Congress should step in to advance ocean climate solutions
The latest report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reminds us that time is quickly running out to address the climate crisis. At the recent report launch, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said that the world is “walking when we should be sprinting” on climate action. One day later, the Biden administration called for a sprint toward ocean climate solutions. But, for that to happen, we must remove hurdles that are currently in the way. Chief among them is permitting.
Before we get into that, though, why look to the ocean for climate solutions? The United Nations (UN) has described the ocean as our “greatest ally against climate change.” The ocean has absorbed around 25 percent of the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. It is the largest carbon sink on earth. Without it, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and thus temperatures, would be even higher than they are today.
The new IPCC report concludes that, to avoid climate catastrophe, we must reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by as soon as 2050. That requires “rapid and deep” cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. But that’s not enough. We must also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The ocean is already good at that and, according to scientists, could be even better. But we don’t yet know its full potential.
A variety of ocean carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods have been proposed. One technique — known as ocean alkalinity enhancement — involves discharging ground limestone or other alkaline rock into ocean water to enable it to absorb additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Another is ocean fertilization (also known as microalgae cultivation), which involves adding iron, nitrogen or phosphorus to the surface ocean to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton that uptake carbon dioxide and convert it into organic carbon. Growing seaweed could also work, so long as the carbon in the seaweed is then sequestered.
Each ocean CDR technique carries potential risks and potential co-benefits. Seaweed cultivation, for example, could help to enhance biodiversity and support fisheries but might also cause problems if non-native species are introduced. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. The only way to answer them is through research in the ocean but, currently, it’s too difficult to get in-ocean field trials permitted in the U.S.
There is no specific legal framework for in-ocean CDR research in the U.S. Unless and until such a framework is developed, research projects will be regulated under a variety of general environmental laws, which were developed with other activities in mind. These environmental laws are often poorly suited to regulating ocean CDR research. In some cases, they create duplicative permitting regimes and add complexity where it is not needed. In others, they may under-regulate rogue actors who want to pursue projects that are not scientifically sound.
The solution is not to gut existing environmental laws, but to create new ones that are better suited to facilitating ocean CDR research, while still ensuring that it occurs in a safe and responsible way. We’ve developed model legislation that, if enacted, would create a new legal framework to do just that.
The model legislation calls for a number of reforms. They include establishing permitting authority in a single federal agency, designating preferred zones for ocean CDR research with streamlined permitting, as well as calling for a balance between climate goals and environmental risks. The model law sets clear processes for involving Native American Indigenous tribes, states and the public in decision-making. And, importantly, the model law distinguishes between research and deployment. The streamlining benefits of the model law would not apply to larger-scale projects.
Taken together these legal changes will facilitate needed research and safeguard against environmental and societal risks. They will also help advance the country’s national climate goals. On Tuesday, the White House released the first ever U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan, which sets a goal of building knowledge about the efficacy and tradeoffs of ocean CDR. The plan calls for “a substantial ramp up” in ocean CDR research. To enable this, the plan recognizes that we must set policy and regulatory standards for ocean CDR research, establish a comprehensive federal research and testing program, as well as evaluate the environmental and social impacts of ocean CDR. New legislation, like our model law, would help achieve these goals.
Korey Silverman-Roati is a climate law fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
Romany Webb is deputy director of the Sabin Center for Climate Law.
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