Sounds idiotic to me. Climate change is happening because of man’s mucking around with his environment. Seeding the ocean with plankton would only open yet another can of worms. Humans are the one species that has a choice to be either parasitic or symbiotic. Obviously we’re making the wrong choice. That’s what needs to change.
“The problem with the tropics is that if tropical surface waters are destined to remain at the surface for a while, they are also probably destined to ultimately scrounge the iron they need, … So what’s the point of paying for a carbon offset to fertilize a water parcel now, when nature would fertilize it soon anyway?”
Yes, a certain volume of water may get fertilised eventually anyway, but by fertilising it now can’t we speed up the rate and thereby increase the general rate of carbon capture by the oceans? That is can we turn a slow process with a low throughput into a faster one with, therefore, a higher throughput?
[Response:CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, so ideally we should be looking for permanent or at least long-term removal, rather than a transient fix. For methane, a transient gas in the atmosphere, a temporary fix would make more sense. David]
That company, Planktos, is becoming ubiquitous–their representatives show up at all sorts of climate change meetings and conferences and try to convince anyone they can pigeonhole that their idea is a good one. Their concept gets play only because of their non-stop self-promotion. I, for one, hope they are unsuccessful. There’s far better things to be spending money on.
I would put ocean fertilization on the avoid list, along with planting trees. It’s too hard to pin down the actual amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere by your actions. It’s also not a long-term solution, since the ocean leaks. Humankind would have to keep fertilizing the ocean indefinitely in order to preserve the claimed CO2 drawdown. If you’re concerned about climate change, build a windmill. Ocean fertilization does not seem to me suitable to be the basis for a reliable financial commodity, or a practical tool for geo-engineering climate.
Yes, the idea reminds me of the following…
Expert: Ever since 2063, we simply drop a giant ice cube into the ocean every now and then.
Lisa: Just like Daddy puts in his drink every morning. But tEhen he gets mad.
Expert: Of course, since the greenhouse gases are still building up, it takes more and more ice each time. Thus solving the problem once and for all.
Global Warming, or None Like It Hot! (Simpsons episode featured in “An Inconvenient Truth”)
To paraphrase something attributed to Aldo Leopold: it seems that when we attempt to manipulate nature, it is akin to poking a screwdriver within the mechanism of a clock; while there is a very slight chance of improvement, more than likely we will be worse off than we were before.
For a host of factual reasons, I am incredulous of the long term efficacy of most all carbon offset programs. About a year ago I was asked about an investment solicitation for Planktos, and wondered…. Perhaps the best way to sequester carbon from the atmosphere is to bind carbon with water and put it in the deep ground–oh wait, that is petroleum–never mind.
I’m very happy to see realclimate take on this topic, especially since buying up carbon credits will soon be all the rage, and there is a real danger in lots of dollars being thrown at questionable carbon sequestration projects. When I give talks on the glacial-interglacial contributions of plankton to CO2 fluctuations, I’m frequently asked about planktos. Specifically, how much carbon would be produced in order to sequester CO2. I can speak to the uncertainty of how much carbon could actually be sequestered, but I’m ignorant of the carbon costs of constantly taking ships out to fertilize/monitor the ocean – has anyone made estimates of that side of the equation?
Why? CaCO3 precipitation removes Ca++ from the water, shifting the carbonate buffer towards higher acidity. The higher acidity of the ocean reduces the uptake of CO2 by seawater and the rate of additional CaCO3 precipitation by biological activity.
So, what appears to be beneficial in an experiment, or for a few years of fertilization becomes utterly useless when applied on a time frame greater than maybe 10 years or so. I haven’t done calculations, so I’m guessing at time frames, but the principle is correct. Fertilization is a waste of time and money. It is a mirage.
[Response:It’s true that production of CaCO3 actually drives the CO2 pressure up, by shifting the pH of the seawater toward the acidic. But plankton communities produce more organic carbon than CaCO3, by a factor of 4 to 10 or so (the exact number is not well known). So the CO2 drawdown by the organic carbon production outweighs the Co2 boost from the CaCO3 production. David. ]
To those who fear human any human intervention in the environment on principle you must consider that we humans have been radically changing the environment for hundreds if not thousands of years and so far most of the changes have been good for humanity.
Making terra preta(or agricultural charcoal seems to be a promising carbon sequestration scheme.
And ad to this that the effect might be cancelled by CH4 and N2O going from the ocean in to the atmosphere.
“There is a danger of creating oxygen-deficient areas in deeper and adjacent waters resulting from increased microbial respiration. The study of Orr and Sarmiento (1992) suggests that this is likely if their figure of only 0.44 Gt C yr-1 is sequestered by macroalgal farms. Not only does this have important implications for the use of the ocean as a food resource, there is also the potential for increased fluxes of CH4 and N2O from the ocean to the atmosphere (Fuhrman and Capone 1991). Both of these gases are greenhouse gases (see introduction) and might well counteract any benefits accruing from CO2 sequestration.”
Iron fertilization has a great future IF we genetically engineer a gigantic coccolithophore. The super-sized coccolith will produce massive calcium carbonate plates and if the genetic engineers are sufficiently talented to minimize pore space – density will be maximized and so too the rate of sinking thus maximizing carbon sequestration.
An added side effect benefit in our fight against global warming due to anthropogenic greeenhouse gasses is a great increase in the production of dimethyl sulfide or DMS. DMS oxidizes to sulfates which make efficient cloud condensation nuclei, increasing both the amount of cloud cover and the reflectivity of individual clouds. A double whammy in our fight! Again a human problem with a human solution. Is it not better to treat the source problem than blindly modify components of a natural system? When will we learn?
Comment by Steve Horstmeyer — 2 May 2007 @ 12:21 PM
Interesting that when self important “climate scientists” post stories to blogs about articles that are one sided they get incredibly self-important and dismissive. I especially love the almost verbatim stealing of outdated arguments from scientific journals. The simple fact is that while iron fertilization experiments have been taken place for nigh on twenty years thanks to the late John Martin’s iron hypothesis, none of these experiments have lasted long enough or been conducted on a large enough scale to effectively measure the entire life of a pleagic phytoplankton bloom, artificially fertilized or naturally occuring. The scale that planktos is talking about is many times larger than any other previous experiment, and their experiment is ultimately a scientific one. These blooms need to be studied in order to gain sufficient knowledge about their nature and the subsequent viability of CO2 sequestration. Furthermore, anthropogenic development of land has caused the amount of iron-rich dust to decrease a significant mount, and the frequency and size of plankton blooms has decreased markedly in the past decades (ref. SeaWIFS). Without delving too deep into the realm of geo-engineering, re-seeding the ocean with iron on a scale much smaller than natural for scientific purposes is a worthwhile endeavour. This article completly ignores the other company attempting to fertilize blooms, Climos, whose board is filled with very well paid talking-head figures more in it for the money than the science. I for one am very pleased that a company like Planktos is taking a much debated subject and moving it out of the blogosphere and into the realm of hard science in the same vein as the many experiments that have come before it. If we’re all lucky some very real solutions can come from this project, the proceeds of which can be re-invested in carbon-neutralizing and eco-restoration projects.
[Response:Bottom line: Even if planktos is successful at fertilizing the ocean, I don’t believe it will impact atmospheric CO2. That’s a modeling result, every study says the same thing. David]
The big story missed by both reporters and commentators alike on this subject thus far is that plankton restoration is not just about carbon credit economics or the threat of global warming. It’s about an already ongoing catastrophic die-off in the sea. The establishment science community studies cited below are only a sample of recent research indicating that the ocean phytoplankton which produce nearly 60% of the planet’s oxygen, sequester an equal measure of its CO2 and feed every higher form of ocean life are disappearing at a shocking rate. Just since 1980 we have lost 6~12% of these vital plants globally and according to Behrenfeld’s 12/06 Nature report there are now 50% die-offs in huge areas of the equatorial Pacific.
[Response:The biota of the ocean are truly under attack by fishing and by runoff of coastal nutrients. There have been changes in the balance between nitrogen and phosphorus limitation in the Atlantic, due to nitrate deposition (a component of acid rain). I have heard it predicted that the ocean is reverting to a pre-Cambrian world of slime and jellyfish. But changes in dust deposition are not the primary culprit. David]
(The knock-on effects of this decline are immediate and tragic. The phytoplankton-dependent krill populations in the Southern Ocean which are the staple food of all the great baleen whales are now down by 80% and the shortfall is now also starving local fish species, penguins and seals.)
Restoring open ocean plankton populations to known 1980 levels of health would not only annually sequester at minimum 3~4 billion tons of atmospheric CO2 (or half our global warming surplus today), it would regenerate tens of billions of tons of missing nourishment for fisheries, seabirds and marine mammals.
And this restoration can be quickly and affordably accomplished, just by replenishing missing iron micronutrients to the sea. The iron was traditionally delivered to the open ocean in wind-borne dust from arid lands which has now been depleted by 30% or more by modern agricultural practices and the increased levels of atmospheric CO2 (which allow grasses to live longer, spread further, and anchor more iron-rich topsoil dust).
Each molecule of iron returned can fix over 100,000 molecules of CO2 and generate a proportionate amount of nutritive biomass. While nearly 80% of that is recycled in the marine food web, 20% or more disappears into the deep ocean for centuries or millennia.
In other words, at maximum efficiency it would only take several hundred thousand tons (or about two supertankers full) of iron dust to restore the lost plankton to 1980 levels and solve half our global warming surplus, too. More likely until the technology is perfected, it will take a small fleet of research ships working with several times more dust to accomplish this task, but still we are talking a very feasible challenge that would at most be reseeding less than 2% of surface ocean waters.
If we undertake this for the benefit of sea life and the climate and stop at the known 1980 baseline, where is the harm? Iron restoration simply replenishes a vital micronutrient that human activity has dangerously diminished.
We have caused these crises and to attempt to resolve them in most natural and benign way available is not geoengineering, it’s generally known as restitution, healing or just merciful common sense.
It’s gratifying that the carbon credit market has arisen to underwrite the needed restoration activity, because no one was lifting a finger or spending a cent to address these die-offs before. If you oppose restoration now simply because it may finally be both possible and profitable, you might as well also oppose the practice of medicine, environmental law and public health.
OCEAN PLANT LIFE SLOWS DOWN AND ABSORBS LESS CARBON
NASA News, September 16, 2003
“This research shows ocean primary productivity is declining, and it may be a result of climate changes such as increased temperatures and decreased iron deposition into parts of the oceans. This has major implications for the global carbon cycle,” Gregg said. Iron from trans-continental dust clouds is an important nutrient for phytoplankton, and when lacking can keep populations from growing… the amount of iron deposited from desert dust clouds into the global oceans decreased by 25 percent over two decades. These dust clouds blow across the oceans. Reductions in NPP in the South Pacific were associated with a 35 percent decline in atmospheric iron deposition. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NasaNews/2003/2003091615946.html
[IRON STRESSED] PLANKTON FOUND TO ABSORB LESS CARBON DIOXIDE, BBC, 08/30/06
The amount of carbon absorbed by plant plankton in large segments of the Pacific Ocean is much less than previously estimated, researchers say. US scientists said the tiny ocean plants were absorbing up to two billion tonnes less CO2 because their growth was being limited by a lack of iron. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5298004.stm
PLANKTON KILLED BY OCEAN WARMING
SYDNEY: Plankton – the vital first link in the food chain of the seas – will be hugely affected by global warming, a new U.S. study suggests. Plankton forms the main food of many ocean species, and fisheries could be badly hit by the loss of these micro-organisms as a result of warmer waters, according to the paper, published this week in the British journal Nature… Other factors that influence phytoplankton growth include [iron] dust blown from the land, and variations in solar radiation. http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/908
EFFECT OF NATURAL IRON FERTILIZATION ON CARBON SEQUESTRATION IN THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
Nature, Vol 446|26 April 2007| doi:10.1038/nature05700
The efficiency of fertilization, defined as the ratio of the carbon export to the amount of
iron supplied, was at least ten times higher than previous estimates from short-term blooms induced by iron-addition experiments. This result sheds new light on the effect of long-term fertilization by iron and macronutrients on carbon sequestration, suggesting
that changes in iron supply from belowâ��as invoked in some palaeoclimatic and future climate change scenarios11â��may have a more significant effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations than previously thought.
OCEAN GOBBLES CARBON AT DIFFERENT RATES
NewScientist.com news service
26 April 2007
Dead plankton does not sink at the same rate everywhere in the Pacific Ocean, say researchers. The new findings will boost our understanding of the supply chain to the world’s biggest carbon sink – the bottom of the ocean. [Shows 20~50% of dying plankton take their carbon below 1000 meters into the millennial sequestration zone.] http://environment.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn11725
The dust bowl was not natural. It was a man made catastrophe. Modern farming practices have reduced the amounts of dust added by farming activities. Soil loss is not a good thing because degraded soils produce less food. To imply that soil loss is good for us ignores the “minor issue” of our food supply.
Temporarily increased rates of lime deposition by fertilization are completely offset over the long-term by decreased CO2 uptake into the ocean and lower rates of precipitation of limestone by coral reefs, etc. It’s a simple mass balance problem. There is no free lunch.
It’s not really my area, but I was always of the impression that the world’s oceans are an incredible balancing act, and by getting one species to proliferate, the whole ecosystem could be, to put it scientifically, ‘screwed up’. If plankton suddenly take off, won’t they be using up oxygen that will therefore cause other species to die off? I know this happens with algae and fertilisers that leach into water, but would it be a similar situation here?
The only geoengineering concept (assuming it fits into the same category as the above), that looks the slightest bit feasible to me is Bower/Choularton/Latham et. al.s’ cloud propagation through seawater spray. I presume it has received little support as of yet because you can’t offset carbon with it. Yes, if it worked it would be a ‘temporary fix’, but it could buy some useful time, if temperature increases were at the upper end of the estimates and the time-scale, as Hansen has suggested, is reaching critical.
I don’t know how markets could make money out of it, so I expect it isn’t likely to be popular, even if it is effective.
There was a time when the natural cycle of most bodies of water involved carbon sequestration. Inorganic nutrients were carried down the Mississippi, and supported abundant plant growth along what is now the Louisiana coast, and the subsequent year’s sand and sediment buried the material. In those days, The Sacramento Delta was laying down layers of peat, and San Francisco Bay was laying down alternate layers of organic material and sand. Now we are eroding the Gulf Coast wetlands faster than they are being formed. Peat is not forming in the Delta due to current water management practices. San Francisco Bay is urbanized, and when trees fall into the Bay, the trees are picked up by the debris collector before they became water logged and sink to the bottom of the Bay. So humans have changed carbon sequestration patterns, as well as releasing carbon from coal deposits.
Where we do sequester carbon is in our landfills. If everyone in the world would just diligently discard 4.27 pounds of carbon into their land fill every day the global green house gas problem would be solved. Aw, come on! It is at least as good an idea as planktos!
These planktos guys are not selling environmental responsibility, they are just trying to make a lot of money. They think they are the smartest guys in the room.
It might be worth trying to establish fisheries via iron fertilization. That would be a rather grand experiment in “eco-engineering” akin to growing crops in a desert, with the same sort of attendant risks. Still, since world-wide fish harvesting has peaked and is in decline, it might be possible to get some of the Pacific fishing nations to chip in for a large scale test.
The main advantage of such a scheme would be the fish, of course. You’d still be recycling most of the carbon into the atmosphere in the same way crops are recycled. But there might be some limited sequestration benefits somewhere along the chain.
[Response:I read somewhere the interesting idea of pumping deep water up to the surface, mining the nitrogen and phosphorus to support aquaculture. David]
Slightly off topic but related to ocean update of CO2.
From Hansen and Sato 2004 “Greenhouse gas growth rates”
“Consider the following gedanken experi-
ment. Case A: CO2 increases by an amount ( 16 ppm) that causes
a climate forcing of 0.25 W m2, whereas CH4 decreases by an
amount ( 0.5 ppm) that causes a climate forcing of 0.25 W m2.
Case B: CO2 decreases so as to cause a forcing of 0.25 W m2,
whereas CH4 increases to cause a forcing of 0.25 W m2. Cases A
and B both yield no net forcing and thus no tendency for a climate
change. However, case A has practical advantages.
One advantage of case A is that CO2 is removed from the
atmosphere at a faster rate. Stated differently, the climate is in
equilibrium (no warming) with a larger anthropogenic CO2 source.
The larger amount of CO2 in the air in case A causes the ocean and
biosphere to remove CO2 at a higher rate. Atmospheric CO2 is
greater in case A than in case B, but climate forcings are identical.”
Why does higher co2 in the air cause higher removal of co2 by the oceans?
I have also heard that the oceans will absorb less co2 when heated (but
can’t remember where I heard that), which appears to contradict Hansen.
[Response:Methane is a transient gas, so I’d trade a W/m2 of CO2 for a W/m2 of methane any day. It’d go away in a decade, while CO2 lasts for millennia. David]
I enjoyed reading David’s article and the comments and do not mean to deflect the discussion. However, it was shown that significant amount of DIC and DOC may be exported from ocean margins to the open ocean (Cai et al. 2003). One may suggest that ocean carbon sequestration can proceed more effectively through the uptake of atmospheric CO2 by intertidal marsh grasses and the subsequent export. This is because, unlike plankton which takes CO2 from seawater and releases back most of it after its demise, marsh grasses take CO2 from the atmosphere and the resulting C (DOC, POC, DIC) stays in the water. Note that we do not know yet how much that water and C will get to the deep ocean.
Cai, W.-J., et al. 2003. The role of marsh-dominated heterotrophic continental margins in transport of CO2 between the atmosphere, the land-sea interface and the ocean. Geophysical Research Letters 30, 1849.
It also appears that there are decreasing rates of bottom water formation; that means that oxygen input to the deep ocean is probably decreasing… is it possible that we could be pushing the global oceans towards a state where bottom water anoxia is much more prevalent? Do we want to push this process along? (It does seem that such a response would take several thousand years, though there might be more hypoxic regional effects similar to what’s been happening off of Oregon’s coast each year)
Given all of the risks and limitations, why has the idea of industrial scale ocean fertilization not been summarily dismissed? One answer lies in carbon trading (5). One need not fertilize entire ocean basins to sequester an amount of carbon that could yield commercial benefits on this anticipated market. If scientifically sound verification criteria could be developed, relatively small scale fertilizations could be very profitable for individual entrepreneurs.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to get around the fact that we’ll have to voluntarily stop burning fossil fuels within the next few decades if we want to aim for the lower end of possible warming scenarios. The facts seem pretty clear: ocean iron fertilization as a CO2 mitigating process is a fraud.
In addition to David’s point about efficacy, I think there is an additional point about goals.
It seems to me that a primary reason to prevent human-induced climate change is to protect and preserve natural ecosystems. Ocean fertilization works by manipulating natural ecosystems on a grand scale, so rather than protecting these ecosystems we are disturbing them in yet another way.
When climate change is viewed too narrowly as a goal, all kinds of perverse incentives can arise. For example, it could be argued that cutting down boreal forests can slow climate change. Both ocean fertilization and boreal deforestation could potentially slow down global warming a bit, but at the expense of disturbing or destroying vast natural ecosystems. If we look at prevention of human-induced climate change as a means to achieve the broader goal of preserving our natural environment, then schemes to slow global warming that rely on environmental degradation would be seen not to serve our broader goals.
David Kubiak fails to mention that he is the Communications and PR officer at Planktos.
The IPCC is expected to strongly dismiss geo-engineering schemes and ocean fertilization in particular in the Working group III report on mitigation this week. They are absolutely right to do so- it is neither a scientifically or morally right approach to solving the climate crisis. For those who are interested see news release below.
Geo-engineers to Foul Galapagos Seas – Defying Climate Panel Warning.
As the UN’s top climate science panel, the IPCC, prepares to criticise the idea of geo-engineering, one maverick geo-engineering company, Planktos Inc, has announced it is about to dump several tonnes of tiny particles into the waters around the Galapagos Islands, covering an area larger than Puerto Rico. Doing so, they claim, will re-engineer the atmosphere, win them commercial carbon credits and perhaps a shot at the $25 million prize for greenhouse gas reduction put up by Richard Branson. Mainstream scientists are sceptical and environmental and social justice groups are crying foul.
“In a sensible world geo-engineering fanatics like Planktos would have their license to operate taken away.” says Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “Instead, they are being allowed to pollute the high seas and are even being considered for a prize! Climate change is a real threat but common sense should not be its first victim.”
On May 4th the International Panel on Climate Change, a body of the world’s leading climate scientists will publish policy recommendations to governments on how to mitigate global warming. According to an article from Agence France Presse (AFP) who have seen a leaked draft of that report, the panel gives the “thumbs down” and “pours scorn” on a clutch of wacky plans to intentionally re-engineer large scale ecosystems, referred to collectively as geo-engineering: “Geo-engineering options… remain largely speculative and with the risk of unknown side-effects” claims the IPCC draft according to AFP (1). The US government has reportedly been lobbying the IPCC to more prominently support geo-engineering technofixes in order to sideline the Kyoto Protocol(2).
However, even as the UN report becomes public this Friday in Bangkok, one commercial enterprise, California based Planktos Inc, will be sailing from Florida to carry out a large-scale geo-engineering experiment. Planktos, a self-styled “eco-restoration” firm that also doubles as a nuclear fusion company(3), intends to dump tens of tonnes of tiny iron particles over 10,000 square kilometres of ocean around the Galapagos Islands at the end of May 2007. By stimulating a massive growth of plankton, called a bloom, Planktos claims to be able to draw millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into the deep oceans over the next year. Eleven smaller iron fertilization experiments have already taken place.
“The Iron Hypothesis” is the theory first put forward by oceanographer John Martin in 1990. He believed you could cool the climate by growing extra plankton in the oceans, a process that also gives rise to cloud formation. Martin once famously declared: “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” From drafts of the forthcoming IPCC report seen by ETC Group the UN body is expected to highlight the potential negative impacts of such iron seeding. These include increased production of nitrous oxide and methane, unintended changes in the plankton that could result in production of toxic blooms and effects on the ocean food chain. Local and international environmental groups are furious at this risky gamble with sensitive marine ecosystems spurred by the profit-making incentive of market-based carbon trading.
“This is an irresponsible and unpredictable venture by purely profit-driven individuals,” said Elizabeth Bravo of Ecuador-based Accion Ecologica “It threatens our climate, our marine environment and the sovereignty of our fisherfolk and it should be stopped.â�� The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO world heritage site under the sovereignty of Ecuador.
“Climate change should to be tackled by reducing emissions, not by altering ocean ecosystems,” said Dr Paul Johnston, Head of Greenpeace International’s Science Unit, “Planktos is intending to conduct this reckless experiment in waters around the Galapagos Islands which are globally significant in biological terms and should be designated as fully protected marine reserves.”
Last week the science journal Nature published a study on iron seeding authored by forty-seven ocean scientists.(4) They concluded that such attempts to artificially seed the ocean were unlikely to sequester much carbon dioxide. Their results, they say, “mean the end of the ‘geo-engineering’ utopia that consists of artificially seeding the oceans with iron.”(5) As one of the scientists, Ulf Riebesell, a biological oceanographer at the Liebniz institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel Germany told Nature bluntly, “You just can’t achieve nature’s efficiency. That’s why geo-engineering the ocean won’t work.”(6) This scientific reality hasn’t deterred Planktos, which hopes to convince the market that they can sell plankton-powered carbon “offsets” to consumers to salve guilty consciences. As Planktos CEO Russ George admitted in a 2003 radio interview with National Public Radio in the USA, “It’s really more of a business experiment than a scientific experiment.”(7)
As worrying, Planktos boasts on their website that the iron they dump will be in nanoparticle form because nanoparticles float longer than normal particles.(8) (although Planktos have given contrary information in person). If this is true, then the Planktos experiment may be the largest intentional release of engineered nanoparticles ever undertaken. The last four years have seen a growing scientific consensus that the altered properties exhibited by nanoparticles could have negative toxicity effects on the environment and for human health. In 2004 the UKâ��s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering issued a recommendation that environmental applications of nanoparticles should be prohibited,(9) a call echoed by many environmental groups. Planktos claims they will be dumping their particles in international waters and so are not bound by international treaties or permit requirements.
In a further twist of the ridiculous, Planktos has also invited airline billionaire Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Group, to join them in the Galapagos(10). In March Branson announced The Virgin Earth Challenge, a US $25 million prize to whoever could commercially develop a working geo-engineering technology (See http://www.virginearth.org) Unfortunately, Planktos is not the only company competing to technologically alter the climate. In February ETC Group published a report, “Gambling with Gaia”, describing a clutch of companies pursing geo-engineering business plans.
For more information contact:
Richard Ingham “Oddball schemes to fix global warming get thumbs down”, AFP, 29 April 2007.
 David Adam, “US Government answer to global warming: Smoke and giant mirrors,” The Guardian, 27 January 2007.
Re #17: There are a couple of points in that that immediately popped out at me. First:
[The phytoplankton-dependent krill populations in the Southern Ocean which are the staple food of all the great baleen whales are now down by 80%…]
The baleen whales were hunted to near extinction before the mid-20th century, and their populations have not recovered to anywhere near historic levels yet, so I have trouble seeing a link between plankton depletion and whales. Indeed, I’d expect any link to go the other way: with a major plankton consumer gone, the population should increase until it hits some other limit. So what’s happening that makes this not the case?
Then there’s this:
[The iron was traditionally delivered to the open ocean in wind-borne dust from arid lands which has now been depleted by 30% or more by modern agricultural practices…]
In fact human agricultural practices have greatly increased the extent of arid lands, from which such dusts could arise. From Australia to the Sahara & Sahel to the deserts of the Middle East & northwest India to the American West, human activity has destroyed fertile grasslands, and exposed the underlying soil to erosion by winds and rivers.
Which raises another question: if such fertilization works, you should see it happening in e.g. the Gulf of Mexico, off the mouth of the Amazon, and in other places where rivers deposit lots of sediment.
[Response:I agree with your point about the whales. But on your question, the answer is that you do see a land fertilization effect. The Galapagos themselves leave a lovely green wake in the ocean as viewed by satellite ocean color scanner. David]
Thank you for a very nice article on a fascinating topic that has captured my interest in the past few years. You briefly mentioned dust as a source of iron. I think it is important to remind people about this sporadic, though natural source of iron to the oceans. Jickells nicely reviews our understanding and the numerous major questions remaining in this topic:
Jickells TD, An ZS, Andersen KK, et al.
Global iron connections between desert dust, ocean biogeochemistry, and climate
Science 308 (5718): 67-71 APR 1 2005
Anthropogenic activities can modify the natural source of iron from dust to HNLC ocean regions, by increasing desertification, and by producing acidic gases such as SO2 which can react with and solubilise the iron in mineral dust particles. My own research has explored the later issue of dust mixed with sulphuric acid, e.g.:
R. C. Sullivan, S. A. Guazzotti, D. A. Sodeman, and K. A. Prather
Direct observations of the atmospheric processing of Asian mineral dust
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 7: 1213-1236, 2007.
I hadn’t really considered the important point of how effectively the increased biomass is exported down through the water column so that it becomes a long-term sink for carbon and is not quickly recycled back to the atmosphere.
I think it is also important to point out possible feedbacks on cloud cover through ocean fertilization. Increased biomass can lead to increased emissions of biogases such as dimethyl sulfide and isoprene, which when oxidized in the atmospheric form sulphate and organic aerosols that can nucleate clouds, increasing cloud cover and planetary albedo – the CLAW Hypothesis.
Response to fishoutofwater: was not recommending a return to slash & burn ag and dust bowl days, simply pointing out that human civilization has already been the biggest, most aggravating geo-engineering experiment the biosphere has ever endured, and it’s time to apply some first aid and emergency care to its most important life-sustaining victims.
Comment to tico89: Likewise nobody is talking about pushing plankton to unprecedented limits, we are just saying bring them back to their previous normal levels and stop right there. Their scarcity is starving everything else in the neighborhood and their revival would simply restore the food chain we have lost.
If we don’t something – indeed many things – soon the Royal Society projects that we will have no ocean fish at all by 2048. No ocean fish = no penguins, no sea birds, no dolphins, no seals, no whales, no…
Just can’t understand the persistant resistance to recognizing what havoc we have caused in the sea by depriving it of vital micronutrients and the unwillingness to make the relatively minor effort it would take to make it whole again. Except for the bacteria, absolutely everything living in the sea depends on these little guys as well as nearly 60% of our oxygen. You kiss them off at your/our eternal peril…
This morning 3 May ’07 John Humphreys on Radio 4 (listened to by a large proportion of Brits every morning) picked up the story from the Independent. So this story might get some momentum behind it and make people less inclined to reduce CO2 emissions.
Sorry about the duplicate post. There was something wrong with the website when I sent this originally. Perhaps the backlog of other posts. It also failed to include a key sentence regarding the loss of diatoms due to insufficient silicate in the water.
Once the silicate in the water is used up, the population of diatoms will drop and you will no longer have the same distribution of phytoplankton species. That alone may be unsatisfactory in that replacing the diatoms with other phytoplankon may wreck the relationship between phyto and zooplankton and create an entirely new ecology that may be unfavorable for sustaining the oceanic food chain.
Why don’t we just use atmospheric water generators (essentialy very large dehumidifiers) to suck some of the water vapor out of the atmostphere.. You know, the same water vapor that is responsible for 90% or so of the actual Greenhouse effect. Once the global temperature is stabalized, we can play with biological & chemical CO2 scrubbers. Lets get this weather fixed FIRST, and worry about fixing the underlying problem (or what we think it may be) secondary.
It seems far easier to dump a bunch of soil, nutrients, and industrial organic waste down our rivers. Reform starts in our own backyards.
If we are able to overload the system and maximize productivity within rivers, deltas, and their freshwater plumes — it should be possible to completely deplete dissolved oxygen in near shore waters and give carbon the best chance possible for preservation and burial. Maintaining deep water ship canals in deltas should have the added benefit of transporting sediment to deep waters instead of delta plains where it might later get reworked and oxidized.
I do not for a second belive that krill production in the southern ocean is “down by 80% on 1980 levels”. As for dust the only significant bits of exposed land that come close to the southern ocean are Australia and the tips of S.America and S.Africa. Australia is by far the largest exposed land mass and in case you hadn’t noticed has been suffering it’s own “dustbowl” for up to 10yrs in the south and SE, (not to mention a large chunk of Australia is iron rich desert). I have lived in Australia for 45yrs and even in the southern city of Melbourne we are used to seeing duststorms in mid-late summer. For the past 5yrs everything has been regularly covered with a coat of red dust ALL YEAR ROUND. Just ask the New Zelander’s how much of our red dust lands on their country on it’s way to directly to Antartica. I really don’t think a hypothetical collapse of plankton from an imaginary lack of red dust is a problem.
According to a large scientific survey of the southern ocean (carried out by CSIRO and others), plankton blooms are created naturally in the deep ocean to the south of Australia because of a huge undersea canyon that starts below Tasmania and curves NW towards the Indian ocean. Deep and powerfull currents run along the bottom of canyon randomly hiting undersea bluffs that force the nutrient rich water to the surface. Another current runs south down the east coast and mixes with this current below Tasmaina creating edies that also spur plankton growth.
Part of the CSIRO’s study of the southern ocean as it relates to iron dust, carbon emmisions and plankton can be found here. I think Dr.Trull hits the nail on the head with this understatement: “It is a very complex process that we don’t completely understand yet”.
These blooms off the southern coast of Australia are the only place in the world where blue whales can be spotted gulping 50ton mouthfulls of water and krill, where they go after feeding is a mystery. As more and more fisheries collapse around the world, the very real threats to the southern ocean’s ecology over the next few decades are acidification from dissolved C02 and overfishing. The prized catches of patagonian toothfish and blue fin tuna are already in rapid decline and are regularly poached from Australian waters by large factory ships from as far away as Norway.
> I would put ocean fertilization on the avoid list, along with planting trees
Sorry for somewhat off-topic post, but could someone please point me to some background on the problems w/ planting trees? I understand that their affect on albedo is unfortunate, and their affects on transpiration/evaporation/cloud cover are ambiguous, but aren’t these outweighed by their sequestration benefits, especially at low-latitude or even low-ish latitued (e.g., Israel)?
Thanks in advance!
[Response:I just don’t want to pay to reforest land that was just recently cut, and I don’t want to pay to plant trees today that will be cut tomorrow. I don’t believe that the carbon accounting is very reliable. David]
If you add more iron into the ocean to encourage phytoplankton growth, how do you make sure you avoid a toxic bloom of species (e.g. red tide) that create anoxic zones and may have the potential to harm other species populations? It sounds like pulling this off successfully without negative side effects would be quite the delicate act. Is the current scientific knowledge of these processes well established enough to have the confidence for this company to carry this out appropriately and successfully?
First, let me start by saying I am not a marine biologist. I run a blog on the subject of global warming “Is It Getting Warmer?” and I regularly come to this site to learn more and then try to simplify this science for my readers. I have a huge amount of respect for this site but I know that many people cannot touch the science that is discussed here. I rarely post on this site but feel compelled to based on comment #13 above, specifically the following paragraph:
“Restoring open ocean plankton populations to known 1980 levels of health would not only annually sequester at minimum 3~4 billion tons of atmospheric CO2 (or half our global warming surplus today), it would regenerate tens of billions of tons of missing nourishment for fisheries, seabirds and marine mammals.”
Please indulge me as we take a logic tour based on this one paragraph:
CO2 levels are up world-wide.
Plankton is down significantly since 1980.
Restoration of plankton to 1980 levels would scrub half of the human caused CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Obvious question: Is the excess CO2 problem caused by humans or the fact that plankton population is diminished (I understand that the plankton population may also be affected by human behavior).
Next obvious question: If the above question is true (and I am not saying that it is) why in the world would we be investing billions in alternative and questionable energy sources and energy uses when we should be spending billions in fixing the root cause of the plankton problem (stress the phrase “root cause”).
On another tack to mitigation – does anyone have any insight or data on man-made albedo? The albedo of cities is higher already, what if we mandated white roofs? I can see two effects – reduced need for A/C (one estimate I saw was 6-10 tons of A/C (12,000BTU = 1 ton) from spraying a flat black rubber roof with water in a dry environment and letting it evaporate – but a white roof wouldn’t need spraying in the first place), and the other is from increasing reflection into space? I don’t know if low level albedo is a good or bad thing. Maybe those sheep are on to something??
I’m not sure why David said that but I agree. As much as I would love to see people creating forests rather than destroying them, CO2 emmissions are a problem caused by a global market that until recently belived they could throw anything at the biosphere and it wouldn’t make a difference.
We can still emit GHG’s but we have to wind back to a point that doesn’t significantly enhance the chances of fullfilling the “sixth great extinction” senario. The only way to do this is to first determine where that point should be and then regulate emissions as a “limited resource” in the market place.
If you are going to regulate it seriously then people will demand it be measured seriously. Accountants can do this for smoke stacks, tailpipes, wet cement, ect by simply looking at the inputs and applying a forumla. As you seem to acknowledge yourself, nobody can measure a forests activity with anywhere near that kind of precision, accountants are known to abhor (other peoples) fuzziness and at the end of the day forests are already vastly undervalued for different reasons.
To me the obvious (simplyfied) answer is for governments to organise a yearly global auction of X billion carbon credits that represent XGt of carbon targeted to be released that finacial year. Then with some of the money raised put the taxman in charge of policing it and monitoring it in each others nations. Eventually this cost is passed down to the most price sensitive creature in the universe, the modern consumer (after all we ARE the root cause).
As the squeeze is put on to meet the targets the price skyrockets and people get on with the suddenly very profitable job of building windfarms, putting solar collectors on roofs and such, all with the aid of subidies that are paid for by the auctions. Money is incapable of building anything useless unless it goes around in circles and the same will be true for any carbon credit treaty.
The same principle can be applied to trees by realizing there is some global maximum we can harvest that depends on both planting and natural growth (this has already occured in many western nations but at the expense of everybody else’s trees). The only thing stopping such pragmatisim toward our planet’s biosphere is the fact we are dealing with a very large population of “apes” that have very recently formed into a handfull of large (proxy) warring tribes surrounded by impoverished and malnourished outcasts. We have come from flinging our own dung at each other to launching ICBM’s in the blink of an evolutionary eye.
I view iron seeding like an emergency room intervention, similar to putting in a saline IV into a severely stressed patient. Done just enough to stabilize the patient until the doctor can offer a prognosis and outline a plan of care. We really should not view this option as a get-out-of-carbon-reduction-committment card.
Planting trees is certainly a good idea, but it won’t even come close to ‘offsetting’ coal emissions, let alone the all fossil fuel emissions, and here is why:
From eia.gov : “For example, coal with a carbon content of 78 percent and a heating value of 14,000 Btu per pound emits about 204.3 pounds of carbon dioxide per million Btu when completely burned.(5) Complete combustion of 1 short ton (2,000 pounds = 909 kg ) of this coal will generate about 5,720 pounds (= 2.86 short tons = 2600 kg) of carbon dioxide”
To convert CO2 mass to C mass, multiply by 0.25; 1000kg of CO2 = 250 kg of elemental carbon.
It’s generally assumed that about 1/2 the mass of a tree is elemental carbon. So, how long does it take for a tree to accumulate the equivalent of one ton’s worth of coal? Keep in mind that according to eia.gov, under “business-as-usual” scenarios, “World coal consumption is projected to increase from 5,440 million short tons in 2003 to 7,792 million short tons in 2015, at an average annual rate of 3.0 percent”.
Trees don’t grow that fast; I can’t seem to find a good number – perhaps one ton every 20 years? So, using this estimate, how many trees per year would you have to plant to absorb all the CO2 created by coal combustion?
5.4 billion tons coal= 15.4 billion tons of CO2 = 3.8 billion tons of carbon – which is about 1/2 of the 7.2 GtC produced by human beings every year.
If we divide that 3.8 billion tons of carbon by our ‘tree uptake estimate’ (1/20th ton/year) we get a very crude estimate of 77.2 billion trees per year… and these trees will need to be watered, fertilized, and cared for to achieve that estimate of carbon fixation. That’s every year… and since coal use is increasing, that means more trees will have to be planted every year. If you want to account for all the fossil fuel emissions, double that estimate.
Conclusion? Offsets are not feasible, and carbon trading will have little if any effect on atmospheric CO2 levels. We simply have to stop converting fossil fuels to atmospheric CO2, and use alternative energy sources.
If you look into the matter a little more, you can see that carbon traders will not be supporting the massive replacement of fossil fuel sources by renewables – because who would buy the carbon credits in that case? Would carbon traders want to see a ‘glut’ of carbon credits on the market? The whole program is a fraud, and diverts attention from the need to switch entirely to renewables.
“UH oceanographers Robert Bidigare, director of the Center for Marine Microbial Ecology and Diversity (CMMED), and Dave Karl, director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) are among the co-authors of a paper in the journal Science showing that carbon dioxide does not always sink to the ocean depths where it can be stored. Instead, the study says, sinking particles of carbon are often consumed by animals and bacteria in an area known as the twilight zone â�� about 300 to 3,000 feet below the surface â�� questioning the ocean’s potential impact on greenhouse gases implicated in global climate change.”
Re #17 [ocean phytoplankton which produce nearly 60% of the planet’s oxygen]
Sorry to nitpick, but I’m curious to know where you got that figure of 60% – the most reliable numbers I have seen (admittedly, now nearly a decade old) for ocean phytoplankton are 45% of world net primary productivity (NPP):
C. B. Field, M. J. Behrenfeld, J. T. Randerson and P. Falkowski (1998)
Primary Production of the Biosphere: Integrating Terrestrial and Oceanic Components. Science 281 (no. 5374): 237-240.
Overestimating primary production by marine phytoplankton could result in an overestimate of their potential role in mitigating AGW. Moreover, the distribution of those phytoplankton is not uniform. It seems to me that iron fertilization will likely have its greatest impact in oligotrophic regions (e.g., subtropical gyres) which currently provide less than 10% of world NPP. How much can NPP be stimulated in those regions, and what is the cost (mining and processing the iron ore, shipping it out to the middle of the ocean, etc)?
Re # 35 [suck some of the water vapor out of the atmosphere]
I hope this was suggested in jest. But, just in case you were semi-serious: With oceans covering 70% of the earth’s surface, you could never change atmospheric humidity – water vapor pressure is a function of atmospheric temperature, increasing as temperature rises.
Trees may not last long enough to contribute to long-term carbon storage, but forests might. We need to think of average carbon storage over many cycles of growth and disturbance. Old forests that are protected and allowed to grow and recovery for long periods after fires and hurricanes would store carbon over time, more so than if those same lands were managed as agricultural fields or short-rotation tree farms. For more see: http://tinyurl.com/2by9kt
Re. #41 Sebb wrote: [On another tack to mitigation – does anyone have any insight or data on man-made albedo? The albedo of cities is higher already, what if we mandated white roofs?]
I was at an NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, CO) briefing about nine years ago (~1996) and this idea (“painting all the Earth’s dark surfaces white”) was discussed then as part of an informal possible solution to combat AGW (human-climate change).
(Yeah, they were up on the peer-science and were worried enough at that time to be thinking about this.)
Some think tank people there, were suggesting it informally as just one part of a multi-pronged solution along with and part of several combined options…
I believe they were running informal computer simulations of it using their own personal PCs, they stated.
The possible solution came in five combined parts:
1. Convert printing presses (“almost all on Earth) to make tiny mylar balloons, to reflect sunlight.
2. Put space mesh into space with the space shuttle to reflect sunlight.
3. Seed oceans with iron to increase CO2 “eating plankton”.
4. Put fleets of aircraft into the high troposphere to run on “dirty” settings which emit aerosols which reflect sunlight.
5. …and of course the “ole paint all the Earth’s dark surfaces white” idea.
If I remember correctly, their initial calculations showed (in those days), that all these methods combined together might just be effective…
…but they did tell me that they were worried of the possible “unintended” consequences.
I’m dismayed to see so many people pouring out so much negativity, so prematurely. Look folks, here’s the reality: nobody really has enough data to make any judgements about any of this. To say “this can’t possibly work because the mathematical models say it can’t work” is just nonsensical. No serious field ecologist would take such a acomment seriously. The ONLY way to know anything about this process is to *try* it in situ and then *compare* it to your models.
If the Planktos people want to risk their money going out and doing a 2-year study of this question, then by all means let them do it. Watch them carefully, make sure they are doing good science, and make them document everything with solid data. Make them prove it. But they should be encouraged, not discouraged.
If their process can be made to work, then fine, the human race has been shown a very powerful new tool and can go through the long political and social decision-making process of deciding how much of it should be allowed. If it doesn’t work, then that’s the end of the idea.
But above all, we must allow people to try new things. If we don’t have experimentation and novel work, then we’ll NEVER solve our climate problems.
[Response:In principal I agree with you about attempting the impossible. But how can they ever document that they’ve changed the CO2 concenration of the atmosphere? I don’t want to see people misled, and money misguided, by unverifiable claims of sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. David]
22: Pumping deepwater to simulate upwelling would be very energy costly. Another idea “floating around” is that of using thousand meter drain pipes vertically suspended in the ocean to take advantage of wave action that would in theory bring the upwelled nutrient laden water to the surface. This is in conjunction with a plan to entice small zooplankton known as salps to eat and produce waste pellets that would be more likely to settle to the bottom. This was discussed in the thread about the Branson prize a while back.
32: In deleting my duplicate post on the iron vs. diatoms issue, both posts were deleted including the links to the articles. I will repeat this from memory as best I can.
[Response:I apologize, I was trying to clean up and I screwed up. David]
A 2004 study off the coast of Alaska found that not only was iron a limiting nutrient, but so was silica, since diatoms make up about half the phytoplankton and use the silica in their cell walls. Once the silica is used up, either more has to be added at a ratio of 5000:1 or the diatom population crashes and the phytoplanton population that survives is diatom depleted. My existing post says this could create an imbalance in the ocean ecology and cause problems of an unknown nature in the food chain. The Planktos representative mentioned that 2 supertankers of iron would be sufficient to do the job, but this would also require 10,000 supertankers of silica, a hard to manufacture chemical in the quantities required.
Finally, a symposium at NAS this past week included a disturbing presentation from a zoologist from Oregon who said that changes in coastal wind patterns appear to be altering existing upwelling currents, creating excessive algal blooms that result in anoxic areas of thousands of square miles. Too much fertilizer not a good thing.
Your response seems to me a perfect example of the problem…people prematurely judging things based on guesswork, instead of hard data. You are basically saying: “don’t even let them make the attempt”.
You say, for example “But how can they ever document that they’ve changed the CO2 concenration of the atmosphere?”
My response is: “I don’t know how they are going to document it. Maybe they will find a way that is convincing. Maybe they won’t. But we’ll never find out if they don’t try it, will we?”
As to your concerns about money, again, if they are willing to use their own money and risk it to try this, then that looks like a net gain for science no matter what. If they fail, then we’ve learned something useful. If they succeed, then we’ve also learned something else useful.
What I don’t understand is why so many people seem so determined to make pre-judgements about the scientific validity of this, and so many other proposed solutions.
[Response:Maybe they will find a story that will convince people who don’t know any better. But if there were a way to document real CO2 drawdown from the atmosphere in a way that would convince someone who is scientifically literate, say by a model calculation that showed significant CO2 drawdown, or by some new measurement technique or strategy, then they could describe that now, it wouldn’t require new field work. Field work is not the issue. In the absense of some convincing refutation of model calculations that fertilizing the ocean will have minimal impact on atmospheric CO2, it is my obligation as a scientist who has studied and published on this problem to say that the emperor ain’t wearing any clothes. David]
I would appreciate some pointers to papers on why CaCO3 precipitation would be bad thing. Shell carbonate is surely a long term sink for CO2 and I have colleagues in paleoclimate speculating that foraminifera precipitation may have been a major factor in the cooling through the Tertiary. Marine people here have also been wondering if closing fishing and especially trawling on areas with high shellfish productivity might earn CO2 credits.Ca++ is surely not the only buffering agent at work. Thanks
[Response:CaCO3 is chemically a base. When it is removed from seawater, it tugs the reaction
2 HCO3- < --> CO3– + CO2 + H2O
to the right, increasing the availability of CO2 to degas to the atmosphere. David]
Yet another red flag among many on Planktos: look at the financial backers of the company. Planktos is financed by a company called Solar Energy Limited. The only other investment of Solar Energy Limited is in a company called D2Fusion, which is … a cold fusion commercialization company. This does not lend alot of credibility to their operations, scientifically or otherwise.
I suspect this post will be controversial, so I’ll apologize in advance for any feathers ruffled. My intent is to spur discussion of mitigation, not offend.
I think that climate change may well represent the gravest threat human civilization has faced (well, maybe except for human stupidity). I also believe that we are very close (decades away) from being unable to reverse the trend. I presume that most people who frequent this site share these sentiments to some extent. The question is what we are willing to do to counter that threat. If we are market-oriented capitalists, are we willing to accept more regulation? If we favor a more controlled economy, are we willing to accept that the market may provide part of the answer? If we oppose nuclear power for safety or anti-proliferation reasons, are we willing to at least look at the possibility that nuclear power can help meet rising energy demand and keep the economy healthy while lowering ghg emissions. Are we willing to try the occasional crazy idea (like fertilizing the oceans or painting the newly denuded south pole white in a couple hundred years)? Are we willing to put much of scientific endeavor on hold for a century while we deal with this threat?
The reason I ask these questions is because skeptics and laymen who do not understand science will judge the seriousness of the situation in part by what we scientists are willing to do to counter the threat. Many of them do not share our sense of urgency. Many of them do not understand opposition to nuclear power, etc. To them an absolute refusal to consider nuclear power as an option is seen that concern over global warming does not rise above the fear of nuclear power. To them, unwillingness to embrace the occasional crazy idea may imply that the situation is not truly grave. When people do not judge risks on their merits, they tend to judge them comparatively.
Verifying whether iron-seeded carbon is sequestered in the deep waters beneath seeding areas should be possible by looking at the change in 14C bomb-spike mixing rate in those areas.
Surface water and atmospheric CO2 is enriched in 14C as a result of 20th century atmospheric thermonuclear weapons testing. As surface waters mix into the deep ocean, the 14C content gradually increases. Sinking climatologically significant amounts of surficial, 14C enriched CO2 should increase the 14C penetration rate into the deep ocean. If Planktos is serious about proving their sequestration, all they need to do is contract a 14C lab to test the ocean waters and sea floor detritus beneath their seeding areas, to compare modelled and observed 14C enrichments. We don’t need to be skeptical about their claims; in the words of a great cold warrior, we can trust, but verify.
Does anyone know if they have made arrangements with any 14C labs to verify their seeding experiments? Has anyone asked?
[Response:Interesting idea, but my impression is that the 14-C distribution of the subsurface waters of the ocean are only slightly impacted by sinking organic material. An easier, more sensitive, and totally analogous measurement would simply be dissolved oxygen or nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus). Of course, the water column time-integrates the biological impacts on oxygen etc, so an even more direct measurement is the sinking flux of particles, measured in sediment traps. David]
That got me thinking (along with other, I see). Some quick calculations lead me to believe that a 200 km x 200 km bin, 100 m deep, filled with cut down trees, would sequester enough carbon to make a difference. If kept dry, they should last centuries (furniture does). Keep the bin filled with argon and that time period should be much longer. Of course, numerous smaller storage areas would be more practical.
All this is useless while we keep burning coal and other fossil carbon in large amounts, but this technique could be used to draw down carbon dioxide levels more rapidly than would naturally occur after we cut our emissions to a sustainable level.
There are probably better ways to achieve the same ends, but I don’t think we have to wait centuries for the natural balance of atmospheric gases to be restored if we’re willing to spend a lot of money to fix it.
[Response:Farm waste could just be flushed down into the deep ocean, There could be some gigatons there, I once heard it said. David]
re: 56. So that reaction is implying that for every C02 removed from seawater by a CaC03 precipitate, another C02 is released to the atmosphere? But with the whole carbon cycle operating, isnt it still preferable to have the permanent C02 removal? Certainly longer term that absorption by trees.
[Response:Permanent removal of carbon into sedimentary rocks in a natural world has to wait for weathering reactions of igneous rocks. The relevant reaction is
CaSiO3 + CO2 < --> CaCO3 + SiO2]
where CaSiO3 is a simple igneous rock, and CaCO3 and SiO2 are sedimentary rocks. This reaction takes hundreds of thousands of years to consume CO2. It would be done artificially, neutralizing fossil fuel CO2 captured from a smokestack. There is a paper Rau and Caldeira, Energy Conversion and Management 49 (1999) 1803-1813, 1999, about this idea. David]
I’m reminded of the TV movie (in the 1970s or 80s), THE DAY AFTER, re all-out nuclear war. After the movie they had panel of experts talking about what to do if all the nukes go off — civil defense, etc, subways as bombshelters, etc. Doctors, gov people, & engineers spoke. Triage, logistics…the works.
There was this little old philosopher on the end of the dais. At last he spoke: “You don’t understand, we can’t let this happen in the first place.” My friend & I agreed that he was the only one who made sense.
Comment by Lynn Vincentnathan — 3 May 2007 @ 9:39 PM
Re: Increased Biological Production in Current Near Lifeless Areas of Ocean to Remove CO2. Process active in the Past?
The below article explains that increased biological production in the ocean, due to iron and phosphate in dust is hypothesized to have cause an increase in biological production in regions of the earthâ��s ocean which are currently almost lifeless due to a lack of nutrients. The increased biological production is the hypothesized reason why the CO2 levels during the glacial periods dropped from around 280 ppm to 180 ppm.
The 100ppm drop in CO2 during the Glacial cycle is not primarily due to colder oceans. The following is an explanation of why colder oceans alone can not account for a 100 ppm drop in CO2. (Summary from the paper. See paper for details).
As there is a vast amount of fresh water in the glacial period, in the new ice sheets, the ocean becomes Salter (3%). Salter water can hold less carbon dioxide (6.5 ppm less for a 3% increase in salt content). Colder water can hold more carbon dioxide, however, the deep ocean is already an average of 4C and will freeze (salty or not) at around -1.8C. The estimated maximum drop deep in deep ocean temperature is 2.5 C. The surface subtropical oceans were estimated to have cooled by about 5C. (Note vast areas of the high latitude oceans were covered by ice, during the coldest period and could hence no longer absorb carbon dioxide.)
The reduction in carbon dioxide, due to colder oceans, is estimated to be max. 30 ppm. Now as vast areas of land which are currently forested, were covered by the glacial period ice sheets, the temperate forest is no longer using carbon dioxide which adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In addition, during the glacial period large sections of tropical rain forest changes to savannah (About a third of the tropical forest changes to savannah. The planet is drier when it is colder), as savannah is less productive that tropical forests that change also adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The Nature article estimates the temperate forest change and the increase in savannah, adds 15 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The net for this calculation is therefore = – 30 ppm + 6.5 ppm + 15 ppm = -8.5 ppm.
As there is 100 ppm to explain the above are not the solution. The above article explains that increased biological production in the ocean, due to iron and phosphate in dust is hypothesized to cause an increase in the biological production in regions of the earthâ��s ocean which are currently almost lifeless due to a lack of nutrients.
The question is what we are willing to do to counter that threat. If we are market-oriented capitalists, are we willing to accept more regulation? If we favor a more controlled economy, are we willing to accept that the market may provide part of the answer? If we oppose nuclear power for safety or anti-proliferation reasons, are we willing to at least look at the possibility that nuclear power can help meet rising energy demand and keep the economy healthy while lowering ghg emissions. Are we willing to try the occasional crazy idea (like fertilizing the oceans or painting the newly denuded south pole white in a couple hundred years)?
I hope no one minds if I get on my soapbox…
I am a moderate conservative – not that far from what many would call a “liberatarian.” Ideals of 1776, that sort of thing. I have studied totalitarianism and totalitarian ideologies. I believed in maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent. I believe that few things are as efficient as a free market. And I would say yes to all of the above.
The longer we wait, the more draconian the measures that will be necessary as conditions get much, much worse and as we will have fewer and fewer resources at our disposal, and will become more divided over what little is left. The more draconian the measures, the more likely that we will slip over the edge into some form of totalitarianism with no respect for individual liberty – and with no free market to fall back on. And one thing I know quite well is that totalitarianism is extremely inefficient, poor at science, and generally more concerned with the elimination of freedom of thought and of improving the lives of its citizens. If we descend into that, I believe there is little hope of our being able to respond to this crisis.
If someone values individual liberty and freedom of thought, now is the time to act with urgency. If we wish to be able to respond to this crisis, we must do so now. For the sake of liberty, freedom and even humanity itself, we cannot let this wait. The window of opportunity is rapidly closing, and unless we act soon, in time, darkness will be all that we have left.
There is much science which I would not cut back on, whether it is in terms of the study of alternate forms of energy (or the study of photosynthesis which shows some promise of raising the efficiency of commercial photovoltaics from around 20% to the 95% that plants achieve) or molecular biology (which may offer alternatives to current industrial methods by harnassing the power of bacteria – and which may offer hardier plants with which to feed people) or climatology. I am not a climatologist. However, I realize that our models are becoming much more powerful, and climatology can give us the power of foresight in dealing with what lies ahead. In a certain sense, science is what got us into this mess, but it is also the only thing which can get us out.
We must be very careful with the concept of carbon offsetting. It must not be a substitute for reducing general air pollution and emissions (especially in urban environments), or for improving energy efficiency. However significant the impacts of climate change may be, general air pollution (which causes smogs, allergies, asthma, etc.) currently has greater impact on human health. It is too easy to spend a few extra dollars (as little as $20 or $40) to ‘offset’ an air flight, or annual car use, etc, and therefore satisfy your conscience that you are ‘doing your bit’. Reducing your carbon footprint can be a useful metric for reducing energy use and pollution, but is no solution on its own.
I am curious what the effects of fertilization would be on the PH of the surface layer of the ocean. Would this process drive the PH of the water down? If so, would it affect the ability of some sea creatures to form shells?
[Response:No. Fossil fuel CO2 itself causes these problems, but fertilizing the ocean would if anything shift the pH back toward the basic, and stimulate CaCO3 production. David]
Re #59 “The question is what we are willing to do to counter that threat. If we are market-oriented capitalists, are we willing to accept more regulation? If we favor a more controlled economy, are we willing to accept that the market may provide part of the answer? If we oppose nuclear power for safety or anti-proliferation reasons, are we willing to at least look at the possibility that nuclear power can help meet rising energy demand and keep the economy healthy while lowering ghg emissions. Are we willing to try the occasional crazy idea (like fertilizing the oceans or painting the newly denuded south pole white in a couple hundred years)? Are we willing to put much of scientific endeavor on hold for a century while we deal with this threat?”
I’d go along with most of that. Quibbles:
(1) I’d say “market mechanisms” rather “the market” have a role – “the market” is an object of worship, perceived by its devotees as axiomatically virtuous and fair, and outside human control.
(2) “rising energy demand” should not be considered a given – I’d add to Ray’s list “If we are pro-nuclear power, or pro solar/wind/whatever, are we prepared at least to consider that there may be no way we can go on increasing energy use without unacceptable environmental costs?”
[[Why don’t we just use atmospheric water generators (essentialy very large dehumidifiers) to suck some of the water vapor out of the atmostphere.. You know, the same water vapor that is responsible for 90% or so of the actual Greenhouse effect. ]]
Wouldn’t work. The amount of water vapor in the air is controlled by the ambient temperature and the relative humidity. The missing water vapor would be replaced by evaporation from the oceans in less than a month. BTW, water vapor provides about 66% of the clear-sky greenhouse effect, not 90%.
[[Re # 58 [a 200 km x 200 km bin, 100 m deep, filled with cut down trees, would sequester …]
Why not just ship them to outer space – it would probably be cheaper, and would not take up 40,000 sq km of the earth’s surface. ]]
Wait a minute… why don’t we build wooden satellites and spaceships? Yeah! Of course, re-entry might be a problem… but we could coat them with ablatives… and of course, gas could get through the wood, so there’d be a leakage problem… but we could paint the wood… And wooden spacecraft would be lighter, thus requiring less fuel to lift off. I meant this sarcastically but now I’m beginning to wonder. Of course, it couldn’t easily be done on a scale large enough to affect GW.
Nick, First, given that over half of humanity uses very little and that they are bound to demand rising standards of living, I see no way that energy demand will fall this century. First, consider China: The government knows that its continued existence is jeopardized unless the Chinese economy grows at 8% per year for the next 25 years of so–that’s just to keep unemployment were it is. India is even more dependent on economic growth. Neither economy is at a stage where economic growth can be severed from energy demand growth. Brazil does not have the same population pressures, but it’s economy is fragile. African countries have not even reached take-off yet. My question is this: How do we keep people in these regions from burning coal or firewood or charcoal if it is the only means they have of putting food on the table? Could demand be cut back in the US, Europe, Japan and Korea. Probably. However, people will never vote themselves out of a job. Moreover, combatting climate change will not be cheap–it will take a healthy global economy just to pay for mitigations.
As to markets, there is nothing magical about them. They work for the same reason scientific consensus does–they de-emphasize and even punish extreme or wildly incorrect views and they reward being right. Yes, they can be manipulated, but they eventually punish the manipulations, too (dot-com and housing bubbles come to mind). The problem with markets is that they tend to focus near term (5 years or less, unless you’re Warren Buffett) and they don’t work if people don’t at least understand the risks. It is, however usually much easier to manipulate a government than it is to manipulate a market. That is why lobbying firms have offices on K Street rather than Wall Street.
I was at an NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, CO) briefing about nine years ago (~1996) and this idea (“painting all the Earth’s dark surfaces white”) was discussed then as part of an informal possible solution to combat AGW (human-climate change).
Maybe it would take “all the earth’s painting capacity” to paint the earth’s dark surfaces white overnight, but the first question is how quickly you want to make the change. If you have forever any painting capacity will do. We paint 65 million cars every year as it is – what if they were all painted white? You would still have to net out the reflectivity of a car painted another color, but I’m using very rough estimates of the percentage that are already white, the percentage that are replacing junked white cars, and the percentage that are left in the sun during the day. Maybe a net increase of 50 million square meters of bright white each year with no net ‘unintended consequences’. OK, that IS less than .003% of the area of September arctic sea ice lost since 2001, compared to the average of the 1979-2001 period – a white to dark change that’s going the wrong way. Then assuming a 10 year car-life (no increase in white junking) a decade of this would produce 0.03% of the sea ice lost….not impressive, but may be more effective nearer the equator…..up to 0.05%….still looks pretty insignificant.
Meanwhile there must be some standard positive (or negative) cooling calculation that is done in the models for ground level albedo – I wonder what it is for white paint versus black car paint? And what the ounces of CO2 equivalent per sq ft per year is? Be interesting to compare car roofs, house roofs, concrete (OK, very energy intensive, I know) versus blacktop etc etc for such casual calculations….
More importantly : the A/C impact of white roofs on houses – one estimate I saw of cooling via evaporation of spray on a black rubber roof I think was high (thousands of killowatt hours in a year), but did reduce a significant percentage of the household energy consumption. That evaporation technique could be replaced with a white rubber roof (was a flat roof) for significant reduction in home energy consumption in hot affluent A/C-using climates.
As to markets, there is nothing magical about them. They work for the same reason scientific consensus does–they de-emphasize and even punish extreme or wildly incorrect views and they reward being right. Yes, they can be manipulated, but they eventually punish the manipulations, too (dot-com and housing bubbles come to mind). The problem with markets is that they tend to focus near term (5 years or less, unless you’re Warren Buffett) and they don’t work if people don’t at least understand the risks. It is, however usually much easier to manipulate a government than it is to manipulate a market. That is why lobbying firms have offices on K Street rather than Wall Street.
I am in large agreement with this assessment.
However, in defense of markets, I would say that to the extent that they have been permitted to act, as a result of their decentralization which is capable of coordinating economic activity on a level and efficiency that greatly dwarfs anything a centralized economy would ever be capable of, they have demonstrated an almost magical ability to expand the range of economic activity, raising living standards over time, increasing the capacity of our civilization to support more people, and thereby increase the atmospheric level of greenhouse gases at a rate… well, I suppose there are drawbacks.
Our GHG problem is short-term, but most changes that claim to be solutions are long-term. As today’s IPCC report makes clear, there are many things we can do, but I remain unconvinced that doing them will result in much beyond delaying CC by a handful of years. If that’s true, and even if you accept the 3% of world GDP cost figure they marshal, moderate delay doesn’t seem worth the expense, especially if you’re a developing nation, for whom every iota of GDP growth is more than precious. To truly stop CC, we have to get GHG back to 1890 levels, not 1990 levels.
RE planktos. They may be crazy, but there is a larger, longer-term idea here. It is that unlike the land, the oceans remain hunting grounds (using nets rather than bullets.) Eventually, and probably this century, we will treat them as agricultural areas. That is, we will apply human ingenuity and technology to increasing their productivity radically, as we have learned to do on land. Iron seeding and today’s fish-farming seem like the equivalent of the early days of agriculture, before the green revolution, no-till, etc. We may hope that sustainability and large-scale carbon capture are part of this new picture.
Good point, David, but the ocean is oxidizing, so that when plankton dies the carbon oxidizes back to CO2, closing the cycle, leaving no net change. Generally, in the open ocean where fertilization would increase productivity, carbon is not removed by sedimentation.
There are good reasons why models show that fertilization is ineffective.
Re # 67
Surely you’re not suggesting that loading millions of trees on to rocket ships and sending them to deep space is any less feasible than storing those trees in a 4000 cubic km grave (maybe several of them?) until the threat of global warming has passed?
I think Barton P.L. (#75) spotted my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.
Sinking wood below the depth where oxygen is available is indeed a way of preserving it for a very long period.
The Black Sea, the deep Mediterranean, and the deep ocean in places all could serve as such a repository. Even places in the Great Lakes are sources of well preserved wood from a century ago, from ships that sank with loads of big trees. You can look this up.
One example of many:
OXIC, SUBOXIC, AND ANOXIC CONDITIONS IN THE BLACK SEA
… shipwrecks are better preserved in the anoxic layer than in the oxic …
1991 The oxidation of H. 2. S in Black Sea waters. Deep-Sea Research 38(Suppl. … http://www.springerlink.com/index/m44815278g14p2h0.pdf
The “ocean” isn’t all the same, isn’t “oxidizing” — there are organisms eating plankton in the shallow layers, dead or alive —- the deep ocean sediments show the steady accumulation of plankton calcite/aragonite and silica shells over time.
Look at any of the sediment core papers published, look for photographs. The idea of boosting plankton may not make sense for a variety of reasons, but stay with the facts in this argument, please. Chasing wild theories that lead to statements with no basis in the field work is just recreational typing.
I ran across a different approach to carbon sequestration – something which shows the potential for locking carbon in the soil and enriching it for thousands of years, reducing deforestation, reducing forcing by nitrous oxide, and which appears to be economical. Or in otherwords, it sounds a little too good to be true. I think it might be nevertheless….
Re #82: [… less feasible than storing those trees in a 4000 cubic km grave (maybe several of them?) until the threat of global warming has passed?]
I don’t see that tree storage is all that infeasible: after all, it’s been done, hasn’t it? Seems like a simple one-line description of coal formation to me :-)
But of course there’d be a certain circular futility in such a plan: while one set of humans are digging up the millions of years old buried trees and burning them, another set are busily burying new trees to remove the CO2 that the first group created.
[Response:I’ve heard the idea (from Gregory Benford at a meeting) that fossil fuel burns at a higher temperature than biomass does, hence by the steam-engine laws of thermodynamics the energy can be extracted more efficiently. An argument to burn fossil fuel and sequester biomass. David]
[[Re # 58 [a 200 km x 200 km bin, 100 m deep, filled with cut down trees, would sequester …]
Why not just ship them to outer space – it would probably be cheaper, and would not take up 40,000 sq km of the earth’s surface. ]]
Wait a minute… why don’t we build wooden satellites and spaceships?
Okay, I know some people are getting a bit … weird … with their science, but before anyone runs off and makes a 200km x 200km forest dumping site, a 75 mile by 75 mile (120km by 120km, for those of you using new money …) PV farm would replace all of our current electric supply.
180w per square meter
3.717 trillion kilowatt hours per year
4 hours per day average insolation
365 days per average year
[Response:I’ve heard the idea (from Gregory Benford at a meeting) that fossil fuel burns at a higher temperature than biomass does, hence by the steam-engine laws of thermodynamics the energy can be extracted more efficiently. An argument to burn fossil fuel and sequester biomass. David]
Two words: Thermal depolymerization.
Once we identify a sufficient waste stream of “available biomass”, we start recycling it using thermal depolymerization. Whatever’s leftover, we sequester. Trees, tires, sea critter shells, whatever.
The end result is renewable energy from now until forever, with a gradual decline in atmospheric CO2. We get to have our cake and eat it, too.
The output is light crude, natural gas, solid carbon and trace minerals. Cost per barrel is competitive with what’s coming out of the ground today and the feedstock is anything with long chain carbons. The technology is very straightforward and the outputs can be utilized tomorrow by existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
Regarding charges I’ve been concealing my Planktos affiliation: anyone who has put a cursor over my name on this blog might guess such sly deception was not the first thing on my mind.
Regarding David’s comment inserted in my first post on the collapse of plankton and primary production in the Pacific, i.e., “changes in dust deposition are not the primary culprit.”, would just ask that he read the excerpts from the reports cited, e.g., NASA: “Reductions in NPP in the South Pacific were associated with a 35 percent decline in atmospheric iron deposition” and BBC/Nature: “The amount of carbon absorbed by plant plankton in large segments of the Pacific Ocean is much less than previously estimated, researchers say. US scientists said the tiny ocean plants were absorbing up to two billion tonnes less CO2 because their growth was being limited by a lack of iron.” There are of course other factors in play but a lot of scientists obviously see a major role for iron deficiency.
Regarding the iron source: we’re primarily depending upon natural hematite deposits which if you google the word you will see are available everywhere. We are even reaching out to a French company that has developed a process that removes the tons of it that accumulate (like inorganic cholesterol) inside the pipes of public water systems. Since the only processing is essentially running the material through a modern version of a ball mill, very little energy is used in its preparation. Transport is the primary emission producing factor and in total each ton of hematite delivered should entail something like 10~ 20 tons of CO2 emissions. Once distributed in iron-depleted pelagic waters, each iron molecule can fix approximately 100,000 molecules of C in plankton biomass. (The enduring authority on these ratios is “Iron uptake and growth limitation in oceanic and coastal phytoplankton. Sunda W.G., Huntsman S.A., 1995. Marine Chemistry 50, 189-206 which reports Fe:C uptake ratios of 1:40,000 to 1:400,000 with a 1:119,000 average). We expect approximately 20% of this to sink below 500 m where it will be isolated from the atmosphere for centuries, which means that by weight each ton of iron replenished will sequester approximately 20~25 thousand tons of CO2 or roughly a thousand times more than the iron preparation/delivery generate. The other 80% of the carbon biomass is contributed as a free soup kitchen to the local surface critters and fisheries, so most will eventually get respired and end back up in the atmosphere.
Regarding Chuck Booth’s question about oxygen production: There is actually still a surprising range of opinion in the scientific literature on this ranging from the numbers you cite to those quoted by CIESN below. Most of the numbers we hear range from 50 to 70% and we just thought it prudent to average them.
Health and climate change: Marine ecosystems. Epstein, P. R., T. E. Ford, and R. R. Colwell. 1993. The Lancet 342: 1216-19.
Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN)
Plankton interact with climate by taking in CO2, by absorbing and scattering solar heat, and by emitting dimethylsulphide that seeds clouds, which cool the earth’s surface through precipitation and sunlight reflection. These biotic feedbacks help to modulate the earth’s temperature, the salinity of its oceans, and the composition of its atmosphere.
By harnessing photosynthetically active radiation marine microflora produce twice as much carbohydrate (60 billion tonnes annually) as terrestrial plants. Phytoplankton produce 70% of atmospheric oxygen, that in turn generates protective ozone in the stratosphere. http://www.ciesin.columbia.edu/docs/005-390/005-390.html
Regarding Alan’s skepticism about the krill collapse: Please see this Science Daily report on a paper from Current Biology:
ANTARCTIC KRILL PROVIDE CARBON SINK IN SOUTHERN OCEAN
“Numbers of Antarctic krill have dropped by about 80% since the 1970’s. The most likely explanation is a dramatic decline in winter sea-ice. Krill feed on the algae found under the surface of the sea-ice, which acts as a kind of ‘nursery’… It is not fully understood how the loss of sea-ice there is connected to the warming, but could be behind the decline in krill.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/02/060206230630.htm
Ditto from the British Antarctic Survey annual report: “A BAS -led team has pooled krill abundance data and shown that krill have declined by 80% in the last 30 years… Krill are a pivotal species in the Antarctic ecosystem and this shift in the food web is already affecting higher predators that depend on them as a food source. BAS scientists have also quantified how the growth of krill is related to the amount of food available in the water (chlorophyll concentration) and water temperature.” http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/About_BAS/Corporate/Annual_Reports/annrep04_05.pdf.
Regarding Jenn’s question about toxic responses: As far as we can judge from the lit we’ve seen on pelagic plankton, lethal blooms have rarely been reported. Nitrogen-fixing phytoplankton like trichodesmium do secrete some nasty molecules like monarch butterflies to discourage predators, but the ammonium they generate also nourishes many other plankton species so the overall biological effect is quite positive. Darwin even remarks on the effect in his Beagle voyage journal: “The line where the red [trichodesmium bloom] and blue water joined was distinctly defined. The weather for some days previously had been calm, and the ocean abounded, to an unusual degree, with living creatures.” http://charles-darwin.classic-literature.co.uk/the-voyage-of-the-beagle/ebook-page-08.asp
In any case, the two main types of harmful algal blooms (HAB) that humans are familiar with are largely coastal shelf phenomena, like the red/brown tides of cyanobacteria, microflagellates, and dinoflagellates which secrete neurotoxins that can seriously disable or kill mammals (including us); and the river mouth “dead zone” blooms that are caused by industrial pollution and agro-chemical run-off. These deadly eutrophic blooms are sort of like the Al Qaeda of the plankton world, a nasty micro-minority that we ourselves artificially created with really stupid shortsighted policies, yet whose lethal activities give a bad name to all their benign productive brethren around the world.
So considering this and the fact that none of the previous 10 international ocean iron seeding trials reported any toxic effects at all, we are not expecting any harmful reactions whatever in the open ocean. Nevertheless, we will be seeding these pilot blooms far out to sea in areas where they cannot drift to land, tracking speciation throughout their evolution, and monitoring all their biological effects. And since each of our six projected blooms will only be 2~3% the size of most wind-seeded pelagic blooms (and less than 0.003% of the ocean surface), and last 4~6 months at best, we are talking about very limited pilot project scale events.
Regarding doubts about CO2 drawdown and potential efficacy: would just ask readers to consider two facts:
a) Early experimental trials did report dramatic drawdowns. Just consider this one report from the National Science Foundation regarding one small attempt:
Iron ‘Fertilization’ Causes Plankton Bloom
Scientists link iron to climate change
National Science Foundation
October 9, 1996
New results by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers, published in this week’s science journal Nature, confirm earlier experiments that indicated a strong biological response to added iron. But this time the effects lasted longer, and large changes were observed in the air-sea transfer of gases involved in climate processes.
On an oceanographic research cruise called “IronEx II,” led by scientists from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) in California, 37 scientists from 13 institutions in the U.S., England, and Mexico “fertilized” with iron a patch of ocean waters some 800 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. Nearly one-half of one ton of iron was added to the experimental patch, increasing surface water iron concentrations by 100 parts per trillion. The experiment was tracked for 18 days.
Iron-starved plant plankton, called phytoplankton, native to the region responded rapidly; the amount of plankton began to nearly double each day. Working around the clock, scientists performed continuous measurements and over-the-side sampling operations. “Within one week, about two million pounds of phytoplankton had grown, representing a thirty-fold increase,” says scientist Kenneth Coale of MLML. “At the same time, the rapid growth of these plankton began to ‘draw down’ carbon dioxide in surface waters. After 10 days, the concentration of carbon dioxide had dropped 20 percent over the initial values.”
The waters in which this experiment were conducted are representative of about 20 percent of the ocean’s surface area. They are called High Nitrate, Low Chlorophyll (HNLC) waters. “The experiment strongly supports the hypothesis that these waters do not grow more plant plankton because they lack iron,” says Don Rice, director of NSF’s chemical oceanography program, which funded the research along with the Office of Naval Research. Tiny additions of this nutrient to HNLC waters have the potential to cause rapid plant growth and a “draw-down” in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This experiment may have pulled more than 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide from area waters before the patch was broken up by ocean currents, according to Coale. “It demonstrates that changes in iron supply to HNLC ocean regions play an important role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate.” http://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=101792
The tiny size of the bloom led to quick dispersal leading later teams to experiment with up to 8 tons of iron so the blooms would not be destroyed by wave diffusion or quickly grazed to death. The critical point about all these trials and data sets is that none of them were long enough to record the really productive stages of the blooms. Natural blooms last 4~6 months with most of the productivity (and carbon export) occurring during the mid-point of the bloom.
As the graphic shows the average experiment only lasted 22 days and the longest SOFeX experiment only lasted 50. And according to the NASA report on the two SOFeX sites,
“SOFeX-S: Due to the high concentration of silicic acid and sufficient iron, this bloom kept on blooming and blooming — it was still “healthy” when the research vessel monitoring it had to return to port. As the diatoms were still healthy, not many of them died and sank to deeper waters, to the carbon flux exported from the bloom (measured by instrumented traps deployed beneath the bloom) was underestimated…
“SoFeX-N produced a bloom that was somewhat more unusual. Rather than being composed primarily of diatoms, this bloom was a mixture of about 50% diatoms and 50% phytoplankton that did not make shells out of silica… Another significant result was that this bloom also showed no signs of slowing down when the experiment was over when ships had left the sites of the blooms.” http://daac.gsfc.nasa.gov/oceancolor/scifocus/oceanColor/iron_limits.html
In other words, all the modeling and speculation based upon the data at hand is likely discouraging for a simple reason – the ocean scientists did not have enough funds (ship time is expensive!) to stick around. The incredible results of the Kerguelen bloom study just published and cited above, that show results “one or two orders of magnitude” larger than the iron seeded blooms are being spun to suggest that only Mother Nature can accomplish this feat. What is misleadingly downplayed is that they measured the bloom and sequestration effect for a full three months or more than 4 times longer than the average iron seeded bloom. Look at the bloom duration chart again and I think you will see what is going on…
In closing, would just like to say that people are perfectly entitled to oppose this work ideologically, but that should be a separate conversation from the scientific discussion, and in this field especially they are getting dangerously mixed up.
Even the very positive results recounted in the NSF report above are spun in a final comment that states “Calculations for the equatorial Pacific, reported in the Nature papers, indicate that iron fertilization there would not significantly counteract the projected future increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide.” First no one has suggested the equatorial Pacific was the only or even best site for this work, but more importantly it turns out they used a catastrophic CO2 “projection” of over 700 ppm (vs. 380 ppm today) to make sure the effect looked hopeless in the extreme.
One of the most infuriating aspects of this “debate” (not here gratefully, but plentifully elsewhere) are the charges that Planktos is pretending that this work will “solve global warming” or conversely that since it obviously won’t, it shouldn’t be tried at all. We obviously think this is one important piece of the answer and if workers in this field heed the Precautionary Principle and stop cold at restoration levels, we believe plankton power can safely play a significant climatic role – a primus inter pares role, if you will, among the other “wedges” promoted by Gore and the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative. We still need unprecedented (and as yet politically unimaginable) source reductions, but while those wars are going on, we feel this ocean work is still a critical mission, too. I don’t know what it will take to get people to care about the accelerating loss of ocean life, but condemnation of attempts like this to slow or reverse it just because they are funded by offsets just seems the triumph of ideology over commonsense. And when ideologues contaminate science, it leads to disastrous environmental policy. After 6 years of this government that should now be pretty damn clear.
Finally, just noticed that realclimate.org is now on record in the blogosphere as uniformly opposing this work.
Polluting to save the planet: RealClimate disapproves
Posted by Gar Lipow at 10:17 AM on 04 May 2007
RealClimate, a blog run by leading climate scientists, thinks Planktos’s scheme to dump iron particles in the ocean to make plankton bloom and sequester carbon is “thin soup.” http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/5/3/221946/3749
Now I can see that Dr. Archer is not favorably disposed, but given the rather reasonable discussion going on here, was just wondering if among the other “leading climate scientists” the disapproval was as seamless as Mr. Lipow shouts…?
Re #85 Response: [I’ve heard the idea (from Gregory Benford at a meeting) that fossil fuel burns at a higher temperature than biomass does, hence by the steam-engine laws of thermodynamics the energy can be extracted more efficiently. An argument to burn fossil fuel and sequester biomass.]
I’d need to see the math on that. I suspect it leaves out the energy costs of coal mining & transport, and biomass burial.
In any case, it seems that it’d be a marginal net benefit at best. Far more effective to leave the coal in the ground, sequester some biomass, and burn uranium :-)
Re # 88 There is actually still a surprising range of opinion in the scientific literature on this [global oxygen production by marine phytoplankton]
I have no idea where Epstein et al got their figure of 70% – they don’t cite any reference – and I have certainly never seen any published values near that level. All of the papers I have seen (and I keep an eye out for this very estimate) put the number below 50%. In trying to promote a plan to use phytoplankton to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, I think it would be prudent to be conservative, rather than unreasonably optimistic, about the rate of marine phytoplankton primary production.
If it turns out that the marine phytoplankton really do produce 60%, or 70%, of atmosphere’s oxygen each year, I would argue that makes a stronger case to not screw around with it – it is too essential to our existence on the planet. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
[Response:When phytoplankton or trees photosynthesize, they produce oxygen. But when they are ultimately respired, the oxygen is reconsumed. Almost all of the photosynthesis on land or in the ocean is balanced by respiration, so it makes little difference to atmospheric O2 what the balance of photosynthesis is between the land and the ocean. In order to leave behind O2, the organic carbon has to be buried someplace. Most burial happens in the ocean. Another fact to consider about atmospheric oxygen is that it has a lifetime, and therefore a response time to some perturbation, of several million years. David]
Re # 88 I find it curious that david kubiak wants the focus to stay on the science, rather than emotional responses, but when the researchers who conducted the fertilization experiment he cites cautioned against interpreting the results as a possible cure for global warming (perhaps because that study doesn’t offer a mechanism for sequestering the new phytoplankton biomass in the deep ocean?), kubiak dismisses this caveat as “spin.” Likewise, he dismisses Gar’s scientifically-based criticism of Planktos’s plan as “shouting.”
Re: David Archer’s comments on my post (#90).
I raised the point about the relative importance of phytoplankton oxygen production because david kubiak cited what seems to me to be an unrealistically high value, presumably because he feels it strengthens is his argument that highly productive phytoplankton are the key to CO2 remediation. I’ll be quite honest: I’m against large-scale geoengineering projects of this sort. Is this an emotional, knee-jerk response? Perhaps, but not entirely – it is also a result of having read about scientific experiments having unintended consequences (e.g., introduction of the cane toad in Australia to kill the beetles destroying sugar cane; http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/publications/cane-toad/index.html) or failing to appreciate how complex ecosystem processes really are (all too common in biomanipulation field studies).
Even if ocean fertilization turns out to be a feasible (from an engineering standpoint) mechanism to reduce atmospheric CO2 (i.e., there is an easy way to transport the plankton biomass to the deep sea), I would be very concerned about unanticipated consequences to nutrient cycles and food chains in the surface waters of the ocean.
Regarding Mr. Booth’s oxygen questions: I tried to point out that there is still obviously a controversy around these numbers but that crediting the plankton with 60% is not an unrealistically high value. If, as he says, he does keep an eye out for this estimate, may I direct it to the following recent statements:
Perhaps not the most erudite source, but here’s earthsky.org/Weather Channel’s Joel Block responding to one listener in November, 2005: “Scientists believe that phytoplankton contribute between 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. They aren’t sure because it’s a tough thing to calculate. In the lab, scientists can determine how much oxygen is produced by a single phytoplankton cell. The hard part is figuring out the total number of these microscopic plants throughout Earth’s oceans.”
More respectable perchance is Ali Khounsary, Ph.D. from the gov’s Argonne National Laboratory writing on an ANL webpage entitled World Oxygen Sources: “It is true that most of the earth’s oxygen production, PERHAPS as much as 90%, is from the sea plants through photosynthesis within the top 100 m of the ocean water where there is enough sunlight for the process to take place ” http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/gen01/gen01902.htm
Or this from NASA: “It is estimated that phytoplankton, the plant forms of plankton, photosynthesize more than all other land and marine plants combined; some scientists place the figure at 90% of all photosynthesis on Earth. This means they also produce most of the oxygen breathed by humans and other animals.” http://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/education/activities/ts3meac3.pdf.
And less breathily from a 2005 NASA report entitled: “The Mathematical Ocean: Deriving Planetary Health from Tiny Ocean Plants” – “There are many trillions of phytoplankton in the sea, and together they convert huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) into living matter. In that process they release a major percentage of the world’s oxygen into the atmosphere.” http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/plankton.html
And yes, there are other sources that say 45~50%, but between 90% and 45%, it doesn’t seem like a 60% average is over-reaching or spinning to “strengthen my argument”. Indeed, I too really am curious about the obvious imprecision in this rather vital statistic and wonder what the hell is going on. Sincerely, if you can find an unimpeachable source or consensus on this estimate, I would truly like to know.
But whichever estimate is correct, the point is that we – collectively as a “civilization” – already have screwed around with this life-sustaining ecosystem – as Dr. Behrenfeld’s 12/06 Nature announcement of a 50% plankton die-off in the central Pacific attests. The plankton system is broke – not that our little pilot blooms are going to fix it, but they at least represent a careful effort to study the dynamics that could bring them back.
Regarding the “spin” in the NSF article: it’s not that they cautioned against the redemptive potential of iron restoration. Given the size and duration of their experiment, that conservatism was natural. It was the fact that they disparagingly compared the potential mitigation effect they deduced with an apocalyptic future 700 ppm+ atmospheric CO2 scenario – a “projection” that tripled the current 120 ppm global warming increment we’ve accumulated since the start of the Industrial Revolution. In other words, it’s rather like fundamentalists saying, “so, ok, maybe condoms can stop a couple hundred million unwanted births a year, but that is totally insignificant relative to the future 15 billion population explosion that we project.”
And for the record, I wasn’t using the word “shout” to characterize Mr. Lipow’s “scientifically-based criticism” but rather his preemptive bold-face blog headlne that declared our restoration efforts are “polluting” and that RealClimate scientists uniformly agree and disapprove.
It just seemed to be a very loud, unilateral and hopefully premature announcement about a very respected group’s unanimous opposition to an approach that still seems like it’s being discussed in good faith here.
Re # 92 As this is getting a bit off-topic, I’ll make one final post on this subject. I don’t know that any scientific source is unimpeachable, but I will stick to the peer-reviewed literature.
Estimating ocean primary productivity on a global scale is certainly not simple, but methods are established, as described in:
Biogeochemical Controls and Feedbacks on Ocean Primary Production
Paul G. Falkowski, Richard T. Barber, Victor Smetacek
Science 10 July 1998:
Vol. 281. no. 5374, pp. 200 – 206 (listed as Free Access) http://preview.tinyurl.com/2davw4
…Together with knowledge of sea surface temperature, incident solar irradiance and mixed layer depths, chlorophyll data can be used to estimate NPP for any region of the ocean…Results of such calculations suggest that global oceanic NPP is ~45 to 50 Pg C per annum… This carbon flux is driven by a phytoplankton biomass of ~1 Pg C, which is only 0.2% of the photosynthetically active C biomass on Earth…
See also the Field et al (1998) paper I cited earlier:
Primary Production of the Biosphere: Integrating Terrestrial and Oceanic Components
Christopher B. Field, Michael J. Behrenfeld, James T. Randerson, Paul Falkowski
Science 10 July 1998:
Vol. 281. no. 5374, pp. 237 – 240
The most recent estimates of global marine primary productivity are probably found in the latest edition of Falkowski’s textbook on this subject (I haven’t read it yet):
Falkowski, P.G. and J. A. Raven. 2006. Aquatic Photosynthesis (2nd edition). Princeton University Press. Princeton.
As Paul Falkowski (Rutgers Univ.) is one of the world’s foremost authorities on marine primary productivity, his assessment of the potential for phytoplankton remediation of atmospheric CO2 levels is worth considering:
The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System
P. Falkowski, R. J. Scholes, E. Boyle, J. Canadell, D. Canfield, J. Elser, N. Gruber, K. Hibbard, P. HÃ¶gberg, S. Linder, F. T. Mackenzie, B. Moore III, T. Pedersen, Y. Rosenthal, S. Seitzinger, V. Smetacek, W. Steffen
Science 13 October 2000:
Vol. 290. no. 5490, pp. 291 – 296
Motivated by the rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 due to human activities since the Industrial Revolution, several international scientific research programs have analyzed the role of individual components of the Earth system in the global carbon cycle. Our knowledge of the carbon cycle within the oceans, terrestrial ecosystems, and the atmosphere is sufficiently extensive to permit us to conclude that although natural processes can potentially slow the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2, there is no natural “savior” waiting to assimilate all the anthropogenically produced CO2 in the coming century… Potential remediation strategies, such as the purposeful manipulation of biological and chemical processes to accelerate the sequestration of atmospheric CO2, are being seriously considered by both governmental bodies and private enterprises. These mitigation strategies will themselves have unknown consequences and must be carefully assessed within the context of an integrated systems approach before any action is taken.
Will deglaciation of the Himalayas and parts of Greenland increase the silicate weathering cycle by exposing glacial rock powder to chemical weathering? Has anyone quantified such an effect?
Re Dr. Kubiak’s description of research to date:
We don’t doubt that y’all can increase marine photosynthesis. The question is what happes to the carbon after the bloom. I hope you are able to continue your research. While we understand your need to generate interest to pay for your work, us conservative type scientists are uneasy with claims that haven’t yet been substantiated.
I think you’re doing just what you implicitly warn others against –
placing cherished beliefs above the need to combat anthropogenic
climate change. In your case, the central beliefs are that “economic growth” is
in itself a good thing, more economic growth is better, and markets
are fundamentally benign.
I put the phrase “economic growth” in scare quotes because it is
not clear there is anything close to a definitive way to measure the
size or growth rate of an economy – particularly in the case of
economies like China and India, which are still to a great extent
based on kinship and tribute relationships rather than production for profit.
GDP, the most widely cited measure of the former and basis for
measuring the latter, measures the amount of monetised activity – it
excludes subsistence farming, unpaid housework and care for family
members, and (as measured rather than by definition) much of the
informal economy; and takes no account of the destruction of natural
capital through environmental damage, or human capital through damage
to health, and social disruption.
The extremely rapid GDP growth rates currently quoted for China and
India reflect partly the outsourcing of manufacturing and in India’s
case service industries by rich-country corporations to take advantage
of cheap labour and lax environmental regulation, but above all
the speed with which domestic economic activity is being
monetised, a process which is benefiting the ruling elites and a
middle class minority (admittedly, this minority is large in absolute
terms, given the huge populations involved), at the expense of the
poorer peasantry, landless rural workers, and urban poor. I’m not
saying these countries don’t need economic growth, but most of it at
present is going into prestige infrastructure – much of it of dubious quality
and value – and luxury goods for a minority, not improving the
desperate conditions of the poor. Many of these luxuries (cars, air travel,
beef and other meat) are particularly destructive in climatic
terms. Rates of 8% growth per annum for the next 25 years, as you say
the Chinese government plans, seem to me a fantasy. The British economic writer
and journalist Will Hutton (whose position on the left-right spectrum
I should judge is pretty close to yours) has recently published a book
on China, “The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st
Century”, claiming to show that the efficiency of capital
investment in China is both very low, and falling rapidly. (I should
say I haven’t read the book, only articles putting forward its
thesis, and there is much in the latter I don’t agree with. There’s a
discussion between Hutton and Meghnad Desai at http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=8174.) I
would be very surprised if China gets through the next 25 years
without large-scale social and political upheaval; and if either China
or India does so without a considerable fall from current GDP growth
If I’m wrong, however, they’ll do it powered largely by coal,
not nuclear power or renewables: they both have large coal reserves,
and cheap labour to extract it and build the relatively simple
infrastructures needed to use it. Neither has sufficient uranium to
fuel a large-scale increase in nuclear power, neither is likely to
want to be dependent on uranium imports. The People’s Daily online
“Slightly more than 1 percent of China’s total electricity needs are
met by nuclear power plants but this is set to surge to 4 percent by
2020.” Some surge, eh? Dr.R.Chidambaram, Chairman of India’s Atomic
Energy Commission says
(http://www.npcil.nic.in/nupower_vol11_1-3/chidambaram.htm) that India
needs to expand electricity generating capacity to 900GWe, and that
there are plans for nuclear plants to produce 20GWe by 2020. The
Indian AEC page is full of plans for using thorium, of which India has
plenty, but it’s quite clear these won’t be implemented for some
decades at least. Hence my belief that the most vital area of
technical advance in combating GHG emissions is probably carbon
capture and sequestration.
You say, not for the first time, that we need rapid economic growth in
order to fund mitigation. Yet the only large region to reduce GHG
emissions significantly during the 1990s was the former USSR – due to the
contraction of economic activity. You are claiming, without evidence
or argument so far as I can see, that if economies only grow fast
enough, resources will be more readily diverted into mitigation – and
on a scale large enough to outweigh the increased energy demand. Can
you spell out your reasons for believing this? I think that without a
fundamental reorientation of socio-economic and political systems,
more growth will simply mean faster GHG emissions increase.
Turning to markets, you claim they are much harder to manipulate than
governments. Markets are manipulated by setting their boundary
conditions – who is allowed to take part on what terms. Economic
interest groups pressure governments to set these conditions to their
advantage. You can see this quite clearly in agricultural markets –
where both US and EU producers have ensured that competition from poor
countries is kept out; and in the area of so-called “intellectual
property”, where the US government, at the behest of media, software
and similar corporations, is pressuring other governments to adopt rules which
favour those corporations – notably, continual extensions to the term
of copyright, and to what can be patented.
You do put your finger on one of markets’ fundamental
flaws – their short-termism. That is something we simply cannot afford
in the current emergency. Among their other flaws the most important
is that, even setting aside the ability of corporations to determine their
institutional context by their influence over governments,
they intrinsically give more influence to the rich than the poor – that is,
in current terms, they privilege the preferences of those doing most
of the damage over the preferences of those bearing most of the costs,
at least in the short to medium term. (Incidentally, a lot of people
did very well out of the dot-com and housing bubbles, and in the
latter case, many are still doing so. A lot of the time, markets simply
reward luck. I should declare an interest here: I’m one of those who
has done well out of the UK’s still expanding housing bubble, simply
by having parents who used a relatively small legacy to buy a house in
suburban London in the 1960s.) Market mechanisms can be put to good use,
but they need to be limited in scope, and kept under democratic
control. In the current era, that control needs to be global in scope
– to deal with many issues, but most of all climate change, we need to
build global democratic institutions, in which so far as possible, the
Chinese, Indian, South American and African poor have equal say with
us, the rich. Are you ready for that?
Have you ever been to India, China, or Africa? Do you really think that people will ever voluntarily choose poverty? I don’t, and I lived in SubSaharan Africa for 2 years doing development work and have traveled in India, China, and Latin America. In the end, it does not matter what I want. It does not matter what you want, or George Bush, or the UN or the EU or even the governments of China, India, etc. People will do what they need to to better their lot. If their governments support them, those governments will survive, and if not they will be overthrown. I did not say that I thought the level of growth seen in China was sustainable. I said that that was what the Chinese governement thinks they need to sustain themselves in power. I don’t see them voluntarily taking actions that will get them booted out.
So the struggle for economic growth in the short term will continue independent of what you or I think it ought to do. We cannot change that–or if you think we can, I’d be interested in hearing your plans. What we just may be able to do is channel it into less energy-intensive and particularly less ghg intensive avenues. And if we are going to do that, then it will take investment on our part–and guess what, you don’t get money to invest if your economy is stagnating.
Actually, it may surprise you, but I am quite a bit left of center–at least in the US political spectrum. I distrust markets, but I distrust them less than social engineering–which you must admit has a really lousy track record. And in any case, markets exist, whereas to rely on some other framework would require us to set up that framework–a process that will take time we don’t have and that can be manipulated by those seeking to enrich themselves.
To quote you: ” Markets are manipulated by setting their boundary
conditions – who is allowed to take part on what terms. Economic
interest groups pressure governments to set these conditions to their
Hmm, who are the interest groups pressuring…? Governments. It is the regulation of the market that is most vulnerable to the manipulation–and yes, I am not blind to the paradox that the regulation is essential to the reasonable functioning of the market as well. It is merely there where the need for transparency is greatest.
So, ultimately, it does not matter what I would prefer–which if you get right down to it would be to be left alone to pursue my scientific research and launch satellites and walk my dogs and generally live a quiet life. What WILL HAPPEN is that economies in India, Africa, China and Latin America will grow–both in absolute terms and relative to the US, Japanese, Korean and European economies. Those regions (though perhaps not their poor) will have greater influence, and unless we work with them and help them achieve growth WHILE reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we will reach a tipping point where any future argument will be purely be about who gets the blame.
Re #96 Ray,
I spent 4 months in Africa in 1991, trying unsuccessfully to become an environmental journalist, and saw absolutely dire poverty in rural Zimbabwe and the squatter camps round Durban. As I said, current development paths in most poorer countries are doing little for the poor in those countries. As I also said, I do not deny that those countries need economic growth, or that our governments need to work with theirs. What I do say is that fetishising economic growth as you do is disastrous, and you don’t address the point that without a fundamental change of orientation, faster economic growth simply means faster growth in GHG emissions. I don’t know what you mean by “social engineering” – passing a law, organising a political lobby or campaign, or founding a corporation, pressure group, publication or chess club, – so far as I can see, these are all social engineering. Indeed, my point about markets and governments could be expressed by saying that all markets are in large part the outcome of social engineering – the very idea of a “free market”, existing outside a framework of social institutions which results partly from conscious human decision-making, is an ideological fiction. Again, as I said, market mechanisms can be useful – but we can’t leave the major decisions about capital investment to them because if we do, those decisions will be taken to maximise profit for particular corporations, not to reduce GHG emissions. Even many of the decision-makers in big business, I believe, do or will see this – as they did in WW2.
Nick, put several people with different merchandise together and you will get a market. It is human nature to trade. It is not that markets exist outside of human conventions and social institutions–they are an inate part of them. It is also human nature to act in accord with what one perceives to be ones interests–and usually ones immediate interests. I don’t trust any system or framework that expects people to do otherwise.
I like markets for one reason: they work. They are chaotic, turbulent and ultimately uncontrollable, but they work. They can be distorted and made dysfunctional, but ultimately they punish such transgressions. That is not fetishization. It is empirical fact–and it can also be modeled. Markets do not take a short-term view. People in markets do–and if it’s wrong to take a short-term view, then those people get punished. And no, it is not a result of conscious decision making, it is a result of some pretty simple and immutable laws. Show me one command economy that has prospered. Certainly not Zimbabwe, as I’m sure you saw. Not even Tanzania, although Julius Nyerere was arguably one of the most decent men ever to govern a nation. Command economies do not work because they rely on humans to prognosticate the future, and we’re lousy at that. You advocate “deciding” on a mix of technologies to pursue to diminish our ghg emissions from energy. When you make such a decision, you prejudge future developments. So, do you go with 100% solar arrays? What if they can’t keep up with demand? Do you bet on fusion supplying an endless amount of clean energy? What if it doesn’t pan out. In a command economy, the decision-maker has a stake in proving he was right. In a market economy, anyone that stubborn winds up a pauper. And just who are you going to get to make such a momentous decision. I wouldn’t want the job and I’d distrust anyone who did want it. In any case, it’s a purely academic point. If you expect the world to come together and suddenly agree on a strategy, it won’t happen. Under rare circumstances, individuals are capable of altruism, nations are capable of only self interest.
Re #98 I’m not arguing for a command economy, but for negotiated coordination – which is already a large part of how capitalist societies work, particularly when there is a widely agreed common goal. It is also a major part of how large corporations work internally. The situation we are now in is at least as serious as WW2, when none of the allied governments was daft enough to leave major investment and R&D decisions to markets – if they had, the Axis would probably have won. Decisions were not immutable, and institutional provision was made for revising them. Nor has the USA left production decisions to markets since WW2 when its security was perceived to be at stake – it’s no accident that only states and the public-sector body ESA have been able to fund and develop space programmes, nor that the US military developed the key technologies for the internet (and CERN, another non-market institution, those for the web). However, both WW2 and the Cold War produced authoritarian tendencies, which is one reason for insisting on far better democratic oversight than we had then. Markets have not so far punished polluters – in fact, it is quite generally more profitable to pollute than to avoid polluting. Nor did they punish slavers or colonialists. I gave clear examples of the conscious decision-making involved in determining markets’ institutional frameworks – there’s no immutable law that says whether software can be patented, or whether there should be import tariffs on particular products. Finally, I’m not counting primarily on altruism, but on enlightened self-interest – individual and institutional. As I’ve said before, we’re in a position where all agents with more than a 20-30 year time horizon have, objectively, a strong common interest. That doesn’t make agreeing a broad strategy internationally easy, but it does in my view make it a realistic possibility. Details don’t need to be agreed, nor do all states have to make the same technological choices. For example, although as you know I’m not at all keen on nuclear power, I recognise there’s no likelihood France or Japan are suddenly going to drop it. What we need at that level and in the near future is at a minimum some agreed emissions targets (which will undoubtedly be too weak initially), and ways to monitor them. Agreements on technology sharing would be an important bonus. I think we’ll need much more later – but by then we’d be building on existing achievements, and probably in the wake of much more obvious climatic change. The best model we have is the Montreal Protocol – not perfect, and as someone noted recently on this site, the Chinese government are taking advantage of a loophole – but without it we’d already be well on the way to destroying the ozone layer completely.
Nick, I am a firm believer in a role for government. However, I am also mindful that governments can be co-opted when their actions infringe on the privilege of the powerful–and even when they infringe on the privilege of the electorate. Markets are also not immune, but because they are decentralized, they have greater immunity and tend to recover more quickly (and sometimes painfully). We need to be mindful that governments respond to a variety of needs, some of which will be more pressing on the timescale of elections than controlling ghg emissions. The failure of the Clinton administration wrt Kyoto comes to mind. They were the ones who got the whole carbon trading language in there in the first place. They held firm in negotiations but buckled in the face of opposition from the Senate.
Montreal was a cake walk compared to this. You are talking about China and India giving up their main energy resource–coal, at a time when they feel they need to dramatically increase energy consumption just to maintain order. And if India and China are not on board:
1)any agreement will be meaningless
2)you can kiss off any hope of the US being party, as well.
Economic growth in developing countries is the only hope we have of getting at least some of the poor out of poverty. Economic growth in developed economies is the only hope we have of maintaining influence and channeling growth in developing economies. Not to mention that a prosperous economy will be more likely to be able to pay for the R&D and mitigation needed to get through this period. That is not fetishization. That is reality. Leaving aside the question of whether it would be desirable for humans to learn to live in an economy without “growth” per se, nobody knows how to do it and prosper. When growth stops, social welfare declines, as does influence on the world stage. Also, I draw a distinction between economic growth and growth of resource consumption. I think it is possible to have the former without the latter, since economic growth is just the increase in the total value of goods and services produced. Produce goods and services people are willing to pay for and your economy grows even if you don’t produce more of them.
Since the conversation here seems to be vearing into economic theory, will diplomatically cease and desist on the ocean iron restoration discussion. However, would like to sincerely thank Dr. Booth for the Falkowski links and refs.
The best way to keep applied science honest, productive, and transparent is not by fulminating against its imagined abuse, it’s by getting up close and personal and looking over its shoulder. Ergo we welcome that participation and your personal research…
Re #100 “You are talking about China and India giving up their main energy resource–coal, at a time when they feel they need to dramatically increase energy consumption just to maintain order.”
No, I’m not. I’m talking about getting them to sequester the CO2. Still tough, but it had better be possible, or we’re probably stuffed (unless their economies collapse) whatever the rest of us do.
“Also, I draw a distinction between economic growth and growth of resource consumption. I think it is possible to have the former without the latter, since economic growth is just the increase in the total value of goods and services produced.”
It may be possible, I agree, but in terms of energy use, it’s never yet been done, and the faster the rate of growth you require, the harder it will be. We need a very steep decline in CO2 production by rich countries, and that’s just not going to be possible without reducing energy use.
Nick, The US economy has managed to keep growing while decreasing the energy cost per $ of GDP. Yes, there’s still room for improvement. I’d like to see a lot more Insights on the road than SUVs, but if we have to have SUV, then at least there are starting to be Hybrid alternatives out there. What I’m trying to imagine here is what kind of regime the US, China, India and Brazil could sign up to–and I can pretty much guarantee it’s not one that envisions zero growth. I think you also have to resign yourself to the fact that companies and individuals are going to make money off of this. If there’s no money in coming up with solutions, there will be no solutions. My old Classical Mechanics prof used to claim that we had to take tests because there were only 3 prime motivators for the human species: sex, greed and fear. Well, fear doesn’t foster creativity, and sex would be too distracting (and then there’s that population issue, too), so greed is what we’ve got left.
As to carbon sequestration, I don’t consider it a proven or economical technology. I think it will be a lot easier to keep track of a few hundred tons of radioactive waste than to sequester hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide.
The arguments about peak oil and whether coal will fill the gap in some ways are missing the point. There is more than enough coal and oil out there to cook us.
People act in accord with what they perceive their interests to be–usually their immediate interests. You won’t change that, but maybe you can find a way so that their immediate interests are more in concert with what is needed to achieve stability.
Last post didn’t get through, apparently. If it did, I apologize for the double posting.
[[Will deglaciation of the Himalayas and parts of Greenland increase the silicate weathering cycle by exposing glacial rock powder to chemical weathering?]]
One of the ways that cycle works is that more rock gets exposed to weathering when the world warms. But it is an extremely slow cycle in human terms, probably not immediately relevant to our global warming problem.
[[Leaving aside the question of whether it would be desirable for humans to learn to live in an economy without “growth” per se, nobody knows how to do it and prosper. ]]
We will have to give it up sooner or later, simply because the Earth is finite and the speed of light is an absolute limit. The most benign possible outcome, I suppose, would be a “techno-peasant” economy where each household is virtually independent and trade still happens and markets still work, but the total GPP isn’t expanding. But one way or another, we are headed for a no-growth economy some time in the future.
“The US economy has managed to keep growing while decreasing the energy cost per $ of GDP.”
Yes, so do other economies, but no-one has yet managed to grow the economy while shrinking energy use.
“What I’m trying to imagine here is what kind of regime the US, China, India and Brazil could sign up to–and I can pretty much guarantee it’s not one that envisions zero growth.”
I’ve never said they would or should.
“My old Classical Mechanics prof used to claim that we had to take tests because there were only 3 prime motivators for the human species: sex, greed and fear.”
He was wrong. Curiosity, empathy, desire for social prestige and approval, and dislike of inequity have all been shown experimentally (if such demonstration is needed in addition to intuition) to be powerful motivators. Besides, I’m not suggesting those doing the work of production or R&D are not paid.
“As to carbon sequestration, I don’t consider it a proven or economical technology. I think it will be a lot easier to keep track of a few hundred tons of radioactive waste than to sequester hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide.”
As you’ve said yourself, what you (or I) want or think is not relevant here: China and India are not going to stop building coal-fired power stations any time soon, short of a serious economic downturn; even if and when they do, they won’t be rushing to decommission those they have built.
RE #103 “People act in accord with what they perceive their interests to be–usually their immediate interests.”
Not always. Aside from obvious historical examples (Raoul Wallenberg, Aung San Suu Kyi…) there is plenty of experimental evidence that people will act in the common interest, and against their own immediate interest, in some circumstances. There are also several plausible mechanisms, both biological and cultural, that would allow altruistic behaviour to persist beyond what neoclassical economics and what I’d call naive Darwinism would suggest. I refer you (pardon my choice) to a review article:
Gotts, N.M., Polhill, J.G. and Law, A.N.R (2003) “Agent-Based Social Simulation in the Study of Social Dilemmas”, Artificial Intelligence Review 19, 1, 3-92. Despite the title, it covers some of the relevant empirical work as well as theory and simulation modelling.
By the way, if what you said earlier about what you’d prefer to spend your time doing is true, but people act only in their own perceived interest, what are you doing on this site?
Re #103: [The US economy has managed to keep growing while decreasing the energy cost per $ of GDP.]
You might also consider that it has done so even during a period when energy costs have been close to negligible. For instance, even at today’s $3/gallon, the annual fuel cost for an SUV is around 5-10% of the purchase price. That low cost creates very little incentive to lower the amount of energy used. Increase the cost of energy (particularly carbon-based energy), and you increase the incentive. Nor does this need to impact economic growth or quality of life. Which contributes most to GDP: a $40K SUV or a $100K Tesla? Which do you think would be more fun to drive?
And #106: [China and India are not going to stop building coal-fired power stations any time soon, short of a serious economic downturn; even if and when they do, they won’t be rushing to decommission those they have built.]
It’s pretty easy to imagine scenarios in which they would: the western world imposes high CO2 taxes, which makes coal a high-cost energy source, and imposes tariffs on imports proportional to the originating country’s CO2 output. Since their economies are driven by exports, they either change their energy production, or they have that serious economic downturn.
Ray Ladbury wrote: “People act in accord with what they perceive their interests to be–usually their immediate interests.”
People act in order to realize value — that is, they act to maximize in their experience (to “make real”) that which they value, and minimize that which they do not value or that which is antithetical to that which they value.
Nick Gotts wrote: “… there is plenty of experimental evidence that people will act in the common interest, and against their own immediate interest, in some circumstances.”
In some instances, people value the well-being of others — e.g. children, other family members, tribe, community, nation, species, all sentient beings — more than they value their own personal, individual well-being. Such people realize value by “acting in the common interest.”
And not only “people” (human beings) act in order to realize value; but all entities which are capable of experiencing “better” or “worse” subjective states and are able to modify their experience for better or worse through action, will act to realize value.
Even a simple thermostat could be said to act in order to “realize value” — the thermostat is capable of experiencing (sensing) variations in temperature, and it has been programmed to “value” temperatures within a certain range, and it is capable of acting to modify the temperature by turning a heat source off or on.
Of course, in contrast with a thermostat, sentient beings as complex as humans and other animals have complex systems of values, complex relationships between values (e.g. where realizing one value may tend to negate another), complex relationships with their environment, and more complex situations in which to determine what the effects of their actions are liable to be with regard to realizing or negating value.
Nick and Secular,
I don’t deny that people are capable of altruism, but it’s not the way the smart money bets. People have to perceive a benefit–or in Secular’s words, maybe, a value–in a particular action. I don’t see humans acting to benefit their offspring all that often. Oh, sure, they may put some money into the college savings account, but they vote down the school bond issue.
My point is that there has to be some expectation of gain–for somebody at least–if action is to be taken. Climate change is one of those really difficult threats–very real, but at the same time nebulous. You cannot point to any weather event (not honestly, anyway) and say, “There, that’s a result of climate change.” It’s a little like the stock market. If people pay too much attention to the day-to-day, they get scared and pull their money out. The trend is to move higher, but most people don’t have the attention span to follow the trend.
Nick uses the analogy of WW II, but a German Panzer or Stuka divebomber were pretty easy threats to visualize. Climate change is not, and it will be more difficult to capture the public imagination because of that. Of course, the temptation is to point to an event like Katrina and a destroyed city, and try to make that the face of climate change, but that will fail because it’s not honest.
I think we have a much better shot at getting people on board if we can do so without dramatically changing their lives.
Ray Ladbury wrote: “Of course, the temptation is to point to an event like Katrina and a destroyed city, and try to make that the face of climate change, but that will fail because it’s not honest.”
I disagree that it is “not honest” to point to Katrina as “the face of climate change”. It is true that that particular hurricane did not form at that particular time and follow that particular path towards the Gulf Coast as a result of climate change. However, as I understand it, it is also true that after passing over Florida, Katrina was weakening, and that it was re-energized and blown up into a city-destroying Category 5 monster by the extraordinarily warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and those extraordinarily warm waters can be “honestly” attributed to anthropogenic global warming.
In general, it is no more “dishonest” to attribute specific extreme weather events to anthropogenic global warming than it is “dishonest” to attribute a specific case of lung cancer contracted by a lifelong chain smoker to the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. True, some people who never smoke get lung cancer, and some lifelong chain smokers never get lung cancer; and in any specific chain-smoking lung cancer victim it may not be possible to prove that in their particular case the cancer was caused by their smoking and not by something else.
But we understand the mechanism by which smoking causes lung cancer (just as we understand the mechanism by which global warming fuels more powerful hurricanes), and we have epidemiological evidence that there is a powerful correlation between smoking and lung cancer (just as we have evidence that there is a trend towards more powerful hurricanes that correlates with global warming).
So, if a lifelong chain smoker develops lung cancer, it is entirely reasonable and certainly not dishonest to say that their cancer was caused by their smoking, and to point to them as “the face of smoking” and a warning to others of what is likely to happen to them if they smoke. Similarly, if a hurricane like Katrina grows to extraordinary size and power, in accordance with what we already understand to be the mechanism and the trend of global warming-fueled stronger hurricanes, then it is entirely reasonable and not dishonest to portray that extreme event as “the face of global warming” and a warning of what the future holds if global warming continues unabated.
The same goes for floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other extreme weather events that are increasing in frequency and severity as a result of anthropogenic global warming and resultant climate change.
Ray Ladbury wrote: “I think we have a much better shot at getting people on board if we can do so without dramatically changing their lives.”
As it happens, I don’t believe that we can effectively address climate change without people in the developed world, particularly the USA, “dramatically changing their lives”. So, it would be dishonest of me to try to “get people on board” by suggesting that such change won’t be needed.
On the other hand, I think that much of the “dramatic change” that is needed will actually be — or at least can be — good for people, and for communities, in many ways. For example, a shift to consuming locally grown organic vegetarian food would very powerfully help to reduce GHG emissions from the agricultural and transport sectors, and would also have many other benefits in terms of health, economics, food security, etc.
While not a good example of the consequences of climate change, Katrina looks like a very good example of why we shouldn’t count on government to deal with that change. Remember that when it finally made landfall in Lousiana, Katrina was not a particularly powerful storm, having downsized to (IIRC) cat 3 from its out-in-the-Gulf cat 5. Most of the damage to New Orleans came from levee failures and other government mismangement, rather than from the direct effects of the storm.
Look at the chain of events that led to the destruction. You have a decision to build & maintain a city that’s actually located below sea level, protected by a levee system that was designed and maintained (or not maintained) by various government agencies. Other government agencies dredged & channelized the Mississippi, causing erosion & degradation of the protective Delta. People had been warning for years that it was a disaster in the making, but no one in government paid much attention. Decisions had been made long ago as to the “best” technology to use, and no one in government had the ability to change them in light of new information. And in fact still don’t, as the goal of the post-Katrina response seems to be to restore the status quo.
Re #110 “I don’t deny that people are capable of altruism, but it’s not the way the smart money bets. People have to perceive a benefit–or in Secular’s words, maybe, a value–in a particular action. I don’t see humans acting to benefit their offspring all that often. Oh, sure, they may put some money into the college savings account, but they vote down the school bond issue.”
I’d think putting money into the college savings account is a pretty good example of altruism toward offspring – the contrast you make might better indicate that people are more willing to show altruism toward kin than to others, which is true. However, non-kin altruism is also an important part of the human behavioural repertoire, there is a lot of plasticity in “human nature”, and people in different societies act differently. For example, people in most rich countries are much less averse than in the US to collective action and even high taxation, though there’s been a hefty political push against these things over recent decades. Altruism and enlightened self-interest often work in the same direction (in considering the actions of states and corporations, we need to rely pretty much entirely on the latter, as you’ve said – they don’t empathise!), and the extensive literature on social dilemmas is even more relevant there. (For those unfamiliar with the term, a social dilemma arises when each of a group of agents can choose more or less “cooperative” actions; each will be better off individually by taking the “non-cooperative” choice, whatever the others do; but all will be better off if all make the “cooperative” one. If there’s a one-off interaction, the rational choice for a selfish agent is the non-cooperative one; but if there are repeated interactions and learning is possible, stable cooperation can often result even between selfish agents. Any altruism, and ability to selectively punish non-cooperators, will generally tend to push the system in the direction of cooperation.)
Re #109 I agree with Secular that we can’t avoid fairly radical change in the ways (rich) people live if we are to deal with climate change, and in doing so, we need to encourage people’s ability and tendency to identify their interests with those of others, individually and collectively, and to encourage this tendency to extend more to the largest scales – humanity, and even sentient life as a whole.
Re #108 “And #106: [China and India are not going to stop building coal-fired power stations any time soon, short of a serious economic downturn; even if and when they do, they won’t be rushing to decommission those they have built.]
It’s pretty easy to imagine scenarios in which they would: the western world imposes high CO2 taxes, which makes coal a high-cost energy source, and imposes tariffs on imports proportional to the originating country’s CO2 output. Since their economies are driven by exports, they either change their energy production, or they have that serious economic downturn.”
I largely agree with this, though I’d prefer even the threat of imposing such measures to be held back until it’s clear we can’t come to a negotiated agreement. (Not to mention the fact that China at least could take serious economic measures in retaliation – like selling off dollars. I find it one of the more amusing, and in some ways hopeful but in others dangerous ironies of the current state of the world, that the US capitalist elite and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party are locked in an economic embrace from which neither can escape without risking severe damage.) However, I think it would be a lot easier to persuade India and China to use sequestration equipment, and even retrofit it, than to stop building coal-fired power stations and shut existing ones – which is why I say technical research on sequestration is perhaps the most vital there is. Both coal and renewable energy sources have the great advantage, for these countries, over oil, gas and nuclear power, that they do not make the country dependent on imports which may show sudden price rises (as uranium has in the past few months), and be subject to politically motivated interruption. It’s not just the US and Europe that have reason to worry about relying on foreign energy suppliers!
Re: [I think it would be a lot easier to persuade India and China to use sequestration equipment…]
Sure, and it would be a lot easier to persuade them to use nuclear fusion, too. The problem, of course, is that since neither technology is working at anything more than lab scale, we’d be betting the future on an unproven, and quite possibly unworkable, technology, when there’s a proven alternative that can be built today.
Re #114 “Sure, and it would be a lot easier to persuade them to use nuclear fusion, too. The problem, of course, is that since neither technology is working at anything more than lab scale, we’d be betting the future on an unproven, and quite possibly unworkable, technology, when there’s a proven alternative that can be built today.”
According to this, post-combustion CO2 capture technology is mature. There are (or were at that point) three “industrial scale” storage projects in operation (for CO2 from gas fields), where “industrial scale” means on the order of 1m tonnes/yr. You must have a bloody big lab, James!
I quote from the executive summary:
“In most scenarios for stabilization of atmospheric
greenhouse gas concentrations between 450 and 750 ppmv
CO2 and in a least-cost portfolio of mitigation options,
the economic potential of CCS would amount to 220â��
2,200 GtCO2 (60â��600 GtC) cumulatively, which would
mean that CCS contributes 15â��55% to the cumulative
mitigation effort worldwide until 2100, averaged over a
range of baseline scenarios.”
[According to this, post-combustion CO2 capture technology is mature…]
Right. I’ve got a coal-fired power plant and a bunch of money: where do I go to order this mature technology? And how much is it going to cost me?
But if I want a nuclear plant, I can go to GE, Westinghouse, or whoever, order one, and they can tell me when it will go on line, and how much it would cost to build & operate – leaving out the political factors, of course.
Re #116 “Right. I’ve got a coal-fired power plant and a bunch of money: where do I go to order this mature technology? And how much is it going to cost me?”
As I’ve stressed, technical research is needed, but expert opinion is that CCS is technically and economically feasible. Read the IPCC report I cited, or at least the executive summary, if you haven’t. But perhaps you think on this matter we should ignore the IPCC? If so, why?
“But if I want a nuclear plant, I can go to GE, Westinghouse, or whoever, order one, and they can tell me when it will go on line, and how much it would cost to build & operate – leaving out the political factors, of course.”
Leaving out the political factors is precisely where you make your mistake. The Chinese and Indian governments are not going to do that – they are not going to make their industrial strategy indefinitely dependent on foreign supplies of uranium when they can avoid doing so – and even in planning for the US or Europe, it’s unwise to leave these factors out of account, because they’re not about to go away. Nor is building nuclear plants going to reduce emissions from existing and planned Chinese and Indian coal-fired stations. Only carbon capture and storage can do that.
Re #117. “Both technologies have the same problem — no proven way to dispose of the dangerous byproducts, which are still external costs.”
CCS is certainly not the solution I’d choose, if I thought safe alternatives could be deployed fast enough. But the biggest problem with nuclear power is that people won’t want to dispose of some of the “dangerous byproducts”, but will use them to make nuclear weapons. Of course, China and India are already nuclear-weapons states (although proliferation from those states is more likely, the more nuclear material they have), and indeed both already have nuclear power programmes, but as the quotations I gave in an earlier post show, neither plans to supply more than a few percent of their energy that way in the near future. I can’t see how they could be persuaded not to use their massive, cheap coal supplies over the next few decades, or coerced to do so without risking a disastrous level of international conflict – so we need CCS whatever other states decide about nuclear power.
Sorry, do you mean ways to dispose of the byproducts are on the way to being proved, or the external costs are being internalised?
Both technologies have the same problem — no proven way to dispose of the dangerous byproducts, which are still external costs.
True, but there’s *lot* more of the dangerous byproduct for coal.
Less dangerous on an atom-for-atom basis perhaps, but still ‘quantity is a quality in itself’ (and the prospect of multi-megaton carbon burps becoming news events as common as, say, the Texas City refinery fire doesn’t fill me with much joy).
So, there are mature technologies for CO2 scavenging and there are developments in the pipeline. Given we are only just entering the mitigation phase and the long lead times involved with industrial-scale projects, I’d say the future’s bright (ish) on the R&D front.
CCS applied to a modern conventional power plant could reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by approximately 80-90% compared to a plant without CCS. Capturing and compressing CO2 requires much energy and would increase the fuel needs of a plant with CCS by about 10-40%. These and other system costs are estimated to increase the cost of energy from a power plant with CCS by 30-60% depending on the specific circumstances.
This goes back to what I’ve written here earlier — this sort of behavior is insane considering that renewables are capable of producing power at costs that are competitive to fossil fuels.
If I were to anthropomorphize (heh) this kind of behavior, I’d say that the governmental bodies making these sorts of decisions are crack addicts. Not only will this behavior directly raise energy costs, but they will indirectly raise them by increasing fossil fuel demands, scarcity and costs.
Energy production needs to be reducing consumption, not finding new and better ways of increasing it. Given BP’s involvement, their profit motive needs to be called into question — any technology that will increase revenues for fossil fuel industries needs to have NO involvement by fossil fuel companies.
Comment by FurryCatHerder — 10 May 2007 @ 11:27 AM
Re #118: [As I’ve stressed, technical research is needed…]
But you’ve been claiming that it’s a mature technology. Maybe we’re using different definitions of mature: mine is that you can buy it “off the shelf”.
[Nor is building nuclear plants going to reduce emissions from existing and planned Chinese and Indian coal-fired stations. Only carbon capture and storage can do that.]
I don’t quite follow the logic of that. If the Chinese & Indians aren’t willing to build nuclear plants, why would they be willing to build coal-fired plants with carbon capture? Either they are willing to go along with reducing CO2 emissions, or they aren’t. If they are, why wouldn’t they prefer to use the logical approach, rather than some Rube Goldbergish CCS scheme?
Nick and P. Lewis (118 & 120), why on earth would anyone assume that the IPCC is a highly credible group to assess the industrial market or even technological maturity of carbon capture processes? And how is it that a R&D effort scheduled for sometime around 2009-2012 is proof of CC maturity???
SecularAnimist says (111), “…warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and those extraordinarily warm waters can be “honestly” attributed to anthropogenic global warming.”
With any scientific certainty, it most certainly can NOT be so attributed, though it might be suspected. (Like in another post, we do NOT know the mechanism of tobacco causing lung cancer, though we suspect it does and have some decent correlations.) Ray is right. Using hyperbole is not a good way to convince people, at least in this arena
[Response: Actually, you are wrong. In the most rigorous sense of the term “attribution” as it is used in the context of climate studies, Santer et al (2006) have indeed attributed warming in the Atlantic tropical cyclogenesis region to anthropogenic forcing at a relatively high level of confidence. Of course, there is no such thing as “scientific certainty” with such things. -mike]
Mike (124), astute and rigerous response and references. But it’s still a tremendous leap of logic to jump from them to a warming of the Gulf a degree or two about the time Katrina came across Florida. It’s still hyperbole to me and, right or wrong, imparts a degree of dishonesty on the masses. It just sounds too much like the advocacy groups well known for inflating their points and numbers as fast and as large as feasible.
[Response: We are in agreement that the particular meteorological conditions that surround individual events such as Katrina (let alone Katrina itself) cannot ever be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Now, anomalous SSTs over a large region like the Gulf of Mexico or the main development region of the tropical Atlantic, averaged over a season, thats interesting but still quite nebulous in its implications. But a spell of anomalous such seasons contributing to an anomalous decadal trend…That’s where climate change detection and anthropogenic attribution begins to emerge as a possibility. And thats more or less the conclusion of the Santer et al study with respect to the Atlantic cyclogenesis region. -mike]
Hank, I didn’t say there wasn’t a cacophony and massive chorous that doesn’t claim with absolute certainty in their collective minds the mechanism of tobacco causing lung cancer (and any and all other maladies that they can add with impunity). I just said it is not a scientific certainty.
Nick and P. Lewis (118 & 120), why on earth would anyone assume that the IPCC is a highly credible group to assess the industrial market or even technological maturity of carbon capture processes?
Why, I wonder, would anyone assume that the IPCC (Working Group III) is not a highly credible group to assess the industrial market or even technological maturity of carbon capture processes? The authors and editors and their affiliations are listed in the various IPCC reports if you desire to check their credentials.
And how is it that a R&D effort scheduled for sometime around 2009-2012 is proof of CC maturity???
Capturing CO2 typically involves separating it from a gas stream. Suitable techniques were developed 60 years ago in connection with the production of town gas; these involved scrubbing the gas stream with a chemical solvent (Siddique, 1990). Subsequently they were adapted for related purposes, such as capturing CO2 from the flue gas streams of coal- or gas-burning plant [missing comma?] for the carbonation of drinks and brine, and for enhancing oil recovery. These developments required improvements to the process so as to inhibit the oxidation of the solvent in the flue gas stream. Other types of solvent and other methods of separation have been developed more recently. This technique is widely used today for separating CO2 and other acid gases from natural gas streams10. Horn and Steinberg (1982) and Hendriks et al. (1989) were among the first to discuss the application of this type of technology to mitigation of climate change, focusing initially on electricity generation. CO2 removal is already used in the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels; Audus et al. (1996) discussed the application of capture and storage in this process as a climate protection measure.
10The total number of installations is not known but is probably several thousand. Kohl and Nielsen (1997) mention 334 installations using physical solvent scrubbing; this source does not provide a total for the number of chemical solvent plants but they do mention one survey which alone examined 294 amine scrubbing plants. There are also a number of membrane units and other methods of acid gas treatment in use today.
And from Chapter 3 there’s this:
CO2 has been captured from industrial process streams for 80 years (Kohl and Nielsen, 1997), although most of the CO2 that is captured is vented to the atmosphere because there is no incentive or requirement to store it. Current examples of CO2 gas and production of hydrogen-containing synthesis gas for the manufacture of ammonia, alcohols and synthetic liquid fuels. Most of the techniques employed for CO2 capture in the examples mentioned are also similar to those used in pre-combustion capture.
We have reviewed processes – current and potential – that may be used to separate CO2 in the course of producing another product. One of these processes, natural gas sweetening, is already being used in two industrial plants to capture and store about 2 MtCO2 yr-1 for the purpose of climate change mitigation. In the case of ammonia production, pure CO2 is already being separated. Over 7 MtCO2 yr-1 captured from both natural gas sweetening and ammonia plants is currently being used in enhanced oil recovery with some storage (see also Chapter 5) of the injected CO2 in these commercial EOR projects. Several potential processes for CO2 capture in steel and cement production exist, but none have yet been applied. Although the total amount of CO2 that may be captured from these industrial processes is insignificant in terms of the scale of the climate change challenge, significance may arise in that their use could serve as early examples of solutions that can be applied on larger scale elsewhere.
Perhaps 60 to 80 years is insufficiently technologically mature for you!!! The technology is mature (lots of it anyway), it’s just that applications of this mature technology vis-a-vis climate change mitigation are only just beginning to catch up/become an environmental requirement.
Re #129: Seems to me that there is a rather significant difference between extracting some CO2 from an exhaust stream because you have a market for the CO2, and trying to capture essentially all the CO2 in a powerplant exhaust, and then transport & store it somewhere, in such a manner that it will stay out of the environment essentially forever. The anti-nuclear types get all worked up about having to store tiny amounts of nuclear waste (which, being solid, tends to stay where you put it) for hundreds or thousands of years, while the proponents of CCS wave away the problem of safely storing billions of tons of CO2 (a gas, which will leak out of any container if it can) for much longer periods.
On top of the technical problems of doing all this, you have the economic problems. As mentioned above, the energy required to do the CCS makes coal-fired plants significantly less efficient, so in order to put X megawatts of power out on the grid, you have to burn that much more coal, with all the environmental problems that mining & transporting it will cause. On top of that, consider how you arrange to monitor the storage sites for a period of time that in human terms is essentially forever. Not to mention what happens if, a century or so from now, your supposedly secure storage starts to leak?
The whole idea just seems like something Rube Goldberg would have come up with on a good day, and why? Just to appease a public that has been lied to so long and so loudly that they go into hysterics any time the word nuclear is mentioned.
Since this topic area began with a critical look at ocean fertilization vis a vis what is known vs. what is being attempted, the linked editorial that recently appeared in the online version of Nature magazine bears examination.
The author, the news and features editor, traces some of the recent history of efforts to develop technologies to reduce incoming solar radiation and predict the impacts of such hypothetical technologies on global and regional climate.
He tries very hard to make the case that not enough is known to proceed with anything but paper studies, even though the most recent modeling he cites seems to allay some of the concerns.
What I find most distressing about this editorial is the not so subtle warning to “geoscientists” and “climate scientists” that their role is not to solve problems, but merely to study the Earth and report on their findings in scholarly journals. After all, we know so little about the atmosphere, we can’t even begin to talk about manipulating it on a grand scale and the geoscientist (whatever that is) should steer clear of drawing up such plans.
I found this rather patronizing and although I am not a climate scientist (whatever that is) or a geoscientist, I would be offended if I was one. The goal of the climate scientist with regard to geoengineering, according to the article, is to accumulate enough published work over the next 6 years, actually less than that given the cutoff for the reports, to have an entire chapter included in the next IPCC report on Mitigation. Hopefully, the article implies, that work will be complete enough to forever discredit geoengineering so that scientists can concentrate on developing technologies to reduce emissions.
The article also refers to NAS president Ralph Cicerone as receiving the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, when in fact, he was recognized on the award and was not one of the awardees.
OK, the patronizing, fingers drumming on the mahogany table in the Nature Faculty Club Conference Room attitude aside, what are the broader ramifications of these implied guidelines?
For one, we have to suspend the studies of underground carbon sequestration or at least geoscientists have to limit their contribution to models showing how it won’t work. After all, we can’t predict earthquakes and if you are going to try and stuff a hundred billion tons of CO2 in the ground, there is the very real possibility of some or all of it coming back out again.
And you can forget about bioengineering of plants to make biofuels. Or at least help from the botanists and geneticists. Too busy polishing up those manuscripts to send off to Nature, although I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on that, since the last time I looked, the spell checker in London was still fast asleep.
What these guys don’t seem to appreciate is that by talking down the idea of doing any of the climate engineering projects, they are dooming all of them to never get the attention they would need to determine if they could be done in the first place!
[[Hank, I didn’t say there wasn’t a cacophony and massive chorous that doesn’t claim with absolute certainty in their collective minds the mechanism of tobacco causing lung cancer (and any and all other maladies that they can add with impunity). I just said it is not a scientific certainty. ]]
It’s a scientific certainty to anyone with a clue. We know the mechanism of action, we have attribution studies and clinical studies and epidemiological studies and, I would guess, some tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies on the subject altogether. Inhaling tobacco smoke causes lung cancer. Deal with it.
The point being made was simply about whether the technology is mature or not. It largely is (though that doesn’t preclude new technology, as I linked to elsewhere here).
And I have absolutely no qualms about nuclear power I might add.
There are undoubtedly some interesting scientific, economic and political points to debate on the storage aspect, but I’m afraid I’ve not the time (nor, currently, the inclination) to pursue them with anyone (though I’ll keep my eyes peeled on the current thread).
“Post-combustion capture of CO2 in power plants is
economically feasible under specific conditions. It is used
to capture CO2 from part of the flue gases from a number
of existing power plants. Separation of CO2 in the natural
gas processing industry, which uses similar technology,
operates in a mature market.”
Storage (as opposed to capture) technology is not mature, nor have I claimed otherwise, nor does the IPCC report. That’s where most of the research is needed.
However, the point remains that this large group of relevant experts considers CCS technically and economically feasible. You need to argue it with them, not me.
“[Nor is building nuclear plants going to reduce emissions from existing and planned Chinese and Indian coal-fired stations. Only carbon capture and storage can do that.]
I don’t quite follow the logic of that. If the Chinese & Indians aren’t willing to build nuclear plants, why would they be willing to build coal-fired plants with carbon capture? Either they are willing to go along with reducing CO2 emissions, or they aren’t. If they are, why wouldn’t they prefer to use the logical approach, rather than some Rube Goldbergish CCS scheme?”
First, using CCS means they still get electricity from existing plant (about 80%-90% of the amount without CCS), rather than none. I thought this point was too obvious to need stating. Second, as I’ve pointed out more than once already, they have lots of cheap coal and little uranium, and are not likely to want to make their electricity supply dependent on importing a raw material which can and does vary sharply in price, and could be subject to politically motivated interruptions of supply.
re 129: James’ response (130) is more learned. My more simple response is the question, why on earth would government and industry spend hundreds of million dollars to build a test (R&D) plant for industrial strength carbon capture in the next 5 or so years when it’s been around for decades already??! P Lewis, I wish you’d let those guys know and save my money…
Re #134: [First, using CCS means they still get electricity from existing plant…]
Well, I’ll concede that I probably don’t understand the reasoning of the people making Chinese & Indian energy policy decisions – or the Americans, either. What seems obvious to you isn’t to me, though. You have X dollars, yuan, or rupees to spend, and want to reduce CO2 as much as possible while still producing a given amount of energy. To me it seems obvious that the better course is to build new nuclear (which after all is a proven technology), rather than to spending the money retrofitting existing plants with unproven technology.
I likewise can’t take the “but they have no uranium” arguments that seriously. Even in the current political climate, Iran & North Korea seem to be able to get all the uranium they want. Then there are breeder reactors…
Re #136 If you want evidence of the risks of a state making itself dependent on a small number of foreign suppliers of a crucial source of energy, consider the OPEC price rises of the 1970s, and the problems several European countries have had recently with Russian gas supplies. I’m sure the Chinese and Indian governments will have done so.