On eve of Trump inauguration, White House report calls for geoengineering research

Photo: Wikipedia

The White House has released a report which for the first time recommends U.S. government-funded research into geoengineering. The report, which was submitted to Congress last week by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, falls short of calling for real-world experiments, laying out a case for research into the science behind large-scale climate intervention and the “possible consequences of any such measures.”

The White House report comes one week before businessman Donald Trump is set to be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Trump has repeatedly denied the scientific consensus on climate change, and has nominated a collection of climate deniers to head key agencies related to energy, environment, and public lands in the U.S.

The report’s release raises the question of whether a Trump administration would support further research or even deployment of geoengineering technologies. There are a number of reasons to believe that he would.

First, Trump and his nominees are heavily linked to the fossil fuel industry, which has an enormous material interest – to the tune of trillions of dollars in booked assets – in promoting the notion that society can extract known carbon reserves and overshoot carbon budgets today, while relying upon future techno-fix solutions to clean up the mess later on.

The president-elect himself, as recently as 2015, was invested in Chevron, Statoil, Shell, Transcanada, and Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the contested Dakota Access Pipeline. The list of Trump’s department nominees reads like a dystopian novel. If confirmed, the U.S. Energy Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of the Interior would all be led by people with close ties to fossil fuel interests who deny anthropogenic climate change, while the State Department would be led by Rex Tillerson – longtime CEO of ExxonMobil.

The second point is that simultaneous support for climate change denial and geoengineering, or rapid shifts from one position to the other, are not logically incoherent when viewed through a political lens. This is particularly true among political actors on the far right, associated with groups ranging from the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heartland Institute.

Trump ally and former House speaker Newt Gingrich – who famously flipped from climate change skepticism, to geoengineering supporter, back to climate denial – offers just one prominent example of this maneuver. And it’s not difficult to imagine a similar shift from the president-to-be himself. Trump’s interview with the New York Times in November offers a window into his opportunist mode of thinking; where in response to a question about climate change, he notes that, “I have an open mind to it…we’re going to look very carefully,” followed immediately by, “it also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.”

The third point is that geoengineering is a technology particularly well-suited for those who fashion themselves as would-be autocrats. In a testament to the effectiveness of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity’s de-facto moratorium on geoengineering, the U.S. has so far restrained from proposing any real-world experiments. However, the U.S. is not a party to the convention – and it’s troublingly easy to imagine a Trump administration taking unilateral action on testing, or where feasible, deploying geoengineering technologies.

Much has been written about the possibility of a Trump administration utilizing large-scale disruption – such as a terrorist attack – as a pretense for suspending civil liberties, undermining democratic institutions, and going after political rivals. This age-old strategy, most recently on display in Erdogan’s Turkey following the attempted coup, provides a model for an authoritarian response to a cataclysmic natural disaster.

In fact, Trump’s practice of denigrating all sources of information outside of himself – ranging from the press, to political opposition, to the intelligence agencies – would prove particularly useful in declaring and sustaining activities under the banner of a climate state of emergency. Trump may not have to go it alone – with Rex Tillerson at the helm of the vast State Department apparatus, it’s likely Trump could find an ally in Putin’s Russia, which has at least on one occasion quietly pushed the IPCC to include geoengineering in its reports.

The antidote to all of this is to build and support organizations and movements united by a common vision of a fundamentally different type of economy – one that revolves around zero waste, ecosystem restoration, regional food systems, durable public housing and public transit, and community-scale renewable energy. An authoritarian approach to geoengineering will draw its power from fear and a recycled notion of “There Is No Alternative” type thinking – therefore our response must be based as much on hope and vision as it is on building organizations and movements with the power to win.

“Uncertainties” is an understatement when it comes to BECCS

[This article was originally posted to the Washington Geoengineering Consortium]

by Rachel Smolker

In 2012, Biofuelwatch published a report titled “Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage: Climate savior or dangerous hype?”  We had long been working to reveal and oppose large scale industrial and commercial scale bioenergy in various forms ranging from ethanol refineries to soy and palm oil biodiesel to coal plants converting over to burn wood. We had argued that corn ethanol would drive biodiversity loss, cause food prices to rise and contribute to chronic hunger, while failing to reduce emissions, as it has in fact done. We argued that burning wood as a substitute for coal would create a new driver of deforestation, even as protecting forests and ecosystems was recognized as a “best line of defense” against climate change. We pointed out that large scale bioenergy was incompatible with the simultaneous push to quantify, commodify and protect land based carbon sinks and their “services” (often for the dubious purpose of providing offsets to polluters…). We highlighted the human rights impacts, as land grabs for bioenergy escalated in Africa and elsewhere. And we argued over and over that the carbon consequences of bioenergy were far from “climate friendly” or “carbon neutral,” a myth that has been perpetuated by industry proponents and even parroted by many naive environmentalists.

When we learned that BECCS was being advocated as an approach to “mitigation,” we turned our attention to providing a critique based on many of those, by now familiar, arguments.  When BECCS spilled into the debates on climate geoengineering, we were outraged. Then even the supposedly scientific body, the IPCC released their Working Group III (Mitigation) Summary for Policymakers in April 2014, it stated that:  “Mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 ppm CO2eq in 2100 typically involve temporary overshoot of atmospheric concentrations as do many scenarios reaching about 500-550 ppm CO2 eq in 2100. Depending on the level of the overshoot, overshoot scenarios typically rely on the availability and widespread deployment of BECCS and afforestation in the second half of the century. The availability and scale of these and other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees associated with challenges and risks (see Section SPM 4.2, high confidence).”  While they acknowledge “uncertainties,” they nonetheless incorporate BECCS into models as if its feasibility and effectiveness is a given.

In fact, “uncertainties” is an understatement. Over the years we have been making our arguments heard and fighting to oppose large scale bioenergy projects and policies, a burgeoning body of peer reviewed scientific literature has been published supporting and substantiating the concerns we raised, and public opinion has evolved and shifted. Witness for example how corn ethanol, the darling of big agribusiness, some farmers, the oil industry and many environmentalists – has fallen out of favor in public perception. Over the past few years the EPA has been lobbied by a diverse assortment of industry groups to repeal the ethanol mandate, and policymakers have supported that with introduction of legislation.

In Europe, policymakers have (at least) taken note of the evolving understanding of bioenergy, though that has not been reflected back on policy as of yet.  There have been drawn out debates over indirect land use change and “sustainability standards” in particular, with the European Commission and Council suggesting that biofuel targets should be eliminated from the next climate and energy package (after 2020).

Nonetheless, avid proponents of BECCS hold fast to the simplistic claim that it can provide a “fix” for the climate, even permitting “overshoot” – allowing greenhouse gas concentrations to rise above what is indicated for long term stabilization based on the assumption that the excess can later be “cleaned up”.

In a recent reality check, scientists estimated what it would take to sequester 1 billion tonnes of carbon using BECCS based on switchgrass feedstock. Their findings showed a startling 218-990 million hectares of land would have to be converted to switchgrass (which is 14-65 times as much land as the US uses to grow corn for ethanol); also 17-79 million tonnes of fertiliser a year – which would be 75% of all global nitrogen fertiliser used at present; and 1.6-7.4 trillion cubic metres of water a year.

Even if such a BECCS-project was to actually sequester a billion tonnes of carbon a year, the authors point out that the nitrous oxide emissions from the extra fertilizer use alone would, over the course of a century ‘offset’ 75-310% of that sequestered CO2. In other words: Increased fertilizer use alone would likely mean that either of those projects would increase greenhouse gas emissions overall and thus make climate change even worse. That does not even include the vast carbon emissions from clearing trees, shrubs and grass from hundreds of millions of hectares of land, destroying large reservoirs of soil carbon, or the emissions from all the fossil fuels burned to transport and process switchgrass. Nor does it include emissions from producing the synthetic fertilizers.

BECCS advocates also adhere to the simplistic notion that all bioenergy (from corn ethanol to burning wood) is “carbon neutral.” Therefore, it is argued, adding CCS further renders it “carbon negative”.  The “carbon neutral” claim has been refuted time and time again in scientific literature.  Timothy Searchinger was among the first to do so with a paper entitled “A Critical Climate Accounting Error“. Others have further elaborated on the carbon implications of various forms of bioenergy, from corn ethanol to crop residue cellulosic fuels to wood bioenergy. When full consideration is given, including impacts on soils, fertilizer use and both direct and indirect land use change, bioenergy processes are, in reality, far from “neutral”.

A case in point is wood bioenergy. Conversion of coal plants to burn wood, dedicated new-build wood burning power plants as well as combined heat and power and biomass boilers for heating are creating huge new demand for wood pellets. Wood burning is subsidized as renewable energy and also favored for use in dirty older coal plants that must meet new regulations on sulphur dioxide emissions.[1]  Hence large coal plants such as DRAX in the UK are converting to burn wood pellets. In the UK, these are largely imported from the southeastern USA.  While the energy industry claims to use only “wastes and residues”, those are clearly not abundantly available. Recent investigationof the largest pellet producer in the US, Enviva, revealed that they were sourcing wood from remaining pockets of endangered Atlantic coastal forests and then shipping them across the Atlantic to burn with coal.

Cutting trees to burn (or refine) for bioenergy can hardly be considered carbon neutral or climate friendly.[2] Though this would seem to be common sense, there are now many scientific studies showing that uncut forests (and their soils) store more carbonthan those that are disturbed and harvested[3], and continue to do so as they grow older, storing far more than fast rotation industrial tree plantations. Even ignoring the impacts on forests, harvest and transportation and looking only at the emissions coming from smokestacks, wood releases around 50% more CO2 per megawatt of electricity generation than coal!

If bioenergy is not carbon neutral, then it simply cannot be rendered carbon negative by adding CCS, even if captured carbon were securely stored away (which we will see below, is unlikely).

So the enthusiasm for BECCS and continued “carbon negative” rhetoric seems a bit puzzling.  Are proponents of BECCS just horrifically poor at math?  Or is there some other motive behind the ongoing support for a technology that appears entirely nonsensical and lacking credibility?  Perhaps BECCS supporters are scared stiff about the pace and scale of global climate change, understand that desperate measures are needed, and consider BECCS, in spite of shortcomings, to be “more benign” than other approaches such as sulphate particle injection into the stratosphere? That was certainly the overarching mood at the recent IASS conference on climate geoengineering in Potsdam, Germany.

Or perhaps there is something else going on?  Many climate “solutions” that are being offered to us are in fact those that large and powerful corporations such as the oil companies are willing to engage.  We have been hearing the term “clean coal” for decades now.  Why the persistence?

Here is one possibility: according to an analysis commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) there are large amounts of oil lying around in the difficult to access depths of previously depleted oil wells.  That oil could be accessed using “enhanced oil recovery”, which can be achieved by pumping compressed CO2 into those wells to force out the remaining difficult to access oil.[4]  They project that at least 137 billion barrels of oil could potentially be extracted, 67 billion barrels of which could be economically recoverable at a price of $85 a barrel.  That is three times the current U.S. proven reserves!

The National Energy Technology Laboratory “EOR Primer” states that “somewhere around 85 billion barrels of oil are recoverable using CO2 EOR, which currently is responsible for about 4 percent of U.S. oil production, displaying a long-term growth trend that stands in stark contrast to the long-term decline trend for U.S. oil production overall. Certainly, the volume of “stranded” oil left behind in U.S. reservoirs after conventional primary and second recovery techniques is massive—as much as two-thirds of all the oil discovered in the United States resides in this category.”[5]

In short, with oil reserves becoming more and more difficult to access and extract, EOR is becoming more and more attractive.

The US Chamber of Commerce recognizing this, states: “In terms of economic and energy security, this [EOR] means billions of dollars of new investment in the U.S. and production potential of 4 million barrels a day of oil for 50 years from existing US oil fields. The investment required would not just be in oil fields themselves but also in power plants, pipelines and other industries that capture CO2 from their industrial processes., The economic benefits will also flow to the state and federal governments with an estimated 1.4 trillion in new government revenues. In addition to the direct benefits to the U.S., the technology used to produce this additional oil will help maintain US leadership in oil production technology, creating opportunities around the world for U.S. companies.”[6]

What is needed to make these dreams of riches come true? Chamber of Commerce states:  “The challenge of realizing this potential is primarily the availability of CO2 at prices that support economic operations. This is also one of the opportunities since CO2 is emitted by power plants and many industrial processes.”  And the MidwesternGovernors Association, major advocates for CCS development state: “With unstable oil prices, commercially proven technology and know-how readily available and private capital waiting to invest, the MGA CCS Task Force aims to address the major remaining barrier to ramping up EOR: the lack of industrial sources of captured CO2 large enough and sufficiently long-term to justify private investment in pipelines and other infrastructure needed to expand EOR to additional fields.”

According to the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative there is a market for somewhere around 20 billion metric tons of CO2.  The Natural Resources Defense Council (purportedly an environmental group!) offers that supplying adequate supplies of CO2 would require installation of between 69-109 gigawatts of coal and natural gas power plants equipped with carbon capture.[7] Indeed, what they are advocating for is construction of vast new fossil fueled power plant capacity as a way to provide cheap CO2 to facilitiate extraction of more oil.[8]

Somehow, many in industry, academics and policymaking as well as certain members of the public, have been convinced that this is a “solution” to the climate crisis.

Carbon capture is costly in part because it requires additional energy to capture and separate CO2 from a heterogeneous mix – as emerges from the stack of a coal combustion facility for example. Capturing the nearly pure stream of CO2 emitted from corn ethanol refinery fermentation processes is cheaper however, and footing the bill for the added costs associated with carbon capture can be further offset by taking advantage of the market for CO2 availed by EOR.

According to advocates from the Great Plains Institute, “Ethanol won’t be a large source of CO2 over time compared to power plants, but it will be an important one because it can be an early participant in providing CO2 to the oil industry—there really are no technological barriers whatsoever.”

A key question (assuming we even wanted to pursue it this far), is whether CO2 used for EOR, is “sequestered” or not?  Projects that employ EOR are after all, referred to as CCS – but is the “S” really happening? Or is the CO2 used for EOR just re-released into the atmosphere along with the carbon from yet more oil extraction?  Finding the answer to that question has not proven straightforward. One almost gets the sense there is deliberate obfuscation. In the EOR process, CO2 mixes with the oil, much like detergent mixes with grease when dishwashing. That expands the volume and forces the oil out. So once the oil/CO2 mixture has been extracted, presumably it must then be separated out again and perhaps then reinjected back into the well.  All of those added steps ust contribute  to costs and energy demands of the process. The term “Carbon Capture and Storage thus appears to be largely a misnomer and indeed the term “Carbon Capture and Utilization” is now coming into use along with terms such as “Negative Emissions”.

If CO2 is captured following EOR and re-injected into underground storage spaces, those wells would need to be capped and sealed to ensure no leakage.  The Chamber of Commerce states that “If CO2 sequestration for long term storage is planned for the site, then a monitoring plan is developed and implemented. Once monitoring demonstrates that CO2 has not migrated out of the rock formation over the near term (tens of years) then there can be great certainty that no migration will occur in the long term (hundreds or thousands of years).”  In other words: we don’t know, and we will leave it to future generations to deal with the consequences.

Common sense, informed by our current understanding of earth history, plate tectonics and earthquakes tells us that assuming long term CO2 storage would be foolish. CO2 is not only a danger to climate, but in concentrated form, it is a lethal poison. Any abrupt release of concentrated CO2 could have serious impacts on those exposed, as well as contributing a sudden spike of CO2 to climate. Multiple small leaks also pose risks. They can occur at many points from capture process to compression to pipeline transport to injection, separation and reinjection and storage site leaks.

Assuming long term storage of CO2 underground is foolhardy.  Experience with the wrongful claims made by the nuclear industry (Chernobyl, Fukushima etc.) or by the oil industry (Deep Horizon) should serve as clear lessons:  Relying on industry claims about safety and reliability is unwise. Precaution is very highly advised!

The underlying motive behind CCS remains  to perpetuate the ongoing use of fossil fuels. At the recent UN Climate Summit in New York City, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development released a bizarre animated portrayal of the city buried under endless floods of oil. Their conclusion to the problem of such gluttonous and ongoing oil consumption: a carbon tax with the proceeds directed to developing “carbon capture and utilization” (EOR).

Concerns aside, what experience do we have with CCS? The coal industry has been proclaiming the potential for “clean coal” in spite of virtually no existing practice, for decades. Yet CCS remains very expensive, largely nonexistent and where it does exist, “storage” remains a misnomer.

A “groundbreaking” was just held for the Petra Nova facility in Texas, slated to be the “world’s largest”. This facility will use captured CO2 for EOR in the nearby Hilcorp owned West Ranch oil field, where oil extraction is to be increased from 500 to 15,000 barrels per day. In news interviews, CEO of partner company JX “insisted” that some of the Co2 would be permanently sequestered and thus the project “does tackle climate change to some extent.”

The $1.3 billion dollar SaskPower Boundary Dam Power Station CCS project recently started operation – the first post combustion coal plant fitted with CCS. The project is proclaimed as “making a viable technical, economic and environmental case for the continued use of coal.” Further they claim to provide a “90% greenhouse gas reduction…the equivalent of taking more than 250,000 cars off the road annually.”  And yet the facility will sell the majority of captured CO2 to Cenovus for EOR. Emissions from the additional oil extraction are invisible in the hype surrounding the facility opening.

The notorious “FutureGen” CCS project in Illinois was initially funded in 2003 under the Bush administration, then cancelled due to high costs and a legal challenge. It was recently granted a new lease on life with $1 billion in DOE funding yet still remains far from operational.

In Kemper County Mississippi, a coal CCS project  was initially projected to cost 2.4 billion and to date estimates have risen to 5.4 billion and rising. Again, the captured CO2 is to be used for EOR at nearby Denbury Resources owned wells. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report: “The only thing the Kemper power plant is burning now is money. The plant has suffered almost every kind of cost overrun, beset by bad weather, labor costs, shortages and “inconsistent” quality of equipment and materials, and contractor and supplier delays.”

The AEP owned Mountaineer Plant, a coal burning facility in West Virginia was put on hold due to excessive costs.

And, the contentious Duke Energy coal gasification facility in Edwardsport Indiana was reportedly using more energy than it produced even after massive cost overuns and ratepayer outrage. THe Sierra Club refers to this project as “A monument to cost overuns, concealment and malfeasance.”

Capturing CO2 streams from natural gas extraction processes has been demonstrated (Sleipner and elsewhere) But even that has been frought with difficulties.  A much touted plan to capture CO2 from the Mongstad facility in Norway was recentlyabandoned after monumental cost overuns.

The largest bioenergy project with CCS by far involves a corn ethanol refinery owned by Archer Daniels Midland, in Decatur Ill. This project aims to store captured CO2 in nearby Mount Simon saline aquifer. The estimated costs are 207 billion and has required construction of a separate power plant to provide energy for capture, dehydration and compression of the CO2.

Just as the myth that burning biomass is “carbon neutral” has been relentlessly perpetrated, now another myth has emerged.  This myth refers to CCS as a means of sequestering carbon – removing it from the atmosphere and fixing the problem of climate change.  Yet in reality CCS is the oil and coal industry’s dream technology! Through a tangled web of misinformation and rhetoric they have convinced many that we should build more fossil and bioenergy industrial facilities, which will need even greater capacity to power carbon capture, which will then facilitate extraction of yet more oil.  This is sold to us as a “solution” to the climate crisis and in the case of bioenergy applications, as “climate geoengineering”.

While a remarkeable number of people, including IPCC scientists and even some environmentalists even appear easily fooled, the atmosphere and earth systems certainly will not be!

Dr. Rachel Smolker is a codirector of Biofuelwatch, and an organizer with Energy Justice Network. She has researched, written and organized on the impacts of biofuels, bioenergy and biochar on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people and the climate. She works with various coalitions, national and international including the Mobilization for Climate Justice, Climate Justice Now and others opposing market-based solutions to climate change and other “false solutions”. She is the daughter of one of the founders of Environmental Defense Fund and participated in a protest against that organization because of the key role EDF played in advocating market based solutions to climate change. She has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology from the University of Michigan and worked previously as a field biologist, gaining first hand experience with the complex balance between the needs of people and the ecological systems they depend upon. She is author of “To Touch A Wild Dolphin” (Doubleday 2001) and lives in Vermont. A list of publications is available on request.

Intergovernmental Climate Report Leaves Hopes Hanging on Fantasy Technology

by Rachel Smolker

Wellheads that check the temperature and pressure of the sequestered carbon dioxide gas at American Electric PowerÕs Mountaineer plant.This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed for us, once again, that the planet is warming, even more and even faster than panel members thought. In fact, it is getting even warmer even faster than they thought the last time they admitted to having underestimated the problem. We humans are in deep trouble, and finding a way out of this mess – one that will ensure a decent future for us – is becoming increasingly difficult, if not nearly impossible.

That difficult task is what the latest installment from IPCC, the Working Group 3 report on mitigation is intended to address. This past weekend, the “summary for policymakers” was released after the mad rush of government negotiations over the scientists’ text took place in Berlin last week.

This is the fifth assessment report, and differed from the previous reports by also including some (contentious) discussion of ethical considerations. Notably, this report acknowledges that economic growth is the fundamental driver of emissions. It also offers economic analysis showing that taking necessary steps to protect the climate would require an annual economic growth opportunity loss of a mere 0.06%. As Joe Romm noted: “that’s “relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6 percent and 3 percent per year.” So we’re talking annual growth of, say 2.24 percent rather than 2.30 percent to save billions and billions of people from needless suffering for decades if not centuries.”

That’s great, but the big question is: What investments are recommended, and would they actually work? What became clear from leaked earlier drafts was a troubling prominence of false solutions and unicorns included among the strategies for mitigation.

The report considered 900 stabilization scenarios, aiming to achieve anywhere from 430-720 ppm (parts per million of CO2) by 2100. What they concluded is that to achieve (maybe) even the alarmingly high 450-550 ppm – the level thought to hold some chance for limiting warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – would at this point require not only reducing emissions, but also using some technology to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

It seems that IPCC is at a loss to provide realistic pathways even to achieving 450 or 550 ppm, which is pretty alarming in itself, but also, it seems unrealistic to assume in any case that we are in control of earth systems such that we can pick a ppm target and just go there. We are already experiencing unanticipated, underestimated and uncontrollable feedbacks that make the discussions of targets and ppm modeling seem a bit obsolete. Nonetheless, this is the framework for the report.

IPCC is telling us that we will need not only to reduce the ongoing flow of emissions, but also to find a way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. The working group cochair Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist, stated at the press briefing that many scenarios “strongly depend on the ability to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

How are we to supposedly remove CO2 from the atmosphere? The only techniques on offer are bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, also called BECCS, and afforestation.

The problem with this conclusion, and the reason the media picked up on it even prior to the final report release is that BECCS is almost entirely unproven; we already have a strong basis for assuming it will not actually work to remove CO2, and it is extremely risky and costly. IPCC acknowledges this, even as they deem it essential.

The media, starting with The Guardian, picked up on this even in advance of the final negotiations, referring to BECCS as “the dangerous spawn of two bad ideas,” and in another article referring to it as the “plan to worsen global warming.”

The BBC headlined “UN dilemma over ‘Cinderella’ Technology.” And the UK Daily Mail asked: “Could we SUCK UP climate change? Referring to the great potential for carbon storage in Britain due to many abandoned coal mines and gas wells.

Here is what the final summary report actually states: “Mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 ppm CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2100 typically involve temporary overshoot of atmospheric concentrations as do many scenarios reaching about 500-550 ppm CO2eq   in 2100. Depending on the level of the overshoot, overshoot scenarios typically rely on the availability and widespread deployment of BECCS and afforestation in the second half of the century. The availability and scale of these and other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain, and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees associated with challenges and risks (see Section SPM 4.2, high confidence). CDR is also prevalent in many scenarios without overshoot to compensate for residual emissions from sectors where mitigation is more expensive. There is only limited evidence on the potential for large-scale deployment of BECCS, large-scale afforestation and other CDR technologies and methods.”

Biofuelwatch (the organization for which I serve as codirector) authored a report on BECCS in 2012, and so we have some familiarity with the nature of the “uncertainties” and the degree to which evidence on the potential is “limited.”

There is near-zero real-world experience with BECCS beyond a handful of attempts and a surprising number of canceled projects.

BECCS is not only “risky,” but already we have very good reasons to assume it will fail. For one thing, the entire logic behind BECCS rests on false assumptions. One false assumption is that bioenergy (and so far that appears to include all manner of processes, from corn ethanol refineries to coal plants retrofitted to burn trees in place of coal for electricity) is “carbon neutral.” The idea is that adding CCS to a carbon neutral process, will render it “carbon negative.” That simplistic thinking assumes that carbon absorbed out of the atmosphere by plants as they grow will be captured and buried, and then when more plants grow, they will absorb yet more carbon, a net “removal.” But, much is left out of that story.

Virtually nobody still contends that corn ethanol is “carbon neutral.” Yet the premier BECCS project that is often referred to is an ADM corn ethanol refinery in Decatur Illinois. In fact, when emissions from indirect impacts are included in analyses, along with a complete assessment of the impacts from growing, harvesting, fertilizer and chemical use etc., most bioenergy processes actually cause more emissions even than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. As for burning biomass (mostly wood) for electricity, there is a substantial literature – including peer-reviewed science, challenging the “carbon neutral” claim. It is well-established that counting just the emissions from smokestacks, burning wood releases around 50 percent more CO2 per unit of energy generation even than coal, along with many other pollutants. And it is simply incorrect to assume that this CO2 (as well as even further emissions resulting from harvest, transport and many indirect impacts) will be resequestered in new tree growth. If new trees do in fact grow, it may take decades. Further, we know already from the current scale of biofuel and biomass demand – just look at the current corn ethanol debacle – that it is driving loss of biodiversity, higher food prices, land grabs and other damages. Scaling up bioenergy to the extent that would be required to supposedly reduce global CO2 levels would be a disastrous backfire.

IPCC might have noted that the US EPA officials, charged with regulating CO2 emissions, found itself stymied with regard to how to account for emissions from bioenergy. Under pressure from industry, they decided to exempt biomass burning facilities from regulation for three years while they studied the problem. But that exemption was challenged in court, and the judge ruled there was no basis for it. In other words, CO2 from bioenergy should not be assumed “neutral” and therefore should not be exempted from regulation.

Most BECCS projects so far involve capturing CO2 streams from ethanol fermentation processes (because that is a relatively pure stream of CO2 that is cheaper and easier to capture). But then, the CO2 is not stored safely away, rather it is pumped into depleted oil wells to raise the pressure enough to force remaining oil out, a process called “enhanced oil recovery.” Oil industry analysts in fact estimate there is huge potential for accessing oil in this manner, and because it is profitable, it offsets some of the very substantial costs associated with CCS. This is hardly “carbon dioxide removal”! Furthermore, it is laying the groundwork in experience for using CCS applied to fossil fuels – i.e. so called “clean coal.” Capturing CO2 from coal plants remains more expensive and difficult due to the mix of gases, but the coal industry is hopeful that technology development will occur with BECCS.

The largely prohibitive costs have to do with the fact that capturing, compressing, transporting and storing CO2 all requires infrastructure and energy. It is assumed that adding CCS results in a “parasitic” energy load in the range of at least 30 percent of the facility capacity. In other words, 30 percent more biomass would be needed simply to power the CCS process itself.

Pumping and storing CO2 – from bio or fossil fuels – underground is downright foolhardy. We know full well that the earth’s crust is not static! There is the potential that CO2 deposits could increase seismicity (earthquakes). A catastrophic sudden release would be very dangerous given that CO2 is lethal at high concentrations. There is also much concern that the vast infrastructure of pipelines and trucking etc. that would be entailed in large scale deployment of CCS (with fossil or bio energy), would result in myriad small scale leaks. Valclav Smil calculated that to sequester just a fifth of current carbon dioxide emissions “. . . we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry, whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.”

IPCC recognizes how risky and uncertain BECCS is, and yet they still deem it essential? We might have hoped they would offer a pathway with more likelihood of success, given all that is at stake.

IPCC also include natural gas, nuclear and large-scale bioenergy all as “low-carbon or zero-carbon” options. And, as with BECCS, they provide lip service to the risks and concerns around these, but they seem to minimize these very real risks when the scenarios they rely on incorporate those same mitigation strategies (to differing degrees) as though they were viable.

To their credit, IPCC has recognized that geoengineering is not an option and should not be considered “mitigation.” While there was pressure, especially from Russia, to include geoengineering, including solar radiation management (SRM) into the mix, this was met with welcome resistance. Carbon Dioxide Removal techniques, including BECCS, also are considered in the context of geoengineering debates. But they are tightly linked to practices in place already, so it is more difficult to place them squarely in the geoengineering camp, where they would be subjected to the Convention on Biological Diversity defacto moratorium. We already know the impacts of large-scale bioenergy, and they are not at all clean, green, sustainable, low-carbon or carbon negative. They make matters worse, not better. Under the influence of desperation, we risk making lethal blunders.

While IPCC painted a remarkably palatable economic analysis of the costs of mitigation, they fall pretty flat in providing realistic means for using that finance to successful ends. Perhaps the problem boils down to this: IPCC knows economic growth is the driver, but instead of suggesting that we dramatically ramp it down within a justice-based framework, they instead seek a means to keep the engines of growth revving, but using “alternative,” and so-called “zero- and low-carbon” sources of energy and materials. In so doing, they sidestep reality.

This article originally appeared in Truthout.

Five facts CBC listeners didn’t hear from Canada’s geoengineering cheerleader

What’s missing from David Keith’s climate change charm offensive

by Jim Thomas

This article was originally published by the Media Co-op.

David Keith's preferred geoengineering scheme involves spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere.
David Keith’s preferred geoengineering scheme involves spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere.

Last Sunday, CBC listeners across Canada enjoyed their morning coffee and took care of a few chores around the house while the calm, mellifluous vocal cadences of Michael Enright and his guest David Keith washed over them. Keith, Enright said while introducing his guest, is a prominent and well-respected scientist, and the author of “The Case for Climate Engineering.”

Although both David Suzuki and Al Gore had branded Keith’s proposals “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme”  Enright took pains to reassure listeners that his guest — a Harvard professor — was perfectly sane. Enright was kinder to Keith than Stephen Colbert had been a few months previous, and so unfortunately avoided a number of tough questions.
Climate Geoengineering is the process of attempting to counteract climate change by large-scale methods other than reducing carbon emissions. These include spraying tonnes of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere (Keith’s preferred option), mounting giant space mirrors to reflect sunlight and slow its warming effects, dumping tonnes of iron filings into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth, and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with giant fans.
These measures have been opposed both because of their unpredictable effects and the fact that they give an excuse to rich countries to continue to increase carbon emissions on the basis of trumped-up techno-promises. In the same breath, Keith acknowledges and dismisses these criticisms.
Environmentalists who oppose geoengineering, Keith told Enright, are “more committed to their answer to the problem than really thinking in what I feel is a morally clear way about what our duties are to this generation and reducing the risks that they feel.”
Keith made the case for geoengineering, but he also made the case that those who oppose geoengineering are doing so because they have priorities other than slowing down the effects climate change. He aligned geoengineering with concerns about “how we want to leave the planet for our great-grandkids.” He took the time to talk about kayaking trips, and how he was motivated by a love of the natural world.
Keith didn’t take the time to mention a few other details. For those who are skeptical about Keith’s case for geoengineering, here are five things that Keith didn’t mention, and Enright kindly didn’t bring up.
1. David Keith runs a geoengineering company funded by tar sands money
In addition to being an author and a professor, David Keith heads up Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based startup that is developing air-capture technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company is funded by Bill Gates, who is also a geoengineering proponent, and by N. Murray Edwards, an Alberta billionaire who made his fortune in oil and gas. Edwards is said to be the largest individual investor in the tar sands, and is on the board of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, a major tar sands extraction company. Carbon Engineering hopes to sell the carbon dioxide it extracts to oil companies to help in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)- a technique for squeezing more fossil fuels out of the ground which will in turn be burnt to produce more atmospheric carbon.
2. The geoengineering that Keith proposes could be disastrous for the Global South
A study of the likely effects of one of the methods Keith is promoting, spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere with the aim of reflecting sunlight could cause “calamitous drought” in the Sahel region of Africa. Home to 100 million people, the Sahel is Africa’s poorest region. Previous droughts have been devastating. A 20-year dry period ending in 1990 claimed 250,000 lives. Other models predict possible monsoon failure in South Asia or impacts on Mexico and Brazil, depending where you spray the sulphur.
3. Keith’s geoengineering proposals are deeply aligned with the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry
If oil, natural gas and coal companies can’t extract the fossil fuels that they say they’re going to extract, they stand to lose trillions of dollars in stock value, $2 trillion in annual subsidies, and about $55 trillion in infrastructure. David Keith’s enthusiasm for geoengineering plays to the commercial interests of these companies whose share value depends on their ability to convince investors that they can continue to take the coal out of the hole and the oil out of the soil. This may be why fossil-sponsored neoconservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute have been so gung-ho for geoengineering research and development along exactly the lines that David Keith proposes. For example there is very little difference between what Keith proposes and what the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering project calls for.
4. Climate scientists just issued a new round of criticisms of geoengineering
In the most recent report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released before Keith’s interview aired, climate scientists loosed a new salvo of problems with various geoengineering schemes. “Geoengineering,” according to the report, “poses widespread risks to society and ecosystems.” In some models, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) — what Keith is pitching — “leads to ozone depletion and reduces precipitation.” And if SRM measures are started and then stopped for whatever reason, it creates a risk of ”rapid climate change.”
5. There’s already a widely-backed moratorium on geoengineering
While David Keith discussed possible ways of governing geoengineering internationally  he failed to mention that at least one UN convention was already dealing with the topic. The broadest decision yet on geoengineering, a 193-country consensus reached at the UN Convention on Biodiversity specifies that unless certain criteria are met, “no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place.” The moratorium is to remain in effect until geoengineering’s impacts on biodiversity and livelihood are analyzed, scientific evaluation is possible, and “science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms” exist.
In the interview, Keith said outright that he wants to bypass such a system. He considers the input of Africa and South America, and much of Europe and Asia as unnecessary in order to move forward with a geoengineering scheme. It would be enough, he told Enright, to gain the agreement of a small but powerful “countries with democratic institutions,” citing China as an example, along with the US and the European Union. David Keith has been recognized for his achievements in applied physics, but when it comes to political science, it may be time for him to hit the books.
Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group.

 

Geoengineering The Sky is Not ‘Normal’

by Rachel Smolker

In the wake of the climate negotiations in Warsaw, the consensus appears near universal: the international process is not going to deliver, and it is up to countries and communities to go it on their own. For some, that means taking serious and dramatic steps to reduce emissions. For others, like Bangladesh or the island nations, it means finding a way to survive the consequences of climate change with little help from the international community. For all of us, it means facing a future of weather extremes, crop failures and potential disruption of virtually everything on an unprecedented scale. For advocates of climate geoengineering, the failure of global agreement is wind in their sails: “More reasons” why drastic measures such as spewing sulphate particles into the stratosphere, or “fertilizing” the ocean with iron filings, or burning and burying billions of tons biomass (as biochar or “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”) should be seriously considered and research should be gloriously funded.

Of course the converse argument is that if global agreement on addressing climate change cannot be achieved, how can we possibly expect any global consensus on, or governance of “technomanagement” of the atmosphere where the risks of serious negative consequences, for some people in some places, at least, are so grave?

This worries me profoundly, and apparently others as well. It is why faculty from Johns Hopkins University and American University recently launched a new, Washington DC based “Climate Geoengineering Consortium“.The stated goal of the consortium, perhaps laudable, is “to generate space for perspectives from civil society actors and the wider public, to produce a heightened level of engagement around issues of justice, agency, and inclusion.” Perhaps I am too skeptical, but “generating space” for a debate seems a bit vague. This new consortium recently organized a meeting, slated as a “closed door” meeting of civil society representatives. Closed meetings for civil society always make me a little nervous. Especially when the topic is planetary scale interference with the global commons — the life support systems of our planet!

I’m not sure really how I ended up on the list of invitees, but I decided to attend. The meeting was held in a stark space at Johns Hopkins, with the requisite sleek furnishings and snack plates wrapped securely in sparkling plastic. Nobody in attendance was a shade darker than a bowl of oatmeal, all were dressed in drab, illuminated by glowing computers, tablets and smartphones. Represented were staff from Johns Hopkins and American University, as well as the conservative American Enterprise Institute (Lee Lane), Bipartisan Policy Center, NASA (Mike McCracken), the renowned blogger, Joe Romm, and long time (but now retired) Friends of the Earth director, Brent Blackwelder. There were representatives from U.S. Climate Action Network, Greenpeace, Food and Water Watch and various others. Certainly more diverse than some meetings, but even I could not avoid the sensation of being sort of a token.

Strikingly absent from the event was the single organization (ETC Group) that has been for years already working to raise awareness of climate geoengineering proposals among civil society via their “Hands Off Mother Earth” campaign, and also via their dogged and successful effort to promote a defacto ban on geoengineering through the Convention on Biodiversity. No other NGO has devoted anywhere near the attention to the issue, and yet oddly they were not behind these closed doors.

As expected, the opening remarks focused on reconfirming for us a sense of desperation, as we face global warming already on track to utter catastrophe. No disagreement there. We were told that climate scientists are running scared and so they are increasingly, even if reluctantly, turning to a “Plan B” for the planet. Plan B of course, being none other than, say, dumping sulphate particles into the stratosphere, pouring iron filings into the ocean, or perhaps charring and burying vast quantities of “biomass”.

After a brief review of the various technologies proposed and their potential to make things worse rather than better, one member of the audience asked: “If there is no silver lining to any of these approaches, then why are we even holding this conversation?” The organizers and most in the audience giggled, made jokes about adjourning the meeting right off the bat and heading home, and then settled in to discuss what were apparently more realistic questions, such as, “how do we get civil society more engaged in the discussion of geoengineering?” and “what form of governance would be most appropriate?”

But hang on! We are being shepherded into believing that it’s too late to seriously consider dropping consideration of geoengineering altogether? We are to assume that “the train has already left the station” and we now are obliged to engage in serious discussions about such outrageous proposals — or else just quietly disengage and accept the consequences.

Whose ideas are these anyway? Why are we being railroaded into accepting them as feasible and perhaps even desirable options? Are we somehow required to entertain and engage every nutty technofix idea that someone happens to dream up? If so, there are plenty out there and we could keep busy for all eternity if that is the case, meanwhile diverting our attention from implementing the straightforward, proven, low tech, low risk approaches to saving the planet. (Like halting deforestation, protecting biodiversity, putting a halt to overconsumption, ending the mining, fracking, clear cutting and burning of the planet, and providing real support to those coping with impacts of climate change, for example.)

This insistence that we engage in debate over climate geoengineering is part of the process of “normalization” that seems orchestrated — perhaps deliberately — with the intent of habituating people to the whole idea of climate geoengineering as an option.

It does in fact seem that we have commenced an out-of-control and ill-considered flight down the slippery slope, with a near dizzying onslaught of events, meetings, reports and debates on the topic where the more fundamental question is avoided and we are invited graciously to step right up and… go get lost in the weeds.

In a recent interview, Vandana Shiva, when asked her opinion on one proposed approach to climate geoengineering-spraying nanoparticles into the stratosphere, responded: “Each of these issues [geoengineering technologies] has a particular aspect that’s different but I think those particular aspects are very small compared to the overall damage and the overall irresponsibility. For me the first issue is, how dare you do this. How dare you. That has to be humanity’s response. Then the rest of the little things of how nano particles can harm or having too much sulphur in the atmosphere can harm — those are specific details but this is a civilizational issue. And in civilizational issues you don’t look at the tiny details as the debate. You have to look at the big picture!”

I personally have spent quite a lot of time in the weeds, critiquing the “particular aspects” of various technologies proposed for geoengineering (see for example our Biofuelwatch reports on biochar and bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration). But I must agree with Vandana. To a very large degree we only assist to “normalize” the issue by focusing on critique of the particular details.

What is clear is that climate geoengineering is opening new doors for many career seekers. From scientists with superman complexes, eager to be seen as doing “cutting edge” work with big important global consequence, to various environmental and other NGO careerists seeking grant support, status and a place at the table.

Moving forward, it will be necessary to keep our feet on the ground and adroitly steer clear of being led about by our collective nose on this issue. We will have to meticulously examine underlying assumptions when we sit down to discuss climate and geoengineering, and we will need to bolster immunity to the process of “normalization” because there is certainly nothing “normal” about geoengineering Earth’s climate!

This article was originally posted to HuffPo.

Tree plantations and bioenergy with carbon capture: far from “safe” geoengineering

Eucalyptus plantations in Bahia, Brazil, photo: Ricardo Carrere, World Rainforest Movement
Eucalyptus plantations in Bahia, Brazil

Amongst geoengineering methods, ‘afforestation’,  Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and biochar are commonly promoted as ‘safe’, benign’ or ‘soft’ options – unlike, say, shooting sulphur particles into the stratosphere.

Continue reading “Tree plantations and bioenergy with carbon capture: far from “safe” geoengineering”

B.C. village’s ocean fertilization experiment probed

Environment Canada investigating after iron-rich dust dumped off coast

Fifth Estate (CBC)

U.S. businessman Russ George, chief scientist and CEO for the HSRC, has been a proponent of the controversial idea of iron fertilization for years. (CBC/HSRC)

Environment Canada’s enforcement branch has executed search warrants in British Columbia as part of an investigation into a controversial iron-fertilization experiment that took place off the coast of Haida Gwaii, B.C., last summer, CBC’s the fifth estate has learned.

In July 2012, the Haida village of Old Massett and an American businessman dumped 100 tonnes of iron-rich dust into the ocean off Haida Gwaii, sparking international controversy.

In an exclusive interview, Ken Rea, chief councillor of the village, told the fifth estate’s Gillian Findlay that despite two UN resolutions banning iron fertilization and anti-dumping legislation in Canada he would like to do it again and make it sustainable

Ken Rea, chief councillor of the village of Old Massett in Haida Gwaii, says that he would like to bring iron fertilization back to Canada and make it sustainable, despite anti-dumping legislation. (CBC)

“After all the uproar, based on a whole bunch of inflammatory mischaracterized words, after calling it illegal, calling it dumping, calling it rogue and not having any of the evidence to back up their statements, none of it, they had no evidence to back all these statements up, we have it,” Rea says in an interview that airs on the fifth estate Friday at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. in N.L.

Old Massett residents invested $2.5 million to start the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC) and initiate the iron-fertilization project in hopes that it would boost the salmon population.

U.S. businessman Russ George, the chief scientist and CEO for the HSRC, has been a proponent of the controversial idea of iron fertilization for years.

Scientists say iron promotes the growth of plankton, microscopic organisms that provide a food source for salmon and other sea life. George based the experiment on the theory that growing artificial plankton blooms can remove carbon from the atmosphere and help reduce global warming.

Plankton absorb carbon dioxide from the sea and the air; the theory is that when plankton die they take carbon to the bottom of the ocean. Countries or companies that produce a lot of carbon could then buy carbon credits from the company that created the artificial plankton bloom.

There have been more than a dozen studies on iron fertilization in oceans with varying results, but there is no conclusive evidence plankton can remove substantial amounts of carbon from the environment in the long-term.

Some scientists say putting iron in the ocean is dangerous, because it could create “dead zones” where nothing can live. John Cullen, a professor of oceanography at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says unregulated experiments, such as the one off the coast of Haida Gwaii, should not be allowed.

“If those consequences cannot be predicted with confidence and verified with measurements then the activity should not be permitted,” he said.

George first gained media attention when he tried to do an iron-fertilization project off the Galapagos Islands in 2007. His company, Planktos Inc., attempted to dump 100 tonnes of iron-rich dirt near the World Heritage site before he was stopped by governments and environmentalists.

Jim Thomas, of the environmental action organization the ETC Group, says a UN moratorium on iron fertilization was passed with George in mind.

“It was prompted by what Russ George was planning to do, so we then had two international moratoria in place. And since then there has actually been even further agreements through other bodies,” Thomas told the fifth estate.

Old Massett residents said three meetings were held in 2011 before the community voted to approve the project. April White, a local artist and geologist, told the fifth estate the project was pitched by the village’s economic development officer, John Disney.

Iron fertilization involves dumping iron-rich soil into the ocean. Scientists say iron-rich dirt promotes the growth of plankton, microscopic organisms that provide a food source for salmon and other sealife. (CBC/HSRC)

“He said this project would bring in so much money. Everybody would have jobs because he had customers already lined up to buy the carbon credits from rich industries in Europe,” White said.

There is currently no regulated market for carbon credits based on fertilizing the ocean. Since there is no proof that plankton actually removes carbon in any significant way, there is no market.

White says Old Massett residents were also told the project would bring back salmon. That convinced them to vote in favour of the project, she said.

“Salmon is very much a part of the culture — I like to say we’re salmon people. It’s what connects us to nature. For the salmon not to come back in the same numbers is a real trauma. It really is a heartfelt thing.”

According to Rea, the salmon have all but disappeared and the loss has hit his fishing community hard. He said unemployment in Old Massett is about 70 per cent.

George declined to speak with the fifth estate. The HSRC website says that through this project the company is “working to learn how to replenish and restore the ocean plankton blooms, the ocean pastures, and salmon.”

The iron-fertilization experiment has split the Haida nation.

Residents of Skidegate First Nation, a Haida community 100 kilometres south of Old Massett, told the fifth estate they believe their reputation as stewards of the environment has been tarnished by what the village of Old Massett has done.

In an email to the fifth estate, Environment Canada said ocean fertilization is not allowed under Canadian law unless it qualifies as legitimate scientific research. Environment Canada says it did not receive an application from the village of Old Massett and is still investigating.

Canadian government ‘knew of plans to dump iron into the Pacific’

by Martin Lukacs (Guardian)

Aerial view of Haida Gwaii
An aerial of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. Photograph: Russ Heinl/Alamy

As controversy mounts over the Guardian’s revelations that an American businessman conducted a massive ocean fertilisation test, dumping around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate off Canada’s coast, it has emerged the Canadian government may have known about the geoengineering scheme and not stopped it.

The news combined, with Canadian obstructionism in negotiations over geoengineering at a United Nations biodiversity meeting in Hyderabad, India, has angered international civil society groups, who have announced they are singling out Canada for a recognition of shame at the summit – the Dodo award for actions that harm biodiversity.

They are criticising Canada for being one of “four horsemen of geoengineering”, joining Britain, Australia and New Zealand in opposing southern countries’ efforts to beef up the existing moratorium on technological fixes for global warming.

The chief executive of the company responsible for spawning the artificial 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom in the Pacific Ocean has implicated several Canadian departments, but government officials are remaining silent about the nature of their involvement.

In an interview with Canadian radio, John Disney said: “I’ve been in touch with many departments within the federal ministry. All I’m saying is that everyone from the Canadian Revenue Agency down to the National Research Council and Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada – these people, they’ve all known about this.”

The Guardian has seen government correspondence which indicates that Environment Canada officers met with Disney’s company in June and expressed their misgiving about any ocean fertilisation going forward, but appear to not have taken further action.

After the huge experiment happened in July, Canadian government officials were anxious to find out if the company’s boat flew under a Canadian flag and whether the iron was loaded in Canada.

A large number of Canadian personnel have been involved on the boat, the largest fishing vessel under Canadian registration in the province of British Columbia. Disney, who is also a non-native economic manager for the indigenous council in the Old Masset village in Haida Gwaii, told media that the iron was brought from Alberta.

Russ George, a colleague of Disney’s, told the Guardian: “Canadian government people have been helping us. We’ve had workshops run where we’ve been taught how to use satellites resources by the Canadian space agency. [The government] is trying to ‘cost-share’ with us on certain aspects of the project. And we are expecting lots more support as we go forward.”

Environment Canada officials refused to comment, saying “the matter is currently under investigation.”

“To clear these serious allegations of complicity the Canadian government needs to speak out and account for these events,” said Jim Thomas of the international technology watchdog ETC Group. “Officials need to condemn this dump as a breach of Canadian laws and take swift action against geoengineering: in Haida Gwaii that means initiating measures against Russ George and any Canadians involved, while in Hyderabad that means backing a global test ban.”

Sources indicate that the Council of the Haida Nations, the political body that speaks for all Haida people, is passing a resolution that any future decision on such projects will have to be ruled on by the entire nation, rather than by one village.

The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation was established by Old Masset village after they borrowed $2.5m dollars from a Canadian credit union, which provided the loan despite flagging numerous concerns about George’s credibility and his plans to try to win carbon credits for the project.

University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver told media that there are “profound implications” to dumping iron, and no guarantee that the ocean can be used as a carbon sink.

“They are not going to get a penny in carbon credits, because there’s no evidence the carbon is going to stay where it is,” he said.

Geoengineering Moratorium at UN Ministerial in Japan

(ETC Group)

NAGOYA, Japan – In a landmark consensus decision, the 193-member UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will close its tenth biennial meeting with a de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments. “Any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of this carefully crafted UN consensus,” stated Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of ETC Group.

The agreement, reached during the ministerial portion of the two-week meeting which included 110 environment ministers, asks governments to ensure that no geoengineering activities take place until risks to the environment and biodiversity and associated social, cultural and economic impacts have been appropriately considered. The CBD secretariat was also instructed to report back on various geoengineering proposals and potential intergovernmental regulatory measures.

The unusually strong consensus decision builds on the 2008 moratorium on ocean fertilization. That agreement, negotiated at COP 9 in Bonn, put the brakes on a litany of failed “experiments” – both public and private – to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in the oceans’ depths by spreading nutrients on the sea surface. Since then, attention has turned to a range of futuristic proposals to block a percentage of solar radiation via largescale interventions in the atmosphere, stratosphere and outer space that would alter global temperatures and precipitation patterns.

“This decision clearly places the governance of geoengineering in the United Nations where it belongs,” said ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney. “This decision is a victory for common sense, and for precaution. It will not inhibit legitimate scientific research. Decisions on geoengineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving ‘voluntary guidelines’ on climate hacking. What little credibility such efforts may have had in some policy circles in the global North has been shattered by this decision. The UK Royal Society and its partners should cancel their Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative and respect that the world’s governments have collectively decided that future deliberations on geoengineering should take place in the UN, where all countries have a seat at the table and where civil society can watch and influence what they are doing.”

Delegates in Nagoya have now clearly understood the potential threat that deployment – or even field testing – of geoengineering technologies poses to the protection of biodiversity. The decision was hammered out in long and difficult late night sessions of a “friends of the chair” group, attended by ETC Group, and adopted by the Working Group 1 Plenary on 27 October 2010. The Chair of the climate and biodiversity negotiations called the final text “a highly delicate compromise.” All that remains to do now is gavel it through in the final plenary at 6 PM Friday (Nagoya time).

“The decision is not perfect,” said Neth Dano of ETC Group Philippines. “Some delegations are understandably concerned that the interim definition of geoengineering is too narrow because it does not include Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Before the next CBD meeting, there will be ample opportunity to consider these questions in more detail. But climate techno-fixes are now firmly on the UN agenda and will lead to important debates as the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit approaches. A change of course is essential, and geoengineering is clearly not the way forward.”

 

Ocean fertilization experiment draws fire

Indo-German research cruise sets sail despite criticism.

The Polarstern: on a mission to fertilize the ocean. AWI
The Polarstern: on a mission to fertilize the ocean. AWI

A German research ship laden with 20 tonnes of iron sulphate has whipped up a storm of protest as it sails towards the Antarctic, where it intends to dump its cargo into the ocean.

Scientists on the Polarstern, which set sail from Cape Town in South Africa on 7 January, plan an ocean fertilization experiment that some argue will violate international law.

But the scientists say that it will yield the very data necessary to assess the impact of the controversial geo-engineering technique, which aims to trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by encouraging the growth of algae.

The team, comprising about 50 scientists from Germany, India, Italy, Spain, Chile, France and Britain, is heading for a small patch of the Scotia Sea between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. The researchers hope that the iron will induce an algal bloom in this usually nutrient-poor region, and plan to observe the growth and decay of the organisms in unprecedented detail during the following eight weeks.

The experiment is called LOHAFEX, taking its name from loha, the Hindi word for iron. It will be the sixth ocean fertilization study conducted in the Southern Ocean since 1993. Previous experiments, such as the European Iron Fertilization Experiment (EIFEX) carried out in 2004, indicated that iron fertilization could help to send more carbon-based materials down to the deep ocean.

If applied across the Southern Ocean, it is estimated that ocean fertilization could remove up to a billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year1. This could, in theory, help to mitigate global warming; but as the effects on marine ecosystems and biodiversity are uncertain, most experts hold that large-scale ocean fertilization is currently not scientifically justified.

Taken aback

In response to wide-spread environmental concerns, the 191 parties to the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity last year agreed on a moratorium on all ocean fertilization activities, including attempts at commercializing iron fertilization.

Several companies in the United States and Australia have planned to sequester carbon in this way, which could then be sold as offsets on carbon credit markets.

The body recommended that until a “global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities”, only small-scale scientific studies in coastal waters should be exempted.

Environmental campaigners say that LOHAFEX should not have received permission under these rules. The 300-square-kilometre experiment is neither small-scale, nor confined to coastal waters, they argue.

“We’re taken aback by this flagrant disregard of international law,” says Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg. “Of all countries, Germany, which brokered the moratorium, has jumped the gun on the ocean fertilization issue again.”

Mayet had unsuccessfully called on the South African ministry for environment to ask the Polarstern crew to unload its iron sulphate, or otherwise stop the ship from leaving the port of Cape Town.

But the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany, which operates the Polarstern, denies that the experiment falls under the United Nations moratorium.

The new study will address, among other things, marine biology, the flow of carbonaceous particles, and biodiversity questions that have barely been analysed during previous experiments, says Karin Lochte, the director of the AWI. “These are exactly the kind of data you need to assess whether or not large-scale ocean fertilization is justified,” she says.

No objections

The experiment will take place near the island of South Georgia, its precise location depending on weather conditions and the location of ocean eddies, Lochte says.

The German ministry of the environment has been informed about the experiment and has not raised any objections, she adds. The government of India, which is co-funding the cruise, has also been informed and has approved the experiment.

At a workshop held last year at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, marine policy experts estimated the potential value of ocean fertilization at up to US$100 billion of the emerging international carbon-trading market. But ocean fertilization projects are not yet approved under any carbon credit regulatory scheme.

Victor Smetacek, a biological oceanographer at AWI and co-chief scientist of the cruise, says that the experiment is not intended to pave the ground for commercial projects. “In view of the ongoing controversy regarding future ocean iron fertilization activities,” he says, “we need to distinguish legitimate scientific experiments such as ours from publicity stunt attempts at commercializing iron fertilization for the carbon credit market.” The team expects to reach the experiment site within the next few days.