fend off climate change without addressing root environmental and social problems, we'll simply face a new crisis. "Next, it will be water."

"Are there root issues here that we're going to have to deal with if we're going to address climate change in an effective way?" asks Telfer. "Are we willing and ready to go there?”

“I think we need to be talking about it."

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Necessary Business: Performance Metrics for Climate Change Fixes

Hillary Bain Lindsay's review of the recent ETC report on “climate change geo-engineering” mimics a parallel Foreign Policy Info Forum discussion addressing appropriate, sane responses to issues of global climate change and ocean decline. Readers can reflect on that debate, where many similar ETC concerns have been posted (and corrected) by going to http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4031.

Ms. Lindsay's review here presents a one-sided discussion with ETC Executive Director Pat Mooney on the question of restoring micro-fine iron dust (not iron filings, as Ms. Lindsay writes) to the open ocean. As we have written previously, Mr. Mooney's rant against use of iron to fight global warming forgets to mention some startling basic facts: that iron micronutrients are a critical ingredient of ocean plankton productivity, that availability of iron in the open ocean is down by 25-30% in the past three decades (Steitz, Gregg 2003), and that plankton productivity has also diminished by an average of 15% worldwide (Gregg 2003, Behrenfeld 2006). This means that 3-5 billion tons of atmospheric CO2 are no longer being taken up via open-ocean photosynthesis — a substantial portion of the 6 billion tons of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions generated every year.

However, Ms. Lindsay's article, and Mr. Mooney's voice of concern, lay the groundwork for one of Planktos' most fundamental tenants: that we must advance our collective knowledge about the precise extent to which iron restoration, and ocean biomass carbon sequestration, can make a difference in addressing climate change and ocean decline.

In California and elsewhere Planktos has recommended creation of specific performance standards for its ocean restoration/carbon sequestration projects. We recommend that such top flight scientists as Dr. Kenneth Coale be included, whether as a contributor, reviewer or direct participant in our upcoming iron restoration initiatives. We know that good science, and good performance metrics are necessary to achieve verifiable, permanent sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in restored land and ocean ecosystems. The creation of such standards fits with any reasoned person's perspective of how best to adequately respond to the interrelated, daunting challenges of climate change and ocean decline.

Based on his own successful research work, Dr. Coale has observed the power of iron to restore plankton productivity in the open ocean. In an April, 2004 statement, Dr. Coale’s Moss Landing Marine Lab wrote that “iron fertilization could cause billions of tons of carbon to be removed from the atmosphere each year.” Dr. Coale has no doubt wondered about the consequences of mega-scale iron restorations across the world’s oceans. But no one is proposing such a thing – in the same way that no one proposes blanketing the global landscape with trees.

There must be aggressive, reasoned, comprehensive response to climate change and ocean decline. Meaning that greenhouse gas remediation – represented by biological carbon capture and sequestration methodologies – is just as important as greenhouse gas pollution prevention. Both strategies have an essential role to play. Both demand careful oversight and policy-based guidance.

It can be shown that new forests, or restored ocean ecosystems, are capable of remediating vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, for the long term, at a fraction of the cost of technology-based solutions, and with enormous co-benefits stemming from restored ecosystem services improving air quality, water quality, integrity of the landscape and biodiversity.

The fact that we can do all the above, earn carbon credits, then reinvest the proceeds in additional land and ocean eco-restoration projects, should sound like the BEST example of socially responsible business behavior – to those intent on actually helping to solve the archetypal-scale problems we now face.

William Coleman
Planktos Inc.
Foster City, CA

Perpetuating the Archetype

I certainly agree that climate change is an archetypal-scale problem, but the use of iron filings in the ocean is perpetuating the same archetype that has culminated in our current situation; namely, an overwhelming arrogance regarding our understanding of nature. The most profound lesson that ecology has taught us in the past century is that we cannot predict the extent of the consequences of modifying ecosystems- the systems are too complex and operate on too many scales. If indeed, Planktos is dedicated to helping the oceans, then the only course of action open to the company is firstly to dedicate its efforts to halting whatever the cause is of declining plankton/and or iron filings (and if we don't understand this, then there is certainly no way that iron particles should be added to the ocean) and secondly to rigorously applying the precautionary principle- if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. Unfortunately, applying this principle in the context of a capitalistic system will, I think, for Planktos prove very expensive indeed.

Yours sincerely,

Yuill Herbert
Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia

Ecosystem Restoration

Ecosystem management happens every day, all across the planet, as a necessary response to degradation of environmental quality. The applied sciences of conservation biology and restoration ecology lay the groundwork for this important work.

Well managed eco-restoration occurs at appropriate scale, in appropriate locations on land and sea, as a way to restore natural capital and the services that underpin the quality of life - both for humans and for other living things.

Eco-restoration follows very carefully perscribed methodologies addressing habitat disturbance & fragmentation, species assemblage & succession, community structure & integrity, and adaptive management.

The end result is improved quality of wetlands, watersheds, landscapes, regional airsheds, coastal ecosystems, pelagic communities and, ultimately, human health and welfare.

Whether on land or in the sea, eco-restoration is, in the modern era, a necessary fact of life.

Bill Coleman


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