Journal Article

On the emission-path dependency of the efficiency of ocean alkalinity enhancement


  • Schwinger
  • J.
  • Bourgeois
  • T.
  • Rickels
  • W.
Publication Date

Ocean alkalinity enhancement (OAE) deliberately modifies the chemistry of the surface ocean to enhance the uptake of atmospheric CO2. The chemical efficiency of OAE (the amount of CO2 sequestered per unit of alkalinity added) depends, among other factors, on the background state of the surface ocean, which will significantly change until the end of this century and beyond. Here, we investigate the consequences of such changes for the long-term efficiency of OAE. We show, using idealized and scenario simulations with an Earth system model, that under doubling (quadrupling) of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the simulated mean efficiency of OAE increases by about 18% (29%) from 0.76 to 0.90 (0.98). We find that only half of this effect can be explained by changes in the sensitivity of CO2 sequestration to alkalinity addition itself. The remainder is due to the larger portion of anthropogenic emissions taken up by a high-alkalinity ocean. Importantly, both effects are reversed if atmospheric CO2 concentrations were to decline due to large-scale deployment of land-based (or alternative ocean-based) carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods. By considering an overshoot pathway that relies on large amounts of land-based CDR, we demonstrate that OAE efficiency indeed shows a strong decline after atmospheric CO2 concentrations have peaked. Our results suggest that the assumption of a constant, present-day chemical efficiency of OAE in integrated assessment modelling and carbon credit assignments could lead to economically inefficient OAE implementation pathways.

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Key Words

  • carbon dioxide removal
  • ocean alkalinity enhancement
  • efficiency of CDR
  • path dependency

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