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Ocean carbon dioxide removal (OCDR) – high hopes for false solutions

By: Sofia Sadogurska

Ocean Carbon Dioxide Removal (OCDR) is a range of strategies meant to remov carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through leveraging the capacity of the oceans.

It seems by now that both climate change and the solution to this problem (phasing out fossil fuels) are obvious to everyone. At the same time, while our planet is heating up, leading to natural disasters and the disappearance of ecosystems, some still hope that it will be possible to continue doing “business as usual”, while some miracle solutions will save the planet. Such false solutions include, in particular, various proposals for Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). And the oceans are no exception from such “high hopes”.

  • Ocean Carbon Dioxide Removal (OCDR) involves various strategies aimed at removing carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere by leveraging the capacity of the oceans. While these strategies might seem promising on the surface, they come with significant challenges and potential negative consequences.
  • Environmental Risks: Increasing CO₂ absorption in seawater can lead to ocean acidification, which has adverse effects on marine ecosystems and organisms, such as coral reefs, shellfish and other marine life. Some proposed methods, like ocean fertilisation, may disrupt local ecosystems and harm marine organisms by altering nutrient balances and oxygen levels in the water.
  • Lack of Permanence: Ocean-based carbon removal methods are not permanent solutions. The carbon stored in the ocean can be released back into the atmosphere over time, potentially exacerbating future climate change.
  • Uncertainty: The long-term effects of large-scale ocean carbon removal are uncertain. There are justified fears among scientists and policymakers about the effectiveness and safety of these approaches.
  • Technological Challenges: Many ocean carbon removal technologies are still in the experimental phase and face significant technical challenges, including cost-effectiveness, scalability and energy requirements (together with the above-mentioned threats to environment).
  • Ethical Concerns: Ocean-based approaches raise ethical concerns related to uncontrolled experiments in the marine environment and potential unforeseen consequences.
  • Equity Issues: There are concerns that ocean carbon removal may benefit some nations or corporations while potentially causing harm or inequity to others (indigenous peoples and local communities), particularly in vulnerable coastal regions.
  • Diversion from Primary Solutions: Relying too heavily on ocean carbon removal methods divert attention and resources away from more effective and immediate climate mitigation strategies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions at their source.
  • Regulatory and Governance Challenges: It is difficult to establish guidelines and regulations to ensure responsible and sustainable practices at the international level, considering the potential negative effects of such practices.

Ocean carbon dioxide removal strategies are far from being a complete or universally accepted solution. And some of them (like large-scale ocean fertilisation or enhanced weathering of minerals added to the oceans) carry a high risk of having damaging side effects on ocean ecosystems that outweigh the potential climate benefits. Their potential risks and uncertainties make it crucial to prioritise and focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at their source, transitioning to renewable energy sources, and implementing other proven climate mitigation measures. These include protecting and restoring ecosystems to increase CO₂ removal and meeting the Paris Agreement goals. Those carbon dioxide removal approaches that increase carbon sequestration in natural ecosystems and have strict environmental and social safeguards could be part of the solution. But once again we need to emphasise that protecting and restoring nature cannot be used to compensate for, or delay a just and equitable phase-out from fossil fuels and industrial agriculture.

Following the discussions at the SB58 in Bonn, it seems that the Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue is the right forum for identifying the emerging issues in the context of ocean-climate action, such as ocean-based geoengineering and OCDR, to be dealt with in the future sessions of the dialogue series in order to protect the oceans.

Sofia Sadogurska, Ecoaction, Ukraine


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