11.2.2 Ocean fertilization and other geo-engineering options
Since the TAR, a body of literature has developed on alternative, geo-engineering techniques for mitigating climate change. This section focuses on apparently promising techniques: ocean fertilization, geo-engineering methods for capturing and safely sequestering CO2 and reducing the amount of sunlight absorbed by the earth’s atmospheric system. These options tend to be speculative and many of their environmental side-effects have yet to be assessed; detailed cost estimates have not been published; and they are without a clear institutional framework for implementation. Conventional carbon capture and storage is covered in Chapter 4, Section 4.3.6 and the IPCC Special Report (2005) on the topic.
188.8.131.52 Iron and nitrogen fertilization of the oceans
Iron fertilization of the oceans may be a strategy for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The idea is that it stimulates the growth of phytoplankton and therefore sequesters CO2 in the form of particulate organic carbon (POC). There have been eleven field studies in different ocean regions with the primary aim of examining the impact of iron as a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton by the addition of small quantities (1–10 tonnes) of iron sulphate to the surface ocean. In addition, commercial tests are being pursued with the combined (and conflicting) aims of increasing ocean carbon sequestration and productivity. It should be noted, however, that iron addition will only stimulate phytoplankton growth in ~30% of the oceans (the Southern Ocean, the equatorial Pacific and the Sub-Arctic Pacific), where iron depletion prevails. Only two experiments to date (Buesseler and Boyd, 2003) have reported on the second phase, the sinking and vertical transport of the increased phytoplankton biomass to depths below the main thermocline (>120m). The efficiency of sequestration of the phytoplankton carbon is low (<10%), with the biomass being largely recycled back to CO2 in the upper water column (Boyd et al., 2004). This suggests that the field-study estimates of the actual carbon sequestered per unit iron (and per dollar) are over-estimates. The cost of large-scale and long-term fertilization will also be offset by CO2 release/emission during the acquisition, transportation and release of large volumes of iron in remote oceanic regions. Potential negative effects of iron fertilization include the increased production of methane and nitrous oxide, deoxygenation of intermediate waters and changes in phytoplankton community composition that may cause toxic blooms and/or promote changes further along the food chain. None of these effects have been directly identified in experiments to date, partly due to the time and space constraints.
Nitrogen fertilization is another option (Jones, 2004) with similar problems and consequences.