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Geoengineering Test Fuels Debate

Ocean iron-dumping project prompts proposals to regulate climate intervention

by Deirdre Lockwood
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

Credit: IPCC/Royal Society
Proposed geoengineering methods include carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.
Methods proposed for geoengineering, including carbon dioxide removal techniques such as ocean iron fertilization, and solar radiation management efforts such as spraying reflective aerosols into the stratosphere.
Credit: IPCC/Royal Society
Proposed geoengineering methods include carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.

An international debate over using technology to modify the climate—called geoengineering—has intensified since October, when details came to light about an incident involving the dumping of about 100 metric tons of iron-laden dust off the coast of British Columbia.

The dumping was done months earlier by Haida Salmon Restoration Corp., a company backed by a village on the Canadian islands of Haida Gwaii. The iron addition to the Northeast Pacific was 10 times larger than that by any previous scientific experiment on ocean iron fertilization, a proposed method for mitigating climate change by stimulating carbon dioxide-absorbing phytoplankton blooms.

A number of environmental groups, governing bodies, and scientists have reacted with alarm, calling the move a rogue deployment of geoengineering.

Geoengineering could alter ecosystems, weather, and geochemical cycles and could cause international conflict if deployed on a large scale by nations or individuals, critics say.

Still, many scientists say that the practices should be researched because of slow progress on addressing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently no international legally binding regulations on geoengineering exist, although two international agreements have adopted nonbinding resolutions that discourage it: the London Convention & Protocol, which regulates ocean dumping, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

Critics of geoengineering are also concerned about efforts to make ocean fertilization eligible for credits traded or purchased to offset greenhouse gas emissions. Compliance-based markets for carbon offset credits include the European Union Emissions Trading System, in which European industries can trade credits to meet emissions caps. But offsets in these markets are strictly regulated, and iron fertilization does not qualify. Smaller voluntary markets, in which individuals, corporations, or governments purchase offsets for their emissions, are less well regulated.

The American businessman who was named chief scientist of the iron addition project off Haida Gwaii, Russ George, is notorious for his past attempts to sell carbon offsets for ocean fertilization through his now-defunct company, Planktos. Haida Salmon Restoration President John Disney said in an October press conference that the $2.5 million project aimed to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom to boost the region’s ailing salmon fishery. But he said the group also hoped to collect data on ocean fertilization that would net them carbon credits to recoup project costs. According to the group, the iron addition generated a phytoplankton bloom of 10,000 km2 that attracted a bevy of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Disney said several government agencies, including Environment Canada and the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, were aware of the project. But Environment Canada says it did not receive an application for iron fertilization and is investigating the incident, according to spokesman Mark Johnson. Johnson says the agency told members of Disney’s company in May that the Canadian Environmental Protection Act prohibits ocean fertilization except for legitimate scientific research. NOAA, which lent the project drifting buoys for monitoring, says it was misled and was not told that the project involved iron addition.

ETC Group, a Canadian environmental watchdog organization, called the incident the world’s largest global geoengineering deployment and “a blatant violation of moratoria” on the practice established by the London and UN Conventions. Parties to the London Convention also voiced concern about the action at their meeting in November.

But some climate science and policy experts say that the ecological and legal consequences of the deployment are small compared with its impact on future geoengineering policy and governance.

Although the incident was “obviously a mess,” it didn’t violate international law, says Edward A. Parson, an environmental legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. The geoengineering decisions adopted by the UN Convention are nonbinding, as is a resolution to the London Convention that discourages ocean fertilization except for legitimate scientific research. Parties to the London Convention developed a framework for assessing risks of proposed iron fertilization experiments, but it is not yet legally enforceable, he says.

Credit: Giovanni/GES DISC/NASA
A satellite map of mean chlorophyll concentrations in August 2012 shows a large, anomalous plankton bloom in the circled region where last summer’s iron addition took place.
A satellite map of mean chlorophyll concentrations in August 2012 shows a large, anomalous plankton bloom in the region of the summer iron addition. Scale bar, chlorophyll concentrations (µg/l).
Credit: Giovanni/GES DISC/NASA
A satellite map of mean chlorophyll concentrations in August 2012 shows a large, anomalous plankton bloom in the circled region where last summer’s iron addition took place.

The Haida project makes it clear that international regulations on geoengineering are needed, Parson says, not only for iron fertilization but also for solar radiation management technologies that offer quicker—though potentially more invasive—fixes for cooling Earth. These sunlight-reflecting strategies include shooting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere and spraying seawater into the atmosphere to brighten clouds.

Regulations would lessen the politically and ecologically disruptive potential of states or individuals deploying these technologies, Parson says. They would also encourage scientific assessment of the risks and benefits of these practices in case they are needed as a “least bad option” to mitigate catastrophic climate change.

“These experiments are freighted, even if the experiments themselves are riskless,” Parson says. “They are clarifying a capability that could be scaled up for planetary implementation.”

For example, although most proposed sulfate aerosol experiments would involve an aerosol release equivalent to that of one jet airplane flight, Parson says, regulations would ensure that the experiments were conducted transparently and that their conclusions were not hyped.

David Keith, a Harvard University climate scientist who has collaborated with Parson on articles about the need for policy in this area, agrees. He says the Haida project could polarize a debate on geoengineering between two sides already at odds: “abolitionists” who want to ban all geoengineering efforts, including research, and certain scientists who think there should be no limitations on how they study these potential climate solutions.

Rogue activity, Keith says, lends credence to concerns of geoengineering critics. If abolitionists win the debate, scientists may feel obligated to ignore them, leading to more risky, unsupervised, and uncontrolled experiments, he says.

The Ocean Carbon & Biogeochemistry program, a group studying the ocean’s role in the carbon cycle, has expressed similar concerns. The group supports controlled ocean perturbation experiments that are transparent, scientifically rigorous, and compliant with ocean-dumping protocols but opposes any trading of carbon credits based on such experiments. “Unless there is a reasonable permitting process and funding for such activities through federal or high seas intergovernmental sponsors,” it says, “this work will continue to be done by ‘rogue geoengineers.’ ”

Oceanographers have conducted about a dozen controlled ocean iron fertilization experiments in the past two decades, with mixed results. To remove carbon from the atmosphere on a long-term basis, phytoplankton must sink or be transported to ocean depths before they are decomposed by microbes in the surface ocean. Researchers estimate that applying the method on a large scale could sequester several hundred million tons of carbon per year, an order of magnitude lower than the rate of annual fossil fuel emissions (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1154305).

Although small iron fertilization experiments are unlikely to cause ecological hazards, large-scale deployment could put ocean food webs at risk and create regions of low oxygen, says marine chemist Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “If one individual can have such a potential impact on climate or ecosystems, we’d better understand the consequences, and that to me takes future studies,” he says.

Other climate policy experts are concerned that pursuing these solutions draws attention away from reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Michael C. MacCracken, chief scientist at the Climate Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says although some research may be useful on carbon uptake approaches such as iron fertilization, “the efforts that can be imagined will be just far too small to accomplish anything useful with respect to playing a significant role in limiting climate change until fossil-fuel emissions are brought way, way down—so why take any risks on that approach?”

The key challenge may be to figure out how to regulate geoengineering deployment; however, Keith and Parson think that for now, a treaty would inhibit progress because it would involve a slow-moving process that would be hard to amend later.

In the meantime, they suggest that government research agencies and scientists work together to develop international regulations on geoengineering research that would be independently enforced by scientific funding bodies.

They envision rules that would set quantitative limits on the scale of experiments and impose a temporary moratorium of about a decade on deployment above these limits. They would also require scientists to notify agencies before carrying out experiments and submit them for risk assessment and monitoring.

Researchers and policymakers have made efforts in this direction through the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies in 2010 and the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative.

Parson says these discussions have led to consensus that large-scale geoengineering should not be deployed for the time being and that small-scale research should require a minimal regulatory burden. But there has been no progress on defining “large” and “small” or on how to manage interventions that fall in between, he says.


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