Mobilizing the ocean for climate protection

Humanity cannot limit global warming to 1.5 degrees unless action is taken. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown this in its special report from 2018. In addition to reducing emissions to nearly zero, humanity must actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in order to achieve the climate goal. From 1 July, scientists from 14 institutions in six countries will be examining the opportunities and risks of ocean-based technologies for such negative emissions. The EU is funding the OceanNETs project within the Horizon 2020 programme with a total of 7.2 million euros. The overall coordination lies with the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel.

In 2015, the international community agreed in Paris to limit global warming to two degrees or less. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report which shows clear advantages in limiting global warming to only 1.5 degrees: less loss of biodiversity, fewer extreme weather events, less sea level rise, to name just a few examples. Model calculations used by the IPCC also show that this 1.5 degree goal is still achievable. To reach this target, however, almost all model simulations require negative emissions. “This means that in addition to the urgently needed emission reductions, technologies including nature-based solutions that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are also necessary,” says David Keller, climate researcher at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel.

Such negative emissions technologies (NETs) have already been investigated for several years with regard to potential, risks and side effects. ”However, up to now the focus has mostly been on land-based methods”, says Keller, ”knowledge about ocean-based NETs remains limited, although the ocean has a much higher capacity for carbon absorption and storage - simply because of its surface area and volume”.

In order to close the existing gaps in knowledge, Dr. Keller, together with partners from 14 institutions in six different countries, has successfully acquired funding for the OceanNETs project from the European Community. The EU is funding it with a total of 7.2 million euros over the next four years as part of the Horizon2020 programme. About 10 percent of this is accounted for by research at the Kiel Institute, in which Christine Merk and Wilfried Rickels investigate socio-economic aspects of the various measures for ocean CO2 uptake.

"Without the integration of NETs the ambitious Paris climate goals cannot be achieved", says Kiel Institute expert Wilfried Rickels, "but ocean-based NETs in particular have been given far too little consideration in possible scenarios to date". At present, model-based studies would mainly include terrestrial methods, such as the use of bioenergy in combination with CO2 storage (BECCS). "At the same time, experts assume that these terrestrial technologies are likely to face major implementation hurdles. The OceanNETs project thus contributes to closing an important research gap.

In addition, the model calculations used by the IPCC to estimate the required contribution by NETs assume globally coordinated climate policies and can thus be regarded more as a theoretical lower limit for the future need for NETs. "Europe has the ambition to take the international lead in climate policy, wants to achieve ambitious temperature targets and, due to its historical emissions, also has a great responsibility for anthropogenic climate change," summarizes Rickels. "Therefore, it is inevitable to deal intensively with the various possibilities of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere again." Against this background, the Kiel Institute is investigating how ocean-based NETs can be integrated into climate policy, which conditions must be met with regard to the allocation of CO2 certificates and which distributional effects and strategic incentives result.

However, the scientific and economic necessity of negative emissions is often met with considerable public concern. In the past, research projects on ocean fertilization or underground storage of CO2 have led to public protests in Germany. "Public acceptance or even public resistance influences whether NETs can be politically implemented and thus also the level of ambition necessary to avoid emissions. Together with the partners from the fields of economics, social sciences and law, we are defining the social and political scope of possibilities in which ocean-based NETs could be used," says Christine Merk.

In researching these questions, the Kiel Institute draws on its experience and the methods it has already developed and applied in various projects under the DFG Priority Programme for the Assessment of Climate Engineering (SPP 1689). At the same time, synergy effects with existing research projects in this research focus of the Kiel Institute are generated. In the project CDRecon, Wilfried Rickels, for example, investigates how Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) affects globally coordinated and non-coordinated climate policies. Christine Merk's project PerCCSeptions explores the public perception of international transport and storage of CO2 in Germany and Norway.

”Meeting the climate protection targets agreed in Paris is a major challenge that requires the use of new technologies and nature-based solutions. But first we need reliable ways of assessing the benefits and risks of these approaches against each other. OceanNETs will make an important contribution to this," summarizes David Keller of Geomar and adds: "The worst of all options, however, would be to do nothing at all. Because we then further endanger the existence of future generations and natural systems”.


Related scientific publication: (Mis)conceptions about modeling of negative emissions technologies

OceanNETs on the website of the European Commission

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 869357.