Startups Working on Using the Ocean as Huge Waste Dump for CO2 to Save Earth From Climate Change

Flow State

Our fight against climate change is getting desperate. We may be on our way to a renewables-powered future, but until then, immediate solutions are needed to contend with soaring temperatures and rising sea levels. That has scientists considering ambitious large-scale projects to engineer the climate in our favor, such as reducing the sunlight hitting our planet or even sucking carbon out of the air, to buy us time.

And now, there's a new form of climate engineering that's entering the conversation. As The Wall Street Journal reports, at least a dozen startups are experimenting with supercharging the world's oceans into absorbing even more carbon than they already do — an approach which, once set into motion, could let nature take care of the rest.

"The ocean basically does the work for us," Tom Green, CEO of the seawater carbon removal firm Vesta, told the WSJ.

Carbon Out, Carbon In

The idea may alarm you. Our oceans already absorb somewhere around 25 to 30 percent of all atmospheric carbon, and humans' excessive emissions are pushing them to the brink. As carbon stores build up, seawater becomes more acidic, threatening marine ecosystems and rendering oceans less hospitable to life.

But these firms say they don't want to burden the oceans any more than they already are. Instead, as one startup is doing, carbon would be removed from seawater using an electrochemical technique — which, in turn, would allow the oceans to safely store more of the greenhouse gas the natural way. How much more? Up to one million metric tons, according to estimates cited by WSJ, which would be four times as much as the entire carbon removal industry has accomplished to date.

Another firm, Vesta, wants to dissolve sand mixed with a common mineral called olivine in seawater to kickstart a similar process. Whatever the approach, the end result would ideally be more or less the same: the removed carbon gets packed up and buried in the ass end of nowhere, or gets turned into a solid material that could be used in construction.

Multiple Fronts

All of this sounds very tidy. Questions remain, though, on just how safe these chemical processes will be for the ocean. And even with government grants and incentives, money in the carbon renewal industry is hard to come by.

Plus, how these approaches will scale up is dubious. Currently, their impact is extremely modest. Vesta, per the WSJ, will only remove some 6,000 metric tons of carbon from the ocean over a few years — though more funding could change that.

And it's all a drop in the proverbial ocean compared to the billions of tons of carbon scientists think we need to be removing annually. But, maybe, just maybe, if these techniques all work out and get used together, we could actually make zero carbon a reality. Wouldn't that be a sea change?

More on climate change: Grim Irony: Curbing Air Pollution Is Warming the Earth Faster