02 December 2007

More on geo-engineering

Following my recent post on the perils of geo-engineering via iron fertilization of the ocean, several more related items have hit the news. Below is a synopsis of these items.

A new paper reported in National Geographic News provides further evidence for a significant (if not dominant) role of hydrogen sulfide in producing the mass extinction at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago. I was following a Scientific American article which hypothesized the same thing, along with the mechanism. This new article supports that mechanism, but any possible link with geo-engineering remains speculation on my part.

From ScienceDaily (and elsewhere)...”Research performed at Stanford and Oregon State Universities suggests that ocean fertilization may not be an effective method of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere...”

Basically, this method of sequestering carbon only works in the plankton sinks to the deep ocean. However, the authors found that “...less carbon was transported to deep water during a summertime bloom than during the rest of the year”.

In short, it doesn't appear that carbon is effectively sequestered using this methodology. Still, these findings apparently don't dissuade some:”Some scientists have suggested that verification may require more massive and more permanent experiments. Together with commercial operators they plan to go ahead with large-scale and more permanent ocean fertilization experiments” (emphasis added).

There are already efforts underway to begin a commercial venture based on this idea, regardless of any potential consequences. Actually, the experiment has been performed numerous times since the mid-1990s, as noted here. Here is the chief of the Planktos Corp says, responding to criticism

The iron ore to be used in the test is the same as dust blown naturally by the wind into the ocean...

"Hundreds of millions of tons of dust are landing in the ocean every year. How can anyone suggest that our 50 tonnes of rock dust will provoke some cataclysmic result?"

He is, of course, correct in this assertion. One experiment isn't going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things...I see several problems with this, nonetheless, and remain opposed to the idea in general.

Consider the simple arithmetic of the company's proposal. If the vast amounts of dust are already landing on the ocean and we still face ever-rising CO2 levels (2006 highest on record), how much more are dust/whatever is going to have to put in for this to be effective? It would seem to be an unfeasible amount given the numbers above. To truly sequester enough CO2 by this method would likely entail severe damage to the marine ecosystem. I don't think that this company is truly interested “sav[ing] the planet from the ravages of fossil fuels”, but rather profiteering on genuine societal problems. IMO, this behaviour is unethical.

This attitude is symptomatic of the larger problem at hand here. The “profit motive” is part of the attitude that got us into the current environmental mess we face in the first place. It seems unlikely to present a particularly useful solution to the problem. This just signals that we can keep doing what we want to the planet heedless of the consequences. Replacing this attitude is the key to the problem. There are lots of easier steps to take before we consider grandiose schemes -- Energy conservation, alternate energy research, emissions cuts,agricultural reform, better land management,a reduction in consumerism – let's try those before we resort to the extremely risky steps involved in schemes like geo-engineering.

Fortunately, wiser heads are beginning to prevail on this issue. There are more general calls, from the World Conservation Union for example, going out to at least do more farsighted research into the issues before simply charging in and hope it works out for the best. Personally, I think we should focus on other, more mundane alternatives first, rather than shilling out our limited research funding into crazy schemes designed to fix environmental problems with little or no cost.


James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt has a good take on the issue, commenting on the debate started at The Intersection.

No comments: