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Slowing CO2 emissions cannot end global warming, but removing CO2 from the atmosphere will.

Scarcely a day goes by without some announcement as to yet another effort to limit CO2 emissions, here or there, for the purpose of fighting global warming. Yet, all such attempts are futile given that so much CO2 has already accumulated in the atmosphere that even if we ended all CO2 emissions today, global warming would probably continue to increase unabated.

However, as explained below, we do have the technology to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and it is due to inept thinking on the part of United Nations scientists that we are not applying it.

Before going into details, it might be useful to frame the problem: It is since the advent of the industrial revolution circa 1,850 that factories and transportation caused a large and enduring increase in the amount of CO2 emissions. This phenomenon has been compounded by the rapid increase in the population given that humans emit CO2 as they breathe. As a result, an enormous quantity of CO2 has accumulated in the atmosphere given that we emitted more than could be absorbed by plants and by the sea. So much so, that the amount of new CO2 that we emit nowadays is a drop in the bucket compared to the quantity of CO2 that has already accumulated in the atmosphere since around 1,850 as the atmospheric concentration of CO2 increased by about 30%. It is this enormous quantity of atmospheric CO2 that traps the heat from the Sun, thus causing about 30% of global warming. The point is that, if we are to stop or reverse global warming, we need to extract from the atmosphere more CO2 than we emit.

However, all we are currently attempting is to limit emissions of CO2. This is too little, too late and totally useless inasmuch it could reduce our CO2 emissions by only 5% at best, while achieving nothing in terms of diminishing the amount of atmospheric CO2.  Rather than wasting precious time on attempts to LIMIT our CO2 emission, we should focus on EXTRACTING from the atmosphere more CO2 than we are emitting. We have a proven method for this that couldn’t be simpler, more effective and inexpensive, so what are we waiting for? 

More specifically, it has been shown that atmospheric CO2 has been perhaps twice higher than now in the not too distant past (some 250,000 years ago.) So what caused it to drop to as low as it was around 1,850? It was primarily due to the plankton that grows on the surface of the sea where it absorbs CO2 that it converts to biomass before dying and sinking to the bottom of the sea where it eventually becomes trapped in sedimentary rock where it turns to oil or gas. There simply isn’t enough biomass on the 30% of Earth’s surface that is land (as opposed to sea) for this biomass to grow fast enough to soak up the excess atmospheric CO2 that we have to contend with. Plankton, on the other hand, can grow on the 70% of Earth that is covered by the sea where it absorbs atmospheric CO2 much faster, in greater quantities and sequesters it for thousands of years in the form of oil and gas.

Growing plankton is thus an extremely efficient, yet simple and inexpensive process for removing the already accumulated CO2 from the atmosphere. All we need to do is to dust the surface of the ocean with rust (i.e. iron oxides) that serves as a fertilizer that causes plankton to grow. The resulting plankton grows and blooms over several days, absorbing CO2 as it does, and then about 90% of it that isn’t eaten by fish sinks to the bottom of the sea. The expert Russ George calculated that if all ocean-going vessels participated in such an effort worldwide, we could return atmospheric CO2 concentration to its 1,850 level within 30 years. It’s very inexpensive and easy to do, wouldn’t interfere with the ships’ normal activities and would, in fact, earn them carbon credits that CO2 emitters would be required to buy. Moreover it is the ONLY approach available for addressing global warming on the global scale that is necessary.

By contrast, efforts to limit CO2 emissions by means of CO2 sequestration could address only about 5% of NEW CO2 generated by power plants. So even while causing our electricity costs to treble or quadruple, such efforts wouldn’t remove any of the massive amount of CO2 already accumulated in the atmosphere. In fact, the climatologist James Hansen believes that even if we could stop all CO2 emissions as of today, it may already be too late to avert run-away, global warming as there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere for global warming to keep increasing in what he fears is becoming an irreversible process. In other words, atmospheric CO2 is trapping more heat than Earth can dissipate which causes temperature to rise inexorably.

So what prevents us from proceeding with plankton fertilization? It is the fact that the United Nations have forbidden it on the basis of scientific studies that raised concerns about some of the unknowns involved, including the possibility that oxygen levels might decrease deep in the oceans and also that some varieties of plankton (i.e. such as the ones that cause “red tides”) produce harmful compounds (such as the neurotoxin domoic acid) that would find their way into the food chain.

However, such concerns are unjustified on the basis of other scientific studies and seafood is now routinely screened for domoic acid. Moreover, they are contradicted by the facts: there is no denying that it is primarily plankton that brought down the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by about 50% to 75% from what it was around 250,000 years ago and that it did so without destroying marine life. So the growth of plankton in the sea is nothing new or that hasn’t been occurring for millions of years. Therefore, dusting the surface of the oceans with iron oxides today would amount to nothing more than restoring a natural process in which, for millions of years, winds from the deserts spread iron oxides over the oceans causing plankton to grow. All we would need to do is to proceed cautiously by means of selecting the right kinds of plankton and where and to what extent to fertilize their growth.

Are there other uncertainties? Yes, of course, but inaction is no longer an option at a time when we are already speeding into unknown territory where the only certainty is that life as we know it might become unsustainable within 50 to 100 years. Let us not forget that about 9% of CO2 emissions are from humans as they breathe and about 75% as they burn fossil fuels. Yet, CO2 emissions from power plants represent at most about 5% of the total CO2 emissions. However, it is only this 5% of CO2 emissions from power plants that we are talking about limiting by means of sequestration – an exercise in futility!

It’s time to wake up to the facts: attempting to limit CO2 emissions is a senseless waste of time and money given that we are past the point when cutting our CO2 emissions by 5% could make a dent – we cannot LIMIT the other 95% as its emission is so widespread that it is impossible to capture. But we sure can and absolutely must EXTRACT the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. There is no other conceivable way to slow, let alone, reverse global warming.

But we are running out of time, so we need to act fast. Global warming may become irreversible and the survival of the human species is at stake.

andre garnet's picture

Thank andre for the Post!

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Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Aug 15, 2010 3:02 am GMT

Andre Garnet – “Moreover, they are contradicted by the facts: there is no denying that it is primarily plankton that brought down the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by about 50% to 75% from what it was about 70,000 years ago and that it did so without destroying marine life.”

How can you possibly know this?  The fossil record is far too sketchy for you to make a pronouncement like this.

” It’s very easy to do, wouldn’t interfere with the ships’ usual activities and would, in fact, earn them carbon credits that CO2 emitters would be required to buy.”

I see so rather than people reducing their energy use you want to continue the party by the “easy” option.  So what if the other experts are correct and nutrient levels in the ocean are not at the correct levels to support this bloom.  Also where do you propose to conduct this.  I would bet good money it is somewhere very remote from you.

andre garnet's picture
andre garnet on Aug 15, 2010 8:59 pm GMT

@ StephenGloor – I verified and it was 250,000 years ago rather than 70,000 years ago that atmospheric CO2 concentration was 200% to 300% higher than now. I have edited my post to this effect. The way we know this is from deuterium shift studies and C14 dating on ice core samples from drilling in Vostok, Siberia. As for other fossil records, they are very sketchy as you say, but they do indicate that CO2 has varied from 200 ppm to 7,000 ppm over the last 600 million years.  

As for people reducing their energy use, I’m all for it but I’m a pragmatist: no matter how much we could reduce our energy use, we will remain primarily dependent on coal, oil and gas and emit CO2 for at least another 30 to 50 years . And, given the fact that there is no feasible or affordable way to limit the resulting CO2 emissions by more than the 5% that could be trapped at power plants, I say forget it. There would be no need to attempt capturing a paltry 5% of CO2 emissions at the source if we had a means of extracting from the atmosphere the equivalent of 100% or more of our emissions of CO2. We have a way to do it as was shown again in the Lohafex study (see below)

And finally, a considerable amount of research has been performed on plankton showing that the only lacking nutrient for it in the sea is the iron oxides that are no longer spread over the sea by the desert winds as much as they were  in the past. As for where to fertilize plankton growth, there is plenty of sea surface available where there is little marine life and the sea is deep. In the latest study (called Lohafex) conducted in early 2009 in the South West Atlantic by an international team led by German scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, 6 tons of iron oxides were spread over an area of 300 square kilometers (i.e. roughly 10% of the size of Rhode Island) . This caused plankton to grow that was monitored for 39 days in which time it absorbed the equivalent of the combined annual CO2 emissions of all of India and Japan.   

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on Aug 16, 2010 1:49 am GMT

Andre – ” I verified and it was 250,000 years ago rather than 70,000 years ago that atmospheric CO2 concentration was 200% to 300% higher than now.”

It is not the time that it happened that is the problem but the assertion “and that it did so without destroying marine life”.  How do you know what marine life that it did or did not destroy?  Additionally the ocean then did not have 7 massive dead zones nor the millions of tons of plastic floating around in huge islands.  Nor did it have deep sea trawling or any of the other things we currently do to the ocean.

I am very wary of easy answers.  Just as I am very skeptical of the claims of nuclear proponents that think they can save the world with nuclear power you are just shifting this to seeding the ocean.

I would be more receptive if you included ocean management and clean up and banning of waste dumping and reduced use of fertilisers along with this scheme.  You cannot use the oceans as a waste management solution AND the lungs of the earth to take up the excesses of our society. 

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Aug 17, 2010 8:46 pm GMT

The Royal Society’s “Geoengineering the Climate” contains a high level discussion of the known techniques to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Richard Alley, in his excellent presentation at last year’s AGU entitled “The Biggest Control Knob:  Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s Climate History” in the Q&A afterward, was asked about removing CO2 from the atmosphere and said although the research looks interesting, and he encouraged people interested to check out Lackner in particular, it looked at this point that it would be cheaper to stop adding more CO2 than to remove it. 

Klaus Lackner testified at a House hearing Feb 2010 on Air Capture and Mineral Sequestration.

Science magazine did a special issue on removing CO2 “Clearing the Air”, 25 Sept 2009

David Keith researches how to remove CO2 from ambient air and had an article in that edition of Science.  On his website he says the best article describing his work is here.

Graciela Chilchinisky (author of the cap and trade section of the Kyoto Protocol) was wandering around (her London School of Economics lecture is here) in the runup to Copenhagen saying she had a proprietary process that could be attached to any source of waste heat, such as a coal fired power plant, that would remove so much CO2 that the plant would be turned into a CO2 sink.  At the LSE she claimed the Royal Society was affirming what she was saying.  All the Royal Society said in the “Geoengineering” report mentioned that could in any way be talking about Chilchinisky in particular, was this somewhat tantalizing statement:  “Proposals for new methods are still appearing (confidential submissions received) and it is very likely that substantial cost reductions are possible in future”.  She’s keeping her cards somewhat close to her vest, but she was saying her company is building a pilot plant in California that should have been in operation by now.  An article describing her work

.Robin MIlls has a book, Capturing Carbon, that is just about out.  (supposedly to be available September 1). 

andre garnet's picture
andre garnet on Mar 10, 2011 7:22 pm GMT

@Mitchell Porter – Although they look wrong to you, the numbers I’ve cited are the ones published as part of the report on the Lohafex study of 2009 performed by scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute. To wit: “…6 tons of iron oxides were spread over an area of 300 square kilometers (i.e. roughly 10% of the size of Rhode Island).This caused plankton to grow that was monitored for 39 days in which time it absorbed the equivalent of the combined annual CO2 emissions of all of India and Japan…” 

andre garnet's picture
andre garnet on Mar 10, 2011 9:05 pm GMT

Dear Padraig – I fail to understand your arguments. If, as you say, “…the Vostok Ice Core data reveals that atmosphere CO2 levels have not been in excess of 300 ppm for the past 400,000 years..” it just means that they dropped sooner, give or take 150,000 years. 

As for the statement of the EPA “The process of generating electricity is the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, representing 41% of all carbon dioxide emissions..” I am all prepared to accept it. But I differ with the opinion ” …In light of these facts it is quite clear that the opportunities for mitigation in the United States are very large.” This 41% of CO2 emissions resulting from electricity generation would be extremely difficult and costly to mitigate and/or sequester as long as the fuel is coal, oil or gas. And when it comes to the remaining 59% of CO2 emissions, their widespread origins and locations combined with their low individual concentration in CO2 makes it hopeless to entertain any idea of mitigating or sequestering these. It is precisely for these reasons that experts believe that the most CO2 emissions (from all sources) we could currently hope to mitigate or sequester is only about 5% of total annual global emissions.

Is this 5% the “large opportunity of mitigation in the U.S.A. that your quote refers to? Large or small, it is only a drop in the bucket compared to the CO2 that is already accumulated in the atmosphere and certainly not enough to prevent the increasing rate of global warming.

In fact we may already be past the tipping point when it comes to global warming given that in some scenarios, we may be only some 40 years away from run-away, irreversible global warming that could end human life as we know it (see the studies of climatologist James Hansen). This is therefore no longer a time for splitting hair on considerations such as the exact dating of layers in the Vostok Ice Core data. Who cares as to 100 or 1,000 years’ precision in dating their individual layers? We should not waste any more time in reverting to a natural, safe and proven process, the use of plankton as a means of converting CO2 to biomass on the surface of the seas as described in my post. Some experts believe that doing so would enable us to return CO2 levels to where they were around 1850 within 30 years or so. Moreover, we have no feasible alternative.  

andre garnet's picture
andre garnet on Apr 3, 2011 4:29 pm GMT

 

The idea of growing plankton as a means for sequestering CO2 so as to fight global warming is finally getting through!
The excerpts below are from an article “Tweaking the climate to save it: Who decides?” published April 3, 2011 and available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/03/ap/tech/main20050107.shtml
…Britain’s national science academy, the Royal Society, subsequently organized the Chicheley Hall conference with Hamburg’s EDF and the association of developing-world science academies. From six continents, they invited a blue-ribbon cross-section of atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geochemists, environmentalists, international lawyers, psychologists, policy experts and others, to discuss how the world should oversee such unprecedented — and unsettling — research…
…Scientists of earth, sea and sky, scholars of law, politics and philosophy: In three intense days cloistered behind Chicheley Hall’s old brick walls, where British saboteurs once secretly trained, four dozen international thinkers pondered the planet’s fate as it grows warmer, weighed the idea of reflecting the sun to cool the atmosphere, debated the question of who would make the decision…
…On the other hand, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow CO2-eating plankton has shown some workability, and Massachusetts’ prestigious Woods Hole research center is planning the biggest such experiment…

The idea of growing plankton as a means for sequestering CO2 so as to fight global warming is making headway!

The excerpts below are from an article “Tweaking the climate to save it: Who decides?” published April 3, 2011 and available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/03/ap/tech/main20050107.shtml

…Britain’s national science academy, the Royal Society, subsequently organized the Chicheley Hall conference with Hamburg’s EDF and the association of developing-world science academies. From six continents, they invited a blue-ribbon cross-section of atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geochemists, environmentalists, international lawyers, psychologists, policy experts and others, to discuss how the world should oversee such unprecedented — and unsettling — research…

…Scientists of earth, sea and sky, scholars of law, politics and philosophy: In three intense days cloistered behind Chicheley Hall’s old brick walls, where British saboteurs once secretly trained, four dozen international thinkers pondered the planet’s fate as it grows warmer, weighed the idea of reflecting the sun to cool the atmosphere, debated the question of who would make the decision…

…On the other hand, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow CO2-eating plankton has shown some workability, and Massachusetts’ prestigious Woods Hole research center is planning the biggest such experiment…

 

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