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Using the Oceans to Store CO2 Could Help Avoid Climate Catastrophe

Dec. 30, 2021, 9:00 AM

At last month’s climate conference in Glasgow, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres declared that the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius was still alive, but “on life support.”

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR)—the process of drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it on land or in the oceans—could be part of the medicine needed to bring it back to life. But, like all experimental treatments, its use presents a range of challenges. Overcoming them will require a coordinated effort by a wide range of stakeholders, from research scientists and investors to policymakers and lawyers to environmental and community groups.

There is no question that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require massive reductions in fossil fuel use and associated greenhouse gas emissions. But even that might not be enough. In a report published earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate concluded that, to achieve the 1.5 degree target, CDR will likely need to be deployed at a large scale “well before 2050.”

Variety of Techniques

Scientists have proposed a variety of CDR techniques that could, at least in theory, be deployed on land or in the oceans. Commonly discussed land-based approaches include afforestation and reforestation, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture.

While all of these approaches hold promise, they also have major limitations, including large land and/or energy requirements. This has sparked interest in ocean-based approaches, like seaweed cultivation, ocean fertilization and alkalinization, and artificial upwelling.

So far, no CDR techniques have been deployed at a large scale, and many require significantly more research before that can happen. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences identifies over $1 billion worth of “priority research” that will be needed over the next 10 years to better assess the feasibility and impacts of key ocean CDR techniques. That includes $125 million for so-called “foundational research” on legal, policy, social science, and related issues.

Those foundational issues are often overlooked in discussions about CDR research and deployment. Scientists and entrepreneurs are, understandably, focused on developing and testing their preferred approaches. But doing that has important legal, policy, and social implications that must be grappled with.

Legal Issues

On the legal side, there is significant uncertainty as to how different CDR techniques, particularly ocean-based techniques, will be regulated. Because the oceans form part of the global commons, ocean-based activities are subject to a large body of international law. But there is currently no comprehensive international legal framework specific to ocean CDR.

The international community has, in recent years, appeared reluctant to take definitive action on ocean CDR. In 2008, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a non-binding resolution recommending that countries avoid engaging in ocean fertilization activities, except for “small scale research studies within coastal waters.”

In 2010, the parties adopted a second non-binding decision recommending that countries avoid all “geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity,” again with the exception of certain research activities . But the parties are yet to codify those recommendations or adopt other binding rules.

Attempts to do that in other forums have had mixed success. For example, in 2013, the parties to the London Protocol agreed to amend that instrument to create a new regulatory framework for marine geoengineering. But, in the almost decade since, the amendment has been ratified by just six countries. It is yet to take effect.

The U.S. has not signed onto any of the above statements or amendments. There are no U.S. federal laws dealing specifically with ocean CDR. Unless and until that changes, projects will end up being regulated under general environmental laws that were developed with other activities in mind, and so may be poorly suited to ocean CDR. We’ve documented some of the potential problems in two recent reports on the laws governing ocean alkalinization and seaweed cultivation for the purposes of CDR.

As recognized in the National Academies report, developing a “clear and consistent legal framework for ocean CDR is essential to facilitate research and (if deemed appropriate) full-scale deployment, while also ensuring that projects are conducted in a safe and environmentally sound manner.”

It is vital that framework be developed with input from all stakeholders—scientists, entrepreneurs, governments, NGOs, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, coastal communities, and other potentially impacted groups. Those same groups must continue to be engaged as projects are developed and deployed.

There have already been some attempts to do this, but significantly more work is needed. In 2021, the Aspen Institute convened members of the scientific, environmental, legal, and policy communities with the goal of developing a code of conduct for ocean CDR research. The institute recently published an initial set of research guidelines but concluded that a “much broader, more diverse, more inclusive” group would need to be convened to develop a full code of conduct.

Further engagement and coordination with the full range of stakeholders are important to ensure safe and responsible CDR development and deployment. Without that, our hopes of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius may well be dead and buried.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Romany Webb is an associate research scholar at Columbia Law School and senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee that produced the report mentioned here.

Michael B. Gerrard is the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.