Should We Electrocute The Oceans To Curb Climate Change? That’s One Idea.

A landmark report looks at potential human interventions to boost how much planet-warming carbon dioxide the sea can suck up.

Some of the nation’s leading ocean and climate scientists are calling on the U.S. government to invest up to $1.3 billion in research on human interventions that could boost the oceans’ ability to suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide in the coming decades.

The recommendation is part of a new, 300-page National Academy of Sciences report released Wednesday that explores six techniques for accelerating ocean CO2 removal and storage, some more radical than others. Potential areas of study include restoring degraded ecosystems, large-scale seaweed farming, dumping nutrients like iron and phosphorus in the water to promote plankton growth, and even jolting seawater with electricity to make it less acidic.

The report outlines known risks and benefits, as well as costs and scalability, in order to provide policymakers with a framework for deciding next steps. It does not advocate for any individual tool or technology.

“All of these approaches have some combination of tradeoffs and there are substantial knowledge gaps,” Scott Doney, an oceanographer at the University of Virginia and chair of the NAS committee that authored the report, told HuffPost. “It’s really trying to find investments on the research side that could fill those gaps in a way that would better prepare us to make those decisions.”

An oil platform is pictured in the Persian Gulf.
An oil platform is pictured in the Persian Gulf.
Dario Argenti via Getty Images

Burning of fossil fuels and other human activities have driven atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to their highest point in 800,000 years, and there is a growing consensus among the world’s leading scientists that staving off potentially catastrophic climate change will require more than simply cutting greenhouse gas emissions going forward. A 2019 NAS report, for example, found that the world will have to find ways to remove approximately 10 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year by mid-century to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the goal of the landmark Paris climate agreement.

If it weren’t for the oceans, Earth’s largest carbon sink, the planet would already be significantly warmer. Oceans have absorbed an estimated 93% of the excess heat from human-caused climate change, and climate scientists and advocates have increasingly pushed for countries to use them as a key tool to meet climate goals and achieve the 1.5 degree target.

“The ocean holds great potential for uptake and longer-term sequestration of human-produced CO2,” the NAS report states.

In this photograph taken on Sept. 24, 2021, women work to cultivate fronds of seaweed on bamboo rafts in the waters off the coast of Rameswaram in India's Tamil Nadu state.
In this photograph taken on Sept. 24, 2021, women work to cultivate fronds of seaweed on bamboo rafts in the waters off the coast of Rameswaram in India's Tamil Nadu state.
ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images

Of the six possible techniques, NAS’s initial assessment concluded that nutrient fertilization and introducing electrical currents were among the most likely to prove effective at enhancing CO2 storage. But both come with significant environmental risk.

“We want to do it in a thoughtful way that avoids environmental damages, that avoids negative social or ecological impacts,” Doney said. “But there’s an urgency to start reducing emissions relatively soon.”

“I don’t want to be 5 or 10 years from now and not have done some of this foundational research that we’ve recommended on the social dimensions, governance and carbon accounting,” he added.

The NAS panel recommended an initial $125 million to fund a U.S. program to study the challenges and potential impacts of ocean carbon removal, with additional funding up to $1.2 billion over the next 10 years to conduct in-depth research into each of the six techniques.

Jan Mazurek, senior director of ClimateWorks Foundation, which sponsored the study, called it a “scientific road map for how healthy oceans can cool the climate.”

“The ocean is the heart of our planet, but the world’s fossil fuel addiction has pumped it full of CO2 and turned it more acidic, giving sea life the equivalent of heartburn disease,” she said in a statement. “We cannot live healthily if our oceans are sick.”

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