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Our ocean has incredible potential for carbon capture. But we can’t afford to take it for granted. In the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, we asked several leading experts how we can improve the health of the ocean – and harness its ability to combat climate change.
Salman Mahdi, Global Vice Chairman Deutsche Bank International Private Bank, hosted a fascinating discussion to discuss how the oceans can help us limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has absorbed a quarter of all carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. But the complex systems that make our planet’s waters so effective at storing carbon are being compromised.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, explained the urgency of the situation and our potential escape routes. Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) at the University of Edinburgh, revealed the technologies that could help us keep climate change under control. Mahua Acharya, CEO of Convergence Energy Services Limited (CESL), suggested how the public and private sectors might work together to solve the problem.
Finally, Christian Nolting, Global Chief Investment Officer for Deutsche Bank’s Private Bank, drew the threads together to offer an investment perspective on the remarks made by the panel.
How the ocean is our ally in the fight against climate change
Rising sea levels are long-established as the one of the main dangers of global warming. The potential power of the ocean to help is less well documented but its immense size and capacity could be its greatest assets.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said the ocean can be used to make big cuts in carbon emissions “with a little bit of work”. The potential is huge, he explained. And that relatively easily identifiable reductions could account for 21 per cent of the emissions gap needed to keep the world on course to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“We tend to ponder on the gloomy aspects,” he said, “but, in fact, there are these opportunities, like scaling up renewable energy in the ocean … Floating solar and floating wind could provide as much as five gigatons of carbon equivalents each year in emission reductions.”
Then there is shipping, where a move to hydrogen engines and away from diesel could curtail one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas. And protecting natural areas of carbon storage within and at the edge of the seas, including kelp forests and mangrove swamps, would leave significant amounts of carbon in the ground.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg’s suggestions came from a project involving around 20 experts looking at how to see the ocean as an ally rather than a victim of climate change. “We scratched the surface. We didn’t have to think so terribly radically.”
This optimism comes as the impact of rising temperatures looks to be showing up in natural processes such as the water cycle, where increased moisture content in the atmosphere has caused the recent dramatic heavy rains – or inundation events – which caused fatal flooding in Germany and parts of Asia.
Expertise from the oil and gas sector could help store carbon
Professor Stuart Haszeldine spoke of adapting and improving technology from the fossil fuel industry to inject captured carbon into rocks, where it can be safely stored “for very, very long periods of time geologically.”
He issued a call for action, calling it “absolutely critical and absolutely urgent … we should have started 30 or 40 years ago”. He pointed to the UK, which has halved carbon emissions since 1990, as an example of the progress that can be made but remained “unfortunately pessimistic” about reaching global limits on rising temperatures.
“It’s up to politicians and governments to find and explain the benefits to their citizens and voters and then enact this in a very large industrial scale,” he said.
The potential use of the ocean itself for carbon storage is a scientific possibility but remains “off limits” and is seen as a “last resort” measure, not least because this “one-way transit for carbon dioxide” could be “difficult to reverse if we think we have made a mistake”.
Scaling up carbon reduction using public, private and financial initiatives
Mahua Acharya explained how a combination of the public and private sectors could help to achieve the scale needed to boost green technologies and market solutions for cutting carbon emissions.
As she explained, much of her time is currently spent supporting the expansion of “electric mobility”, the use of more sustainably powered vehicles across India, from privately used two-wheelers up to public transit systems. While states across the country are developing incentives for greener transport, she also noted popular demand for it: “People are just getting fed up with pollution and diesel prices!”
She pointed to areas where existing expertise could be better applied to generate sustainable improvements. “We don’t think innovatively enough with finance. The world of finance has a lot of structures you can apply to create projects that make economic sense … if there is a commercial case, there is a market as big as it can get.”
The world’s carbon trading system, designed to incentivise reductions in private sector emissions, was she said “patchwork” in nature. “There is no the carbon market. There are many carbon markets … What carbon markets need to do right now is talk to each other and link up.”
Working with global market forces to fight climate change
Christian Nolting ended the discussion by explaining how market forces might be used to disincentivise carbon emissions and an effective pricing mechanism would need to be ‘borderless’.
He looked at rising emissions prices on Europe’s established carbon markets, and the development of similar price mechanism in China. “It’s very important that we have a clear and transparent price across all carbon markets so this mechanism can then work for investors.”
Further into the future, he mentioned increasing demand for supply chain transparency as companies move to control the emissions they are responsible for. The development of sustainable commodity products and even methods of carbon capture were also covered.
“We need something [to function as a] carbon sink… the ocean is the biggest carbon sink, that’s why the ocean is so important… Investors need to consider these non-financial factors in their research. How do you know your portfolio’s carbon intensity and what are the consequences?”
With special thanks to our expert speakers: Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland; Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) at the University of Edinburgh; Mahua Acharya, CEO of Convergence Energy Services Limited (CESL); and Christian Nolting, Global Chief Investment Officer, Deutsche Bank Private Bank.