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Slowing CO2 emissions cannot end global warming, but removing CO2 from the atmosphere will.

Scarcely a day goes by without some announcement as to yet another effort to limit CO2 emissions, here or there, for the purpose of fighting global warming. Yet, all such attempts are futile given that so much CO2 has already accumulated in the atmosphere that even if we ended all CO2 emissions today, global warming would probably continue to increase unabated.

However, as explained below, we do have the technology to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and it is due to inept thinking on the part of United Nations scientists that we are not applying it.

Before going into details, it might be useful to frame the problem: It is since the advent of the industrial revolution circa 1,850 that factories and transportation caused a large and enduring increase in the amount of CO2 emissions. This phenomenon has been compounded by the rapid increase in the population given that humans emit CO2 as they breathe. As a result, an enormous quantity of CO2 has accumulated in the atmosphere given that we emitted more than could be absorbed by plants and by the sea. So much so, that the amount of new CO2 that we emit nowadays is a drop in the bucket compared to the quantity of CO2 that has already accumulated in the atmosphere since around 1,850 as the atmospheric concentration of CO2 increased by about 30%. It is this enormous quantity of atmospheric CO2 that traps the heat from the Sun, thus causing about 30% of global warming. The point is that, if we are to stop or reverse global warming, we need to extract from the atmosphere more CO2 than we emit.

However, all we are currently attempting is to limit emissions of CO2. This is too little, too late and totally useless inasmuch it could reduce our CO2 emissions by only 5% at best, while achieving nothing in terms of diminishing the amount of atmospheric CO2.  Rather than wasting precious time on attempts to LIMIT our CO2 emission, we should focus on EXTRACTING from the atmosphere more CO2 than we are emitting. We have a proven method for this that couldn’t be simpler, more effective and inexpensive, so what are we waiting for? 

More specifically, it has been shown that atmospheric CO2 has been perhaps twice higher than now in the not too distant past (some 250,000 years ago.) So what caused it to drop to as low as it was around 1,850? It was primarily due to the plankton that grows on the surface of the sea where it absorbs CO2 that it converts to biomass before dying and sinking to the bottom of the sea where it eventually becomes trapped in sedimentary rock where it turns to oil or gas. There simply isn’t enough biomass on the 30% of Earth’s surface that is land (as opposed to sea) for this biomass to grow fast enough to soak up the excess atmospheric CO2 that we have to contend with. Plankton, on the other hand, can grow on the 70% of Earth that is covered by the sea where it absorbs atmospheric CO2 much faster, in greater quantities and sequesters it for thousands of years in the form of oil and gas.

Growing plankton is thus an extremely efficient, yet simple and inexpensive process for removing the already accumulated CO2 from the atmosphere. All we need to do is to dust the surface of the ocean with rust (i.e. iron oxides) that serves as a fertilizer that causes plankton to grow. The resulting plankton grows and blooms over several days, absorbing CO2 as it does, and then about 90% of it that isn’t eaten by fish sinks to the bottom of the sea. The expert Russ George calculated that if all ocean-going vessels participated in such an effort worldwide, we could return atmospheric CO2 concentration to its 1,850 level within 30 years. It’s very inexpensive and easy to do, wouldn’t interfere with the ships’ normal activities and would, in fact, earn them carbon credits that CO2 emitters would be required to buy. Moreover it is the ONLY approach available for addressing global warming on the global scale that is necessary.

By contrast, efforts to limit CO2 emissions by means of CO2 sequestration could address only about 5% of NEW CO2 generated by power plants. So even while causing our electricity costs to treble or quadruple, such efforts wouldn’t remove any of the massive amount of CO2 already accumulated in the atmosphere. In fact, the climatologist James Hansen believes that even if we could stop all CO2 emissions as of today, it may already be too late to avert run-away, global warming as there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere for global warming to keep increasing in what he fears is becoming an irreversible process. In other words, atmospheric CO2 is trapping more heat than Earth can dissipate which causes temperature to rise inexorably.

So what prevents us from proceeding with plankton fertilization? It is the fact that the United Nations have forbidden it on the basis of scientific studies that raised concerns about some of the unknowns involved, including the possibility that oxygen levels might decrease deep in the oceans and also that some varieties of plankton (i.e. such as the ones that cause “red tides”) produce harmful compounds (such as the neurotoxin domoic acid) that would find their way into the food chain.

However, such concerns are unjustified on the basis of other scientific studies and seafood is now routinely screened for domoic acid. Moreover, they are contradicted by the facts: there is no denying that it is primarily plankton that brought down the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by about 50% to 75% from what it was around 250,000 years ago and that it did so without destroying marine life. So the growth of plankton in the sea is nothing new or that hasn’t been occurring for millions of years. Therefore, dusting the surface of the oceans with iron oxides today would amount to nothing more than restoring a natural process in which, for millions of years, winds from the deserts spread iron oxides over the oceans causing plankton to grow. All we would need to do is to proceed cautiously by means of selecting the right kinds of plankton and where and to what extent to fertilize their growth.

Are there other uncertainties? Yes, of course, but inaction is no longer an option at a time when we are already speeding into unknown territory where the only certainty is that life as we know it might become unsustainable within 50 to 100 years. Let us not forget that about 9% of CO2 emissions are from humans as they breathe and about 75% as they burn fossil fuels. Yet, CO2 emissions from power plants represent at most about 5% of the total CO2 emissions. However, it is only this 5% of CO2 emissions from power plants that we are talking about limiting by means of sequestration – an exercise in futility!

It’s time to wake up to the facts: attempting to limit CO2 emissions is a senseless waste of time and money given that we are past the point when cutting our CO2 emissions by 5% could make a dent – we cannot LIMIT the other 95% as its emission is so widespread that it is impossible to capture. But we sure can and absolutely must EXTRACT the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. There is no other conceivable way to slow, let alone, reverse global warming.

But we are running out of time, so we need to act fast. Global warming may become irreversible and the survival of the human species is at stake.

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