Carbon capture, ocean fertilisation and offsets trading (part 4)

This is the fourth and final instalment in a series of posts on carbon capture technologies, based on a Royal Society seminar I attended in December. I began the discussion here, but preceded this with a report of a study that casts doubt on the idea of ocean iron fertilisation. Here I focus on economic initiatives associated with carbon capture.

Phytoplankton bloom

You are probably familiar with the concept of carbon offsetting, where one mitigates the effects of personal carbon emissions by giving money to companies that plant trees and invest in other environmental projects. On a more formal, regulated level we have so-called emissions trading, where corporate bodies are set carbon emission limits, and assigned allowances (or credits) that can be traded on the open market.

There is a vast amount of money tied up in emissions trading, but the market is doing poorly. Take the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EUETS), for example. Initial allocations were too generous, and the market price of credits fell rapidly.

I do not wish to discuss EUETS specifically, but rather point out that there is considerable political and economic pressure to establish similar carbon credit markets for technologies that have yet to be proven. These include the ocean iron fertilisation project I first discussed here, and subsequently here.

In the first piece I wrote that at a symposium held in September 2007 at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, marine law expert Rosemary Rayfuse pointed out that there are no ocean fertilisation projects approved under any carbon credit regulatory scheme currently in operation. Rayfuse also expressed the view that the sale of offsets or credits from ocean fertilisation in unregulated voluntary markets would be nothing short of fraudulent.

That is a strong statement to make, but Rayfuse is reflecting a widely-held view among scientific, technical and legal experts. The problem is, however, that there is considerable momentum in the carbon market, and it may not be enough for scientists to sound the occasional warning bell.

The latest warning comes in a letter published on 11 December 2007 in the journal Science. This is signed by a number of senior scientists from the US, Japan, Hawaii, New Zealand, The Netherlands, India, Germany and the UK.

One of the British signatories, University of East Anglia environmental scientist Andrew Watson, has said that while the group envisage the possibility of iron fertilisation as an effective form of carbon offsetting, there remain many unknowns and potentially negative effects. Given the growing scientific evidence against iron fertilisation, Watson may be a little hasty in acknowledging the potential of this technology.

Despite all the uncertainties and potential adverse effects of ocean iron fertilisation, a number of private companies are planning large-scale iron releases to generate the sale of carbon credits. Now I don’t want to turn this into a private = bad argument. Governments are also promoting carbon offsetting, and the market should be involved if the scientific questions can be resolved.

The Science letter concludes:

“This group feels it is premature to sell carbon offsets from the first generation of commercial-scale OIF [Ocean Iron Fertilisation] experiments unless there is better demonstration that OIF effectively removes CO2, retains that carbon in the ocean for a quantifiable amount of time, and has acceptable and predictable environmental impacts.”

Until then, I have to agree with Rosemary Rayfuse that it would be “nothing short of fraudulent” to allow the sale of carbon offsets associated with this as yet unproven technology.

Go to part 1; part 2; part 3.