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Expert: Innovative startups will solve climate crisis

Mark Parker



Dr. William Burns, founding director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy at American University in Washington, D.C., gave a presentation at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Friday. Photos by Mark Parker.

Like much of the city and state, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s waterfront campus is uniquely susceptible to climate change effects, particularly rising sea levels.

Unlike many other areas nationwide, the surrounding Innovation District is distinctively suited to foster solutions.

The roughly one-square-mile area around the campus is home to a plethora of marine-based state and federal agencies. However, a leading national expert on environmental sustainability and carbon dioxide removal technologies believes the district’s burgeoning innovation-focused companies could provide much-needed answers.

“Companies here, especially with the kind of ecosystem you have that would allow you to test some of these things at a small scale … would allow companies to look at different sorts of approaches,” said Dr. William Burns. “And it’s been estimated that this industry – when we get to the year 2040 or 2050 – could be somewhere between $3 trillion to $10 trillion.

“That would be worth what the fossil fuel industry is worth at the time – combined.”

Burns is a founding director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy at American University in Washington, D.C. He is also a visiting Environmental Policy and Culture and Energy and Sustainability professor at Chicago’s Northwestern University.

Dr. Heather O’Leary, a USFSP anthropologist who recently helped the United Nations develop a landmark water policy, extended the invitation to Burns. He discussed new marine-based carbon removal technologies, though each features complex challenges.

Burns began his presentation by painting a bleak, data-driven picture about a hundred feet from Bayboro Harbor.

“We’re now on track for temperature increases from somewhere between 2.4 to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” Burns said. “Temperature increases of this magnitude would be catastrophic both in terms of human ecosystems, as well as institutions.”

A College of Marine Science student catches bait fish in Bayboro Harbor.

He noted a two-to-three-degree increase would kill most of the world’s coral reefs, causing at least a fifth of all ocean-based life to disappear. It would also significantly increase disease and decrease crop production.

Burns said recently established science shows that “extremely serious” climate change effects will occur if Earth becomes even 1.5 degrees warmer. Since societies have spectacularly failed to reduce carbon emissions – it continues rising – he said global leaders are now focusing on a “Plan B.”

Many scientists hope to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in geologic, terrestrial or oceanic reservoirs. It could also go into industrial or consumer products.

“However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious from an economic standpoint, a technological standpoint and a sustainability standpoint that those approaches alone won’t get us to where we need to be,” Burns added.

He explained that humans will have to annually remove between five and 16 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the year 2050. That is equivalent to the weight of all the world’s species, excluding humans.

Burns said oceans could store about 40,000 gigatons, ten times more than terrestrial sources. Scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs must now figure out how to make the methods work without destroying ecosystems and the economy.

Pumping oceans full of iron is the most tested of the three novel approaches. That could stimulate phytoplankton growth, which absorbs carbon through photosynthesis.

Phytoplankton takes some of the carbon down to the bottom of the ocean with them when they die. As with all the potential marine-based methods, there is a myriad of potential risks that could outweigh any benefits.

Burns said the initiative receiving the most research funding is alkalinity enhancement. He explained that shell-based species could absorb the resulting compound and take the carbon aspect to the ocean floor when they die.

The method’s greatest challenge is the cost, and preliminary studies show it might not create much of a benefit. “One of the things that are clear is that we don’t know a lot at this point,” Burns said.

The third approach is ocean upwelling, which involves drilling pipes into the sea floor. The goal is to pump nutrients in sediment to the surface and increase phytoplankton growth, similar to the iron fertilization method.

An additional risk with that potential solution is that it could release carbon dioxide stored in ocean sediment into the atmosphere, mitigating any benefits.

Massive seaweed farms were one of four potential carbon dioxide removal solutions, each with complex challenges.

Seaweed farming on a massive scale is the final novel removal process Burns discussed. Naturally occurring seagrasses annually eliminate about 170 million tons of carbon dioxide.

While “that is nowhere near what we need,” he noted the goal is to accelerate the natural process exponentially.

“There are a number of companies that have received substantial amounts of money, hundreds of millions of dollars now, for this approach,” Burns said. “Including getting funding from Microsoft, Stripe and Spotify.”

The problem with that method is that it would require enormous seaweed farms along the world’s coastal communities, severely impacting tourism and fisheries. Open ocean systems using buoys would likely disrupt delicate ecosystems.

However, Burns believes new, innovative companies can strike a balance and identify solutions.

“Small companies are usually the ones – as is true in almost every sector – these ultimately become the Apples, the Microsofts,” Burns said. “Even U.S. Steel started off at the same kind of scale. There are tremendous opportunities here if we do it right.”




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