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American University professor presents four options for carbon dioxide removal during EENR Center speaker series

Professor William Burns of American University

Professor William Burns of American University

Oct. 11, 2021 - Professor William Burns of American University outlined various options for ocean-based carbon dioxide removal during a lecture hosted recently by the University of Houston Law Center's Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center.

The presentation held on Sept. 29 was part of the Energy Transition and Climate Governance series, sponsored by the European Union through its Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant and the efforts of UH EENR Fellow (and Universite de Lyon III professor) Aubin Nzaou.

Burns’ presentation focused on the legal issues created by the transition to carbon-free energy, specifically when it comes to the oceans. He emphasized that temperatures rising will be potentially disastrous, and even a three-degree Celsius increase could threaten 60 percent of the world’s species with extinction and increase disease factors. Burns said if we are to hold temperatures, we are going to have to eventually zero out carbon emissions and remove them from the atmosphere.

Burns outlined four potential options to remove carbon dioxide, including ocean iron fertilization, ocean alkalinity enhancement, ocean upwelling and seaweed farming. Ocean iron fertilization would involve increasing the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean, while ocean alkalinity enhancement would mean adding alkaline substances into the ocean to increase the natural carbon sink. Ocean upwelling would also involve increasing the production of phytoplankton and pushing water up to the surface, while seaweed farming would mean spraying seaweed or kelp spores on strings that would be wrapped around structures like buoys. These would take in carbon dioxide, become heavy and sink to the bottom.

While presented as potential options to reduce and sequester carbon dioxide, Burns said these potential plans do not come without risks or downsides. For example, too much phytoplankton could result in massive population growth or overcrowding, and even an increase in invasive species.

Burns also brought to attention the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, which outlined regulation of ocean fertilization, along with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which says that states are responsible for the fulfillment of international obligations concerning the protection and preservation of the marine environment. He also mentioned the potential applications of the Paris Agreement.

During the question-and-answer portion, Burns was asked a key question: which marine carbon dioxide removal option is most promising? Burns said he remains skeptical about most of them, but he sees ocean alkalization playing a large role, as increasing alkalinity helps with ocean acidification.

“Anything with co-benefits helps,” he said. “Kelp farming also provides some potential co-benefits.”

Burns said he is not sure these options will be able to be executed at the scale that companies are hoping for, and he believes companies have mixed motives.

“They want to save the world, but they also want to make money,” he said.

Burns holds a doctorate in international environmental law from the University of Wales-Cardiff School of Law and serves as a professor of research and co-director of American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy. Having published over 80 articles in law, science and policy journals, his current research focus areas are climate geoengineering and the role of loss and damage in international climate regimes.

The next speaker in the series is Joseph E. Aldy of Harvard University, who will deliver remarks at 10 a.m. ET on Oct. 13. Prior speakers in the webinar series are Professor Lisa Benjamin of the Lewis & Clark Law School, Professor Rebecca Bratspies of the City University of New York School of Law, Professor Uma Outka of the University of Kansas School of Law, Professor Joshua Galperin of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Professor Alexandra Klass of University of Minnesota Law School, Professor Lee Paddock of the George Washington University School of Law and Professor Roy Partain of the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

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