On 15 October The Guardian released a news story about an ocean fertilisation experiment, uncovered by the ETC Group, which took place this July. It reported that around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific off the west coast of Canada. This is an ‘ocean fertilisation’ approach to carbon dioxide removal (CDR) geoengineering.
The idea is that adding nutrients to the ocean encourages algae to form. The algae take in carbon dioxide by photosynthesis, then sink to the ocean floor and ‘lock up’ the CO2 for the foreseeable future. It is very much a speculative idea. There are legitimate concerns about the ecological impact of ocean fertilisation, as well as serious questions about the amount of CO2 that can be removed from the atmosphere in this fashion.
The UN London Protocol regulates dumping of potentially hazardous material into the oceans, and the Convention on Biological Diversity prohibits large-scale geoengineering experiments if there is a risk to biodiversity. Whether this experiment is in violation of these two legal instruments is a question for the lawyers.
Even if there is no legal case against this experiment, there is plenty to raise concern. This was a significant geoengineering experiment by a private individual, Russ George, presumably motivated by the potential profits from selling the carbon credits from CDR. Even if ocean fertilisation does work, without proper regulation carbon pricing effectively incentivises environmental modification to sequester CO2 regardless of the ecological impacts. What’s more, it appears George persuaded the local indigenous people to contribute financially to the tune of $1m.
The village people voted to support what they were told was a ‘salmon enhancement project’ and would not have agreed if they had been told of any potential negative effects or that it was in breach of an international convention
– Guujaaw, President of the Haida nation
George is quoted in the Guardian article dismissing criticism, saying the UN regulations do not apply to this case and claiming his experiment was the ‘most substantial ocean restoration project in history.’
It looks very bad when exploratory research and experimentation on a new, potentially damaging technology is carried out by a controversial private individual with a clear personal profit motive. It looks even worse when the same individual misleads local stakeholders into partly funding such experiments. I hope we can get some clarification on the aims, extent and legality of this project in the near future. The only information source is the Guardian and a smattering of echo-chamber rehashings of the Guardian story elsewhere on the web.
COP11 of the CBD is currently in session in Hyderabad. It is due to finish on 19 October. Will they make a statement on this experiment?
UPDATE (17/10/12): As ever, the public geoengineering discussion group is a good source of information. The legality of the experiment is discussed. It is also pointed out that clear information about the incident is very limited which makes it hard to draw conclusions.