The Case For Iron Fertilization

The Need For New Approaches To Greenhouse Gas Control

Einstein had said “Significant problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Clearly this is so for the problem of greenhouse gas control: attempts to reduce emissions by conventional means have not worked and are unlikely to work in the future.

GreenSea believes that John Martin was correct in predicting that at some point in the future, people will acknowledge that conventional approaches are not working and will consequently begin concerted and focused development of innovative carbon management approaches, iron fertilization among them. The only uncertainty is how long people will ignore the buildup of greenhouse gases and tolerate the failure of conventional controls.

Attempts To Regulate Greenhouse Gases Are Not Working

In 1992, leaders of industrialized and developing nations convened in Rio to begin the process of an international agreement to control global warming by controlling greenhouse gas emissions. A decade later, even the most optimistic observers would admit that the only tangible accomplishment has been to “establish a framework” (i.e. create a bureaucracy) for regulating greenhouse gases.

The most vivid failure to the Rio Convention is the failure to cap or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. At the 1992 Convention, delegates of industrialized countries pledged, by the year 2000, to roll back and freeze greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. Instead, emissions increased by roughly 1.5% annually, as illustrated by the graph on the right.

The only large reductions in emissions since 1990 have been “free riders”. The collapse of Soviet heavy industry and the demise of heavily-subsidized nationalized coal industries in the UK and Europe were the causes of the only significant national emission reductions since 1990.

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The failure of the Rio Convention commitments is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the difficulty of making substantive reductions in carbon emissions. In 1992, it was thought that reducing emissions would be painless; “no regrets” changes in fuel choices or energy technology could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions at little or no cost. By the time of the Kyoto Conference in 1997, the “no regrets” approach had clearly failed.

Conventional Solutions Won’t Work

There are many approaches to reducing or displacing greenhouse gas emissions. The most important approaches are:

  • Fuel Substitution, principally switching from coal to natural gas at electric powerplants;
  • Transportation Efficiency Improvements, the most effective of which would be improving automotive gas mileage;
  • Alternative Fuels and Electric Generation, which include ethanol, hydrogen, wind and solar generation, etc., and
  • Industrial, commercial and residential conservation technologies.

All of these approaches can be effective to some degree and with incentives such as carbon taxes or tax credits for conservation investment, can be expanded.

Substantive progress on greenhouse gas emissions, however, will require massive reductions. To satisfy the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, for example, the United States would be required to reduce baseline projected emission rates by about 33% by 2010. This reduction is roughly equivalent to all fossil fuel combustion as of 1940. Such drastic reductions cannot be supplied by niche technologies.

Switching powerplants from coal to natural gas provides an example of an approach which is effective at small scales but cannot be drastically expanded. In some regions such as the Northeast, where the costs of transporting coal are high, certain powerplants may be converted from coal to natural gas at relatively low costs. In order to make a significant reduction in US greenhouse gases, however, almost all coal-fired powerplants, including the largest mine-mouth powerplants, would need to convert from coal to gas. Fuel switching at this scale is clearly impossible for the following reasons aside from the economic impact on the coal industry:

  • Increased Fuel Costs- Natural gas will cost 3 to 4 times more than coal at a mine mouth powerplant at existing prices;
  • Natural Gas Supply – large scale coal substitution would increase natural gas demand by an additional 25% at a time when the industry is hard-pressed to satisfy expected growth:
  • Oil-Price Sensitivity – Most natural gas is domestically produced, but pricing follows the market for oil and would increase with any oil market disruption.
  • Environmental Effects of Drilling – Incremental supply sources of natural gas would be principally in the offshore Gulf of Mexico, where spill risk and discharges of drilling fluids are unavoidable consequences;
  • Increased pressure to exploit protected areas, including more sensitive areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the ANWR.

The problems of scaling up coal-natural gas conversions are common to all of the conventional approaches to greenhouse gas control. Specific examples:

  • To create significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, average fuel economies of cars and vans would need to increase from the current 25 mpg to over 40 mpg.
  • Optimistic predictions of ethanol fuels anticipate solving technical problems of efficiently digesting cellulose rather than starch (the current feedstock) and then drastically increasing the production of this new technology;
  • Proponents of hydrogen fuels generally minimize the energy required to create hydrogen by electrolysis or methane reformation; and
  • Wind and solar electric generation, already heavily subsidized, would require more generous subsidies and tolerance of environmental impacts to substantially grow.

With some exceptions, the conventional solutions to greenhouse gas emissions tend to be “recycled” ideas originally proposed during the energy shortages of the 1970’s and 1980’s.