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Fishy carbon credits

To solve climate chaos we need to pollute the oceans on a grand scale, according to a new crop of geo-engineering companies. With names like Planktos, Ocean Nourishment Corporation and Atmocean, these companies are hoping to make a great deal of money from ‘carbon credits’, awarded for encouraging the growth of phytoplankton in the oceans which they claim will ‘sequester’ or store carbon dioxide.

The plankton are eaten by tiny jellyfish-like creatures which excrete carbon pellets on to the ocean floor. To make the plankton grow, these companies are proposing various methods of fertilizing the oceans, including dumping iron particles, piping nutrient-rich deep ocean water to the surface, or even scattering urea – quite literally pissing into the sea.

Despite the fact that ocean scientists, including the International Panel on Climate Change, have warned that this technology is potentially dangerous to ocean ecosystems, unlikely to sequester much carbon dioxide, and has the potential to increase levels of other dangerous greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane, the companies are proceeding with their schemes, exploiting the fact that there is no legal framework to hold them to account.

So when ocean fertilization company Climos held a high-level meeting in London in November 2007, intended to influence delegates from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to approve a pro-dumping policy, a group of climate campaigners turned up to try to stop them.

Climos had invited the delegates to meet with their scientists and discuss their ideas for a voluntary code of conduct over a buffet lunch. The campaigners, who had greeted delegates with a banner reading ‘Toxic dumping: no climate solution’, politely handed out leaflets outlining their concerns about the impacts on ocean ecosystems and the livelihoods of subsistence fisherfolk.

The IMO delegates were clearly unpersuaded by Climos’s slick presentation. On 9 November they announced their decision: ocean fertilization is scientifically unjustified and in contravention of international agreements on dumping toxic waste.

The companies won’t give up that easily, however. On 3 December, Climos announced that it had registered with certification company Det Norske Veritas to validate carbon credits for a forthcoming dump. Planktos, whose CEO Russ George has referred to the company’s research missions as ‘more of a business experiment than a scientific experiment’, has a ship on the way to the Galapagos Islands where it plans to carry out its first dump. Environmentalist group Sea Shepherd, which happened across the Planktos ship in the Bahamas, discovered that the company is hoping to use iron from ground-up scrap. This would contain oil and other impurities, further polluting the ocean ecosystem.

The Ocean Nourishment Corporation has approached the Philippine Government for permission to dump synthetic urea (made from natural gas, which goes to show how seriously they are taking the issue of sustainability) in the Sulu Sea. They are expected then to claim fishing rights on the basis of increasing fish stocks because of the phytoplankton blooms. This has outraged Philippine fishing communities. Ruperto Aleroza of Kilusang Mangingisda, the Philippine Fisherfolk’s Movement, said: ‘This technology is unacceptable. It is a dangerous technology that could imperil the marine environment, which is the main source of survival and livelihood for poor fisherfolk in the Philippines.’

Ocean fertilization is only one of a number of schemes which attempt to mitigate climate change by engineering the Earth’s natural systems, and highlights the lack of regulation and oversight over technologies which have the potential to cause serious harm.

New Internationalist issue 408 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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