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Wil Burns's picture
Visiting Professor, Environmental Policy & Culture Program Northwestern University

Dr. Wil Burns is a Visiting Professor in the Environmental Policy & Culture Program at Northwestern University. Prior to this, he was the Founding Co-Director of the Institute for Carbon...

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  • Sep 21, 2021

My observations about the risks and legal framework for using kelp farming to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere included in this piece.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 21, 2021

Thanks for sharing Wil-- we spend a lot of time talking about the technology, effectiveness, and whether it's empowering fossil fuels to continue to burn, but the regulatory piece is such a key component that seems to get overlooked. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 21, 2021

Wil, any benefit we might obtain from sequestering additional carbon from the atmosphere in kelp would come at a steep cost in ocean acidification. Though CO2 from the atmosphere has always combined with seawater to make carbonic acid (H2CO3), before industrialization, an equilibrium had been achieved via the equation:

CO2 + H2O ↔ H2CO3 ↔ H+ + HCO3– ↔ 2 H+ + CO32– ↔ 2H + CaCO3.
The last compound, calcium carbonate, is what makes up the shells of coral and the skeletons of fish and marine mammals. But when excess hydrogen ions (H+ in the two center steps) increase the acidity of seawater, they dissolve this calcium carbonate critical to the survival of marine life.

An increase of seawater pH of only .4, predicted within the next 50 years, will make life impossible for plankton, the foundation of the marine food chain. The loss of plankton would have disastrous consequences for sea life, and the one-third of Earth's human population which depends on it for food.

Like other geoengineering technologies proposed to sequester carbon, kelp farming would only make a bad problem worse. The first step - and the hardest one - is to leave fossil fuel carbon in the ground. Without that, limiting the devastating effects of climate change will be forever beyond our reach.

Wil Burns's picture
Wil Burns on Sep 23, 2021

Indeed, recent research indicates that kelp farming might reduce acidification at the upper layers of the ocean, but increase acidification below the photic layer.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Sep 23, 2021

What I like about this article is it discusses how companies are coming together to research technologies that can help with decarbonization.  With great minds coming together who knows what we can accomplish.  However, we need to also keep in mind what the side effects of these technologies can be - they may create worse problems in the long run.  I am also not sure that one solution is going to solve the problem - it will probably need to be a balance of many solutions! 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 27, 2021

All mass intervention in biological system raise concerns about possible side-effects, whether you're sinking kelp or turning corn into car fuel.

I'm more optimistic about "enhanced mineral weathering", wherein CO2-absorbing rocks are ground up and spread on the surface.  It is easier to monitor for side-effects and easy to verify that the companies have done what they claimed in order to sell the credits.

Although obviously, replacing fossil fuel use in the electric power industry is the low-hanging fruit that should be deployed first, and it is a key enabler of sustainability-through-electrification for other energy use sectors.  But these carbon remove experiments should be conducted at a research level, as they could take decades to mature.

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