Science in Society Archive

Saving the Climate Dangerously

Geoengineering experiments can lead to big disasters if things go wrong, which is why it must be strictly regulated.

The German Governments decision to proceed with its ocean fertilisation experiment violates the recommendations of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but there is no law against it. Prof. Peter Saunders

A German research vessel is sailing from Cape Town to a location in the South Atlantic , where the scientists on board are hoping to demonstrate a method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But in deciding to go ahead with their experiment without international consent, they are also demonstrating the dangers inherent in allowing geoengineering research to be carried out without adequate regulation.

‘Fertilising the ocean'

One of the many ways in which carbon is naturally removed from the atmosphere is by the action of phytoplankton, tiny marine plants. They convert CO 2 from the air into biomass and, when they die, sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking their carbon with them. Iron is a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton, and this raises the possibility that adding iron to the oceans could increase the rate at which they grow and hence remove CO 2 and so help combat climate change.

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how well this would work in practice. Scientists disagree about how much extra carbon can be sequestered in this way and how long it would remain at the sea bottom. We also know very little about what else might occur. Might there be an unintended release of methane, or a major increase in toxic algae as well as the phytoplankton we are interested in? More generally, what would be the effect on the ocean ecosystem as a whole? The world's oceans, ‘the cradle of life', are already in a fragile state due to pollution, destructive over-fishing and increasing commercial exploitation [1] (see Oceans in Distress , and other article in the series, SiS 31).

For the past ten or twenty years, a number of scientists have been carrying out small scale experiments, fertilising small areas of the sea with iron, usually in the form of iron sulphate, and watching to see what happens.

Recently, however, as climate change has moved up the list of international concerns, there has been much more interest in the idea, and concomitantly, an international effort to regulate the experiments. In 2008, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) produced a set of proposals for integrating climate change activities within its remit [2]. In the section on ocean fertilisation, it stated explicitly that it “ recognises the current absence of reliable data covering all relevant aspects of ocean fertilization, without which there is an inadequate basis on which to assess their potential risks,.” and therefore “requests Parties and urges other Governments, in accordance with the precautionary approach, to ensure that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities, including assessing associated risks, and a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities; with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters. Such studies should only be authorized if justified by the need to gather specific scientific data, and should also be subject to a thorough prior assessment of the potential impacts of the research studies on the marine environment, and be strictly controlled, and not be used for generating and selling carbon offsets or any other commercial purposes.”

Unfortunately, these are only recommendations, not a binding agreement. The CBD requests and urges, but has no power to mandate. There is no indication of what counts as “small scale” or “coastal waters”; that is left to the experimenters to decide. Nor are there any sanctions for violations. It is a gentlemen's agreement in a field where not everyone is a gentleman.

The Lohafex experiment

Less than a year after the recommendations were published, we can already see how futile they are. The Alfred Wegner Institute for Polar and Sea Reasearch (AWIPR) has been carrying out experiments for some years now, using the research vessel Polarstern. In collaboration with the Indian National Institute of Oceanography they have now sent the Polarstern to spread iron sulphate particles over 400 sq km of the South Atlantic, at latitude 48° S and longitude 15°30' W [4]. Whether 400 sq km is “small” may be debatable, but the location is hardly ‘coastal'.

The Lohafex experiment (‘Loha' is Hindi or iron) began on 7 January this year, when the Polarstern set sail from Cape Town . There were immediate protests from many quarters, all pointing out that the experiment was contrary to the CBD's recommendations. In response, the German Ministry of Science ordered the plan suspended while it conducted an “urgent review”. The Polarstern continued on its way, and on 26 January, the Research Minister, Annette Schvan, announced that she had carefully studied “expert reports” and was convinced that there were no scientific or legal objections to the project, which would therefore be allowed to go ahead.

Because there is no international treaty, only a set of unenforceable recommendations, this decision, which might have consequences for the whole of the planet, was taken by the German government, which clearly had an interest in the project continuing. The scientific reports were produced in less than three weeks and by institutions that AWI selected. As for the statement that there were no “legal objections”, all that means is that there is no legal framework at all governing such experiments.

Nor does it matter whether the scientific argument is convincing, because the German government has no need to put it to a tribunal. They may have felt it politic to offer a justification for what they are doing, but it doesn't have to satisfy anyone but themselves.

There has already been controversy about this sort of research because commercial organisations have seen it as a way of making vast amounts of money by selling carbon offsets. One, Planktos, failed to raise enough money to go ahead, while another, Climos, is still in business.

The Germans are obviously sensitive about the accusation that their real motive is commercial rather than scientific, and in a press release the Director of the AWI, Karin Lochte, writes [3]: “A large number of reports are circulating on the Internet and in the international press claiming that the Alfred Wegener Institute is conducting the experiment to test the geo-engineering option of ocean fertilisation as a means to sequester large quantities of carbon oxide from the atmosphere. This is definitely not the case.”

This would be more convincing if she had not also written, a couple of paragraphs earlier in the same press report: “I am absolutely convinced myself that only independent scientific studies like [this project] will help in arriving at a substantiated and fact-based political decision on whether or not iron fertilisation in the ocean is a useful technique that could contribute to climate protection."

It may be that the AWI's motives are fundamentally scientific, though these days, when research councils all over the world are being expected to contribute to wealth creation, the line between scientific and commercial can be blurred, to say the least. It would be easier to believe them if they had been prepared to seek international agreement for their experiment rather than rushing ahead and then holding a unilateral review when the ship was already at sea. It is all too easy to hide commercial interests under the sheep's clothing of scientific experiment, especially if you are not required to justify yourself to an independent arbiter. A case in point is the large number of whales that the Japanese claim they must kill each year, purely for scientific studies.

On the matter of international regulation, over the past couple of decades, we have had “light regulation” of the financial sector. The rules have been inadequate, the regulatory bodies have had neither the legal powers nor the resources to do their jobs properly, corporations have appointed as auditors firms who were earning large fees from them as consultants, and so on. The result is the current global financial disaster. We cannot afford to see the same happen to the world's environment. If we are going to permit research into geoengineering, projects that aim to mitigate climate change by changing the Earth rather than what we do on it, we need international regulation that is clear, based on the best available science, rigorous and enforceable. And the decision making must be shared among representatives of the wh ole world, not just the nations that have commercial interests in the schemes proposed.

Article first published 02/02/09


  1. Ho MW. Oceans in Distress. Science in Society 31 , 10, 2006.
  2. COP 9 Decision IX/16. Bonn , May 2008, Convention on Biological Diversity,
  3. Polarstern expedition "LOHAFEX" can be conducted. Press Release from the Alfred Wegener Institute, 27 Jan. 2009.

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