Ocean Visions Is Expanding The Global Conversation On Ocean Climate Solutions

Ocean Visions Is Expanding The Global Conversation On Ocean Climate Solutions - Carbon Herald
Source: Ocean Visions

Ocean Visions is exploring the vast, untapped potential of the ocean to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide and help reverse climate change.

On this episode of the Carbonsations podcast, we spoke to Dr. David Koweek, Chief Scientist at Ocean Visions, about the many different ocean-based climate solutions that are currently being researched and developed to help pave a sustainable future for humanity.

Dr. Koweek dives deep into solutions like ocean iron fertilization and what they entail, and talks about bridging the gaps between existing science and technology in the realm of marine carbon dioxide removal (mCDR) and policy.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Carbonsations podcast is hosted by Violet George.

Violet George: Can you describe all the different things that Ocean Visions does and why it’s of such huge importance? 

David Koweek: To start, we basically work to stabilize the climate and restore ocean health. That is the highest level objective of Ocean Visions. It’s an enormous task, but we feel like we really need to have that enormous ambition to accomplish what we want to accomplish at the scale that we want to accomplish. 

In particular, we work on advancing solutions to the most critical problems facing the ocean. We do so by trying to facilitate innovation around these really difficult problems at the ocean-climate nexus. So we focus on bringing together individuals from a really diverse set of critical sectors to focus on system-level challenges and their solutions. And we think that that’s really our bread and butter.

We also build knowledge products to increase global fluency with ocean-based climate solutions. These include things like our online living digital roadmaps. We just released this ocean iron fertilization site suitability analysis planning tool that we’ll talk about later today. We have a database of all the field trials that are happening for marine carbon dioxide removal. And we’re continually building out these sorts of products. 

These are designed to be digital, free, and open access. And it’s really a critical piece of the puzzle for building out equitable and durable solutions, which is building out products that allow people to be empowered to understand what’s going on and to make their own decisions. 

The four pillars of Ocean Visions ’ work to fight climate change

Ocean Visions works across the entire spectrum of ocean-based climate solutions, and we do so by employing what we call a ‘Four R’ strategy. And those four R’s stand for reduce, remove, repair and reach

Reduce’ is ocean-based pathways to aid in decarbonization. We all know that the focus has to be on decarbonizing our society. All other solutions are important, but they only work when they work in complement with really sustained and committed efforts at decarbonization. So we’re interested in exploring and advancing new ocean based pathways for enabling that decarbonization to happen. 

Remove’ is all of our work on marine carbon dioxide removal. That’s been the vast majority of our work over our first few years. And that’s really all focused on advancing the research development for marine carbon dioxide removal technologies so that we can understand which of these pathways are viable as a scaled climate solution. 

Relevant: Ocean Visions Selects Innovators For Second Cohort Of Launchpad Program

Our third ‘r’ is ‘repair’, which is about trying to repair marine ecosystems and critical parts of the earth system that are at existential risk from the combined effects of warming and acidification. And if triggered, these could become critical climate tipping elements, which are systems that can undergo drastic change that can potentially lead to catastrophic effects for these ecosystems and can cascade through other ecosystems. We have an initial focus on trying to answer the question, what, if anything, can be done to slow the loss of arctic sea ice? Because arctic sea ice is such a crucial, critical part of the earth system and of the climate system, it plays such an important role in stabilizing our climate. And its loss, as we’ve been seeing through the last several decades, is really having very destabilizing effects on our climate. 

So we’re undertaking this work to try to answer what, if anything, can be done to slow that loss. And that really starts from a really systematic and thorough and deep evaluation of all the available technologies that people have proposed to slow the loss of arctic sea ice, and understanding where all those technologies sit and what needs to be done to advance those. 

And then our fourth ‘r’ is ‘reach’, which is all around global capacity building. None of the first three R’s that I just talked about can really happen at any appreciable scale unless we have a dramatically expanded and dramatically more inclusive global conversation about how to protect our oceans and how to enable these ocean-based climate solutions. And so our reach pillar is all about trying to expand the conversation, increase the dialogue, make more seats at the table, and really increase the number of voices that are contributing to these solutions. 

What is marine carbon dioxide removal (mCDR)?

Violet George: Thank you. Now, I know that you mentioned all of these different pathways that you focus on, but I wanted to get a closer look at marine CDR in particular, and why it’s such a critical means of removing carbon dioxide and what sets it apart from other carbon removal approaches. 

David Koweek: Carbon dioxide removal is fundamentally about rebalancing an out of balance carbon cycle. And if you want to rebalance a carbon cycle that’s out of balance, you have to start by looking at the carbon cycle. And if you look at the carbon cycle, you can see that the ocean carbon content is like the elephant, lion, tiger, hippopotamus and rhinoceros in the room altogether. It is just by far the biggest lever of the global carbon cycle. 

And so if you want to think about these scaled solutions for rebalancing a carbon cycle by removing anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution, you have to think about the critical role of the oceans. There’s just no way to really get to scale without the oceans playing some enormously substantial part in that – that’s the first important point. 

But then the second thing that we have to also think about is that, despite its enormous potential, the ocean based pathways have not gotten the same amount of attention that other pathways, like direct air capture, have gotten. 

And part of that is that it’s just really difficult to work in the ocean. There are the technical challenges, but then also social and political and governance challenges. And so our idea, what really motivates our work here is this idea that the ocean based pathways for carbon dioxide removal have outsized potential, but have been underinvested today. And when I say underinvested, I mean people, time, energy, money. 

And so a lot of our work is about trying to raise that awareness and accelerate the investment of time, energy and money towards the research and development of marine carbon dioxide removal pathways, so that we can really get to clear answers as quickly as possible about which of any of these mCDR pathways have the potential to scale. 

Violet George: And so, to anyone listening who perhaps may not have a clear understanding of what it means to harness the ocean’s power to remove CO2, could you please give us a few examples of what types of marine CDR solutions there are? 

David Koweek: First, I think maybe we should start with just a moment’s worth of context, which is just to say that the ocean is constantly exchanging carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. And so ocean based or green carbon dioxide removal pathways are trying to increase the oceans capacity to store carbon. And therefore, because the ocean is constantly exchanging carbon with the atmosphere, if you can increase the ocean carbon storage content, you have the potential to draw in more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

So that’s really the removal mechanism that plays out in a number of different ways. And all of these ways are really about accelerating the natural biological and chemical pathways through which the ocean is already storing carbon dioxide or carbon. 

They include a number of pathways that are around fertilizing the ocean and growing either microalgae or macroalgae. That includes things like growing seaweed at large quantities, or ocean iron fertilization. And then there are a whole suite of chemical approaches that are essentially leveraging the oceans alkalinity content. In particular, they enhance the ocean alkalinity content so that the oceans have the capacity to store more carbon safely in the form of something called bicarbonate. 

Refreezing the Arctic

Violet George: I wanted to also circle back to something you said earlier about finding ways to slow down the melting of the arctic ice. There is a startup in the UK called Real Ice, and what they’re doing is actually trying to refreeze the Arctic. So I was curious about your opinion on this practice and whether it is something Ocean Visions does too. 

David Koweek: Just to be clear, our initial work under our ‘repair’ program is really focused on arctic sea ice. So not ice sheets. With that, we are aware of Real Ice. We think what they’re doing is really interesting, and the kind of work that they’re doing is exactly the kind of work that we’re capturing in this roadmapping exercise, where we’re going out and trying to understand the landscape of all the technologies that people have proposed for slowing the loss of arctic sea ice, or in some cases, rebuilding arctic sea ice, understanding the state of the technology, the knowledge gaps and the development needs, and then the priorities that we have to push on to advance responsible research so that we can understand what, if any, of these technologies may be effective, equitable, safe, and durable. 

The short answer is we don’t know any of that right now, but we need a pathway, an open, transparent pathway that helps us get to those answers in a really inclusive and community driven way. 

What Is Ocean Iron Fertilization?

Violet George: Thank you. Another very important thing that I wanted to touch on, and you mentioned it actually in the beginning, is Ocean Vision’s latest release: the Ocean Iron Fertilization Site Suitability Planning Tool. So what is this and what is it used for? 

David Koweek: Yes, thanks for asking. You’re right, it is our newest release, and this is a knowledge product that we just released last week in partnership with Esri, which is a geospatial data company. This is an effort to try to help advance the conversation around ocean iron fertilization as a potential pathway for marine carbon dioxide removal. 

Ocean iron fertilization is probably the oldest pathway that people have thought about for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using the power of the oceans. And it really dates back to the late 1980s, when a renowned oceanographer named John Martin discovered that substantial parts of the global ocean are limited in terms of the amount of biological growth that they can sustain by very small amounts of iron, and thus hypothesized that if you add iron to these parts of the ocean, you could increase biological productivity. 

And that process of increasing biological productivity stores carbon in algae biomass. And so it increases the ocean’s ability to take up more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as that algae grow, they ultimately die and fall through the ocean, and a portion of that algae reached the bottom of the ocean, where the carbon that’s in their biomass can be sequestered for hundreds to potentially thousands of years. 

Relevant: Ocean Visions & Esri Unveil New Tool For Ocean Iron Fertilization (OIF) Planning

That’s the basic idea around ocean iron fertilization. In the nineties and early two thousands, there were 13 scientific field experiments across the global ocean by international teams of scientists who were working to understand some of the fundamental mechanisms around this idea of iron limitation. 

So they made some really important and substantial advances. They understood and learned they could verify that the ocean was iron limited, and adding iron increased biological productivity. But they couldn’t really answer some of the key questions about the additionality and durability of the carbon that is sequestered as a result of growing additional biomass. 

And those are really key things when we think about scaling carbon dioxide removal: additionality – how much extra carbon are we taking out? Durability – how long is it stored for? A few years. After that, there was a commercial effort off the coast of British Columbia, where an entrepreneur dumped a lot of iron into the ocean as part of an effort to increase salmon yields. And this caused an enormous backlash against this technology and kind of put a lid on further exploring this technology for about ten years or so. 

Fast forward to where we are now. We now know that we need carbon dioxide removal. There’s a much greater societal understanding about the need for carbon dioxide removal alongside decarbonization. A lot of that comes from the IPCC special report on 1.5 degrees of warming. 

And so we’ve really moved from whether or not we should be doing carbon removal to where does the carbon removal come from? And ocean iron fertilization has experienced this kind of reemergence. Much of this has been led by this group out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic institution called exploring ocean iron fertilizer. Exploring ocean iron solutions, which is a group that’s really about trying to increase and restart the scientific investigation of ocean iron fertilization as a marine carbon dioxide removal solution. 

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And so, hopefully, this kind of idea has also picked up as part of a number of other high level reports, including the report released by the US National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine in 2022, that outlined that ocean iron fertilization might be one of the highest potential pathways in need of further exploration as part of a mCDR research agenda. 

This is really all driven by the fact that ocean iron fertilization fundamentally requires very small amounts of iron to leverage really large amounts of potential carbon drawdown. Because iron is a micronutrient, the plankton only need very small amounts to potentially grow their biomass. Anyways, hopefully, this all sets the stage for the birth, the exploration, the stasis, and then the rebirth of ocean iron fertilization. But what was missing in all this conversation, we thought, was a really comprehensive socio technical perspective on the problem. 

There’s rich scientific literature on how ocean iron fertilization works, but we didn’t think that there was a really thorough understanding of how it works from a socio technical perspective, which is one that integrates the social and the technical perspectives together from the beginning, because any of these solutions at scale are going to have elements of technical challenges, social challenges, political challenges, economic challenges. 

Violet George: Is it as simple as just adding iron to the ocean? 

David Koweek: It is both as simple and as complex as adding iron to the ocean. So, in short, ocean fertilization is about fertilizing iron, limited parts of the ocean with iron. But there are lots of questions that emerge once you dig deeper. 

What forms of iron can you add? What are the most stable and the most bioavailable? Can you add it in ways that can increase certain types of phytoplankton that are more likely to sink more rapidly to the bottom of the ocean and thus sequester larger amounts of carbon? And conversely, are there other forms that might make it more difficult for that to happen? How are you adding the iron in ways that support what’s called monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), which is the whole system around being able to measure, report and verify that what you are saying is being sequestered is actually being sequestered. 

We know, in the ocean that has to take the form of a combination of observations or sensors and models, but there’s lots of details there about how all that actually works. And so there’s still a lot of outstanding research that needs to be done. I think that one of the keys is that this tool can really help people think about what are some of the optimal sites to do that research in ways that could support building out really good knowledge bases to support any potential future deployments. 

Bridging the knowledge gaps between mCDR science and policymakers 

Violet George: Great. Now that we’ve covered the technicals, there’s another very important aspect of ocean CDR, of course, which is policy. And I’m curious as to whether Ocean Visions engages in policy on any level. And the reason I’m asking is that I feel like there’s a gap that exists between the science and the technology that is available and the understanding of this science and technology, particularly among policymakers. 

David Koweek: I think your last point, Violet, is exactly right. There are still massive knowledge gaps between what is the cutting edge science and engineering that’s happening to advance mCDR and the policy landscape. 

But I think it’s also important to acknowledge just the enormous progress that we’ve seen in the last few years. And in particular, I want to highlight the US government here. There’s just been enormous leadership within NOAA within the Department of Energy, within the EPA, to advance the research and development, advance the permitting guidance, and just generally create a policy environment that is far more conducive to accelerated research and development of carbon dioxide removal, broadly, and especially for marine carbon dioxide removal. 

Just a few days ago, the US government released a first year update to its ocean climate action plan. And there’s a section there that talks about the progress on advancing marine carbon dioxide removal within the US federal government. And it’s a really great thing to see how many different federal agencies are getting involved in advancing this conversation. 

Relevant: Equatic To Build The World’s Largest Ocean Carbon Removal Plant

Most notably, there’s been the formation of the fast track action committee within the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. And this fast track action committee really has three priorities. One is advancing public private partnerships. The second is advancing research. And the third is advancing guidance around permitting to enable MCDR activities. 

So I think it’s really important that we start with thinking about what is going really well. Now, with all that said, I still think, and ocean visions is quite clear, that we still need a dedicated research and development bill for MCDR that is really at the requisite funding levels recommended by all of the major bodies, which include the US National Academies of science, engineering and medicine report. And that’s on the scale of billions of dollars. 

That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket when we think about the potential scale of the solutions that could be provided by mCDR and as well as the enormous costs of climate damages. 

Violet George: So do you see this space gaining the same kind of attention that direct air capture has been, for example, in the past year or so? 

David Koweek: I certainly hope so. I mean, seeing the DAC hubs is a really amazing model and I think a great inspiration for all of the other forms of CDR out there. I think it’s really important to know and to be clear, that anybody who works on CDR starts from the requisite understanding that we need CDR. We need billions and billions of tons of CDR annually by mid-century to stave off the worst climate damages. 

And then we’re going to need even more of that to ultimately restore the climate and draw down atmospheric CO2 levels. So DAC is going to be part of the solution, enhanced rock weathering is going to be part of the solution. Biomass capture removal and storage is going to be part of the solution, and mCDR is going to be part of the solution. And I think what we all work towards is a really thorough exploration and research and development of all these technologies so that they can all advance as much as possible and that they can all meet their full potential. 

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