How farming giant seaweed can feed fish and fix the climate



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Giant kelp can grow up to 60cm a day, given the right conditions.
Joe Belanger/shutterstock.com

Tim Flannery, University of Melbourne

This is an edited extract from Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World by Tim Flannery, published by Text Publishing.


Bren Smith, an ex-industrial trawler man, operates a farm in Long Island Sound, near New Haven, Connecticut. Fish are not the focus of his new enterprise, but rather kelp and high-value shellfish. The seaweed and mussels grow on floating ropes, from which hang baskets filled with scallops and oysters. The technology allows for the production of about 40 tonnes of kelp and a million bivalves per hectare per year.

The kelp draw in so much carbon dioxide that they help de-acidify the water, providing an ideal environment for shell growth. The CO₂ is taken out of the water in much the same way that a land plant takes CO₂ out of the air. But because CO₂ has an acidifying effect on seawater, as the kelp absorb the CO₂ the water becomes less acid. And the kelp itself has some value as a feedstock in agriculture and various industrial purposes.

After starting his farm in 2011, Smith lost 90% of his crop twice – when the region was hit by hurricanes Irene and Sandy – but he persisted, and
now runs a profitable business.

His team at 3D Ocean Farming believe so strongly in the environmental and economic benefits of their model that, in order to help others establish similar operations, they have established a not-for-profit called Green Wave. Green Wave’s vision is to create clusters of kelp-and-shellfish farms utilising the entire water column, which are strategically located near seafood transporting or consumption hubs.


Read more: Seaweed could hold the key to cutting methane emissions from cow burps


The general concepts embodied by 3D Ocean Farming have long been practised in China, where over 500 square kilometres of seaweed farms exist in the Yellow Sea. The seaweed farms buffer the ocean’s growing acidity and provide ideal conditions for the cultivation of a variety of shellfish. Despite the huge expansion in aquaculture, and the experiences gained in the United States and China of integrating kelp into sustainable marine farms, this farming methodology is still at an early stage of development.

Yet it seems inevitable that a new generation of ocean farming will build on the experiences gained in these enterprises to develop a method of aquaculture with the potential not only to feed humanity, but to play a large role in solving one of our most dire issues – climate change.

Globally, around 12 million tonnes of seaweed is grown and harvested annually, about three-quarters of which comes from China. The current market value of the global crop is between US$5 billion and US$5.6 billion, of which US$5 billion comes from sale for human consumption. Production, however, is expanding very rapidly.

Seaweeds can grow very fast – at rates more than 30 times those of land-based plants. Because they de-acidify seawater, making it easier for anything with a shell to grow, they are also the key to shellfish production. And by drawing CO₂
out of the ocean waters (thereby allowing the oceans to absorb more CO₂ from the atmosphere) they help fight climate change.

The stupendous potential of seaweed farming as a tool to combat climate change was outlined in 2012 by the University of the South Pacific’s Dr Antoine De Ramon N’Yeurt and his team. Their analysis reveals that if 9% of the ocean were to be covered in seaweed farms, the farmed seaweed could produce 12 gigatonnes per year of biodigested methane which could be burned as a substitute for natural gas. The seaweed growth involved would capture 19 gigatonnes of CO₂. A further 34 gigatonnes per year of CO₂ could be taken from the atmosphere if the methane is burned to generate electricity and the CO₂ generated captured and stored. This, they say:

…could produce sufficient biomethane to replace all of today’s needs in fossil-fuel energy, while removing 53 billion tonnes of CO₂ per year from
the atmosphere… This amount of biomass could also increase sustainable fish production to potentially provide 200 kilograms per year, per person, for 10 billion people. Additional benefits are reduction in ocean acidification and increased ocean primary productivity and biodiversity.

Nine per cent of the world’s oceans is not a small area. It is equivalent to about four and a half times the area of Australia. But even at smaller scales,
kelp farming has the potential to substantially lower atmospheric CO₂, and this realisation has had an energising impact on the research and commercial
development of sustainable aquaculture. But kelp farming is not solely about reducing CO₂. In fact, it is being driven, from a commercial perspective, by sustainable production of high-quality protein.

A haven for fish.
Daniel Poloha/shutterstock.com

What might a kelp farming facility of the future look like? Dr Brian von Hertzen of the Climate Foundation has outlined one vision: a frame structure, most likely composed of a carbon polymer, up to a square kilometre in extent and sunk far enough below the surface (about 25 metres) to avoid being a shipping hazard. Planted with kelp, the frame would be interspersed with containers for shellfish and other kinds of fish as well. There would be no netting, but a kind of free-range aquaculture based on providing habitat to keep fish on location. Robotic removal of encrusting organisms would probably also be part of the facility. The marine permaculture would be designed to clip the bottom of the waves during heavy seas. Below it, a pipe reaching down to 200–500 metres would bring cool, nutrient-rich water to the frame, where it would be reticulated over the growing kelp.

Von Herzen’s objective is to create what he calls “permaculture arrays” – marine permaculture at a scale that will have an impact on the climate by growing kelp and bringing cooler ocean water to the surface. His vision also entails providing habitat for fish, generating food, feedstocks for animals, fertiliser and biofuels. He also hopes to help exploited fish populations rebound and to create jobs. “Given the transformative effect that marine permaculture can have on the ocean, there is much reason for hope that permaculture arrays can play a major part in globally balancing carbon,” he says.

The addition of a floating platform supporting solar panels, facilities such as accommodation (if the farms are not fully automated), refrigeration and processing equipment tethered to the floating framework would enhance the efficiency and viability of the permaculture arrays, as well as a dock for ships
carrying produce to market.

Given its phenomenal growth rate, the kelp could be cut on a 90-day rotation basis. It’s possible that the only processing required would be the cutting of the kelp from the buoyancy devices and the disposal of the fronds overboard to sink. Once in the ocean depths, the carbon the kelp contains is essentially out of circulation and cannot return to the atmosphere.

The deep waters of the central Pacific are exceptionally still. A friend who explores mid-ocean ridges in a submersible once told me about filleting a fish for dinner, then discovering the filleted remains the next morning, four kilometres down and directly below his ship. So it’s likely that the seaweed fronds would sink, at least initially, though gases from decomposition may later cause some to rise if they are not consumed quickly. Alternatively, the seaweed
could be converted to biochar to produce energy and the char pelletised and discarded overboard. Char, having a mineralised carbon structure, is likely to last well on the seafloor. Likewise, shells and any encrusting organisms could be sunk as a carbon store.

Once at the bottom of the sea three or more kilometres below, it’s likely that raw kelp, and possibly even to some extent biochar, would be utilised as a food source by bottom-dwelling bacteria and larger organisms such as sea cucumbers. Provided that the decomposing material did not float, this would not matter, because once sunk below about one kilometre from the surface, the carbon in these materials would effectively be removed from the atmosphere for at least 1,000 years. If present in large volumes, however, decomposing matter may reduce oxygen levels in the surrounding seawater.

Large volumes of kelp already reach the ocean floor. Storms in the North Atlantic may deliver enormous volumes of kelp – by some estimates as much as 7 gigatonnes at a time – to the 1.8km-deep ocean floor off the Bahamian Shelf.

Submarine canyons may also convey large volumes at a more regular rate to the deep ocean floor. The Carmel Canyon, off California, for example, exports large volumes of giant kelp to the ocean depths, and 660 major submarine canyons have been documented worldwide, suggesting that canyons play a significant role in marine carbon transport.

These natural instances of large-scale sequestration of kelp in the deep ocean offer splendid opportunities to investigate the fate of kelp, and the carbon it contains, in the ocean. They should prepare us well in anticipating any negative or indeed positive impacts on the ocean deep of offshore kelp farming.

The ConversationOnly entrepreneurs with vision and deep pockets could make such mid-ocean kelp farming a reality. But of course where there are great rewards, there are also considerable risks. One obstacle potential entrepreneurs need not fear, however, is bureaucratic red tape, for much of the mid-oceans remain a global commons. If a global carbon price is ever introduced, the exercise of disposing of the carbon captured by the kelp would transform that part of the business from a small cost to a profit generator. Even without a carbon price, the opportunity to supply huge volumes of high-quality seafood at the same time as making a substantial impact on the climate crisis are considerable incentives for investment in seaweed farming.

Tim Flannery, Professorial fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australian recycling plants have no incentive to improve


Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

In the wake of a devastating fire at the Melbourne Coolaroo recycling facility earlier this month, Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio has announced a statewide audit of recycling facilities.

The audit is designed to identify other facilities with dangerous stockpiles of paper and plastic, but will also have the benefit of simply telling us how many plants are in Victoria.

It’s currently almost impossible to say how many recycling facilities are in Australia, where they are, and what they’re capable of sorting. And market forces can incentivise stockpiling material, creating the potential for yet more severe fires.

Where does our recycling go?

Australia generates roughly 50 million tonnes of waste a year, around 50-60% of which is recycled.

Some is defined as “construction and demolition” waste and recycled at specialist facilities, while a portion of food and garden waste is composted.

Most of the rest is collected from businesses and households, sorted at a recycling facility and then sent on to another facility to be turned into new products or packaging.

Overall, the volume of waste we generate generating is increasing at an estimated 7-10% per annum – more waste and recyclables that require sorting.

According to a 2013 report from the Department of Environment and Energy there are an estimated 114 facilities in Australia that sort recyclables from the commercial/industrial and household sectors.

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However, this tells us very little. We don’t know the true number, as each council licenses the facilities in their area but there’s no central database. Some will manage household recyclables, while some will specialise in materials like paper and cardboard, or glass.

These facilities vary in how much volume they can process, as well as the variety of materials. Some rely totally on human labour to sort the materials, and others are a mix of mechanical and labour.

In light of our growing need for recycling facilities (and events like the Coolaroo fire), it’s clear that we need a national registry, updated with an annual survey.

Private companies recycle for Australia

Across Australia, most recycling is done by private companies. Councils are responsible for collecting household recyclables, but with very few exceptions they pay businesses to do it. Regardless, we are charged for the service through our rates.

Many different materials can be recycled – even plastic shopping bags and polystyrene. But it requires dedicated equipment at the recycling facilities to do so, and well as a market for the sorted product. Installing plastic-bag-recycling equipment is expensive and the markets are volatile, meaning that the expense for collection and sorting may not be repaid.

When prices for material like metal, glass or paper drop, companies may hold on to material waiting for an increase, or simply send them to landfill to reduce costs.

Another issue not often considered is the location of these facilities. As forward planning has been limited, new facilities will need to be placed in rural or regional areas, increasing transport costs and further shrinking the profit margins of the industry.

It also means more emissions as waste is transported from collection, to the sorting facility and then back to industry and shipping locations. At the same time, recyclables from many regional councils are transported to specialist sorting facilities located closer to metropolitan Melbourne, as there are no such facilities close to them.

What we can do to fix it

Fundamentally, Australians want more recycling, less landfill and less overall waste. Fortunately there are a number of process that can help deliver these outcomes.

States and territories can upgrade recycling facilities. New South Wales has been extremely proactive in spending money from its landfill levy to improve waste management, but the Victorian government has a A$500 million sustainability fund that should be used for the same purpose.

Particular attention should be paid to increasing our capacity to sort more materials, diverting them from landfill.

Tax breaks and other financial incentives should be offered to plant operators who upgrade their equipment, and manufacturers who use recyclable material in their products.

At the same time, we should consider penalising businesses who use non-recyclable packaging when alternatives exist, and retailers who sell goods in multi-material packaging (like polystyrene and plastic) without providing an alternative.

It should be possible to buy fruit or vegetables not wrapped in multiple kinds of packaging.
ricardo/Flickr, CC BY

Recycling is very different to landfills, which are also generally privately owned. There’s significant government investment in landfill, as well as strict environmental and social restrictions. Importantly, landfills are not subject to the same market forces that cause large price fluctuations.

While the Victorian audit is a positive step, it does not address the basic lack of sorting facilities in the right locations, without policies to encourage development.

Recycling reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions, and energy, water and raw material consumption. Yet, apart from continual policy statements, little is being done.

Of course, it’s a complex issue. Forcing recyclers to sell their product at low rates can cause businesses to collapse; at the same time, less valuable material can end up in clearly dangerous stockpiles or yet more landfill.

The ConversationKneejerk reactions are not the answer. First and foremost, we need to find out how many facilities exist across Australia, where they are and what their capacity is. Only then can we usefully plan.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How trade policies can support global efforts to curb climate change


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Eliminating trade barriers on green technologies could help countries to shift away from fossil fuels.
from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Adrian Henry Macey, Victoria University of Wellington

Climate change will have a big impact on the global economy as nations seek to adapt to a warmer world and adopt policies to keep global warming below two degrees. In the wake of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, it is important that policies around trade and investment support national efforts to adapt to global warming while trying to curb it. Four issues stand out:

1. Border tax adjustments

Border tax adjustments, or BTAs, refer to import taxes on goods from countries where companies do not have to pay for their emissions.

This is highly controversial and problematic for practical reasons and difficult to reconcile with World Trade Organisation (WTO) compliance requirements. The arguments in favour rest on punishing free riders and protecting the competitiveness of national firms subject to climate change costs in their home country. Such taxes are also held up as a way of avoiding “carbon leakage” caused by production shifting to countries with more lax climate change policies.

The latter two arguments are similar to those that have been applied in the past to environmental protection regulations. The problem with them is that there is very poor empirical evidence for either competitiveness risk or for carbon leakage.
They also rest on the assumption that combating climate change is always a net cost. This is being increasingly challenged.

The argument against BTAs centres on the potential of unilateral measures being used to coerce developing countries. The sensitivity of such measures is shown by the fact that, until very late in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement, developing countries insisted on including the following clause.

“Developed country parties shall not resort to any form of unilateral measures against goods and services from developing country parties on any grounds related to climate change.”

2. Trade liberalisation in climate-friendly goods and services

Eliminating trade barriers on solar panels and other green technologies could help countries to shift away from fossil fuels. This is fully within the scope of the WTO and indeed the mandate of the current Doha trade round. There are several work streams within the WTO covering this area, though progress is slow.

3.International carbon trading and offsets

The Kyoto Protocol includes several mechanisms (Clean Development Mechanism, Joint Implementation and Emissions Trading) that can be used by countries that have tabled a 2020 target (European countries and Australia).

International market mechanisms beyond 2020 have not yet been created under the Paris Agreement but its Article 6 foresees them. Such mechanisms are being developed bottom-up by groups of countries, which can make much faster progress than is possible within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

However, any new mechanisms are likely to be linked in some way to the UNFCCC. There is no coverage of carbon trading under the WTO at present and there appears to be no appetite for bringing it within WTO disciplines.

4. Compatibility of climate measures and trade rules

One fear is that WTO rules will have a chilling effect on climate change measures such as subsidies, technical regulations or bans on certain products. However, Article 3.5 of the UNFCCC (which applies to the Paris Agreement as it does to the earlier Kyoto Protocol) is clear.

It uses WTO language to state that “measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade”. The UNFCCC, like the WTO, acknowledges the legitimate purpose of climate measures, including that they may involve restrictions on trade.

There is ample and growing WTO jurisprudence on measures taken for environmental purposes which confirms their legitimacy in WTO law. The jurisprudence is not static; it evolves with international thinking as expressed in treaties and less formal agreements.

Helpfully the WTO Treaty (1994) included an objective relating to protection and preservation of the environment that went further than the earlier General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This provision has already been used in interpretation by the highest WTO jurisdiction, the Appellate Body.

Conclusions

I expect that some carbon markets will develop amongst carbon clubs. Trading rules will be determined by those countries involved and will rest on the environmental integrity of the units traded.

Border tax adjustments (BTAs) are problematic. Some commentators have predicted a climate change trade war, arguing that countries are vulnerable if their climate measures are seen as inadequate.

This is now an improbable scenario. Any attempt to impose BTAs against countries which have signed up to the Paris Agreement would face enormous practical difficulties. It would also risk undoing the international consensus.

Transparency, peer review and naming and shaming of countries with inadequate pledges (Nationally Determined Contribution or NDCs), or countries that fail to implement an adequate one, may prove more effective than any of these unilateral measures. Evidence from the climate change negotiations is that countries do care about their reputation.

A further resource to encourage countries to act would be carbon clubs, where countries wanting to accelerate their transition to a low-carbon economy would link their climate measures through a common carbon price via their emissions trading schemes.

The threat of BTAs – clearly foreseen by major American companies after the Trump Administration’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement – may be a useful political lever to gain cooperation. But there are other ways of achieving similar ends.

The ConversationOne example is to require all goods, domestic or imported, to meet sustainability standards. This is potentially allowable under the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade agreement (TBT) as a type of processing and production method. But even if not, the existence of the Paris Agreement – a universal agreement with clear objectives and requirements on all parties to act on climate change – would be a useful reference in any dispute settlement proceedings.

Adrian Henry Macey, Senior Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies; Adjunct Professor, New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute. , Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Supreme Court ruling on NZ’s largest irrigation dam proposal respects conservation law and protected land



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This aerial view shows the catchment of the Makaroro river, in the Ruahine Forest Park. The river was to be dammed for the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme.
Peter Scott, CC BY-ND

Christine Cheyne, Massey University

Earlier this month, New Zealand’s Supreme Court rejected a proposed land swap that would have flooded conservation land for the construction of the country’s largest irrigation dam.

The court was considering whether the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s investment arm could build a dam on 22 hectares of the protected Ruahine Forest Park in exchange for 170 hectares of private farm land. The proposed dam is part of the $900 million Ruataniwha water storage and irrigation scheme.

The New Zealand government’s response to the ruling was to consider a law change to make land swaps easier. Such a move flies in the face of good governance.

Natural capital vs development

The Supreme Court ruling has significant implications for the Ruataniwha dam. In addition, it asserts the importance of permanent protection of high-value conservation land.

The ecological value of the Ruahine Forest Park land was never in question. The conservation land includes indigenous forest, a unique braided river and wetlands that would have been destroyed.

The area is home to a dozen plants and animals that are classified as threatened or at risk. The developer’s ecological assessment acknowledged the destruction of ecologically significant land and water bodies. However, it argued that mitigation and offsetting would ensure that any effects of habitat loss were at an acceptable level.

The Mohaka River also flows through the Hawke’s Bay.
Christine Cheyne, CC BY-ND

Challenge to NZ’s 100% Pure brand

New Zealand’s environmental legislation states that adverse effects are to be avoided, remedied or mitigated. However, no priority is given to avoiding adverse effects. Government guidance on offsetting does not require outcomes with no net loss.

In Pathways to prosperity, policy analyst Marie Brown argues that offsetting is not always appropriate when the affected biodiversity is vulnerable and irreplaceable.

Recent public concern about declining water quality has provided significant momentum to address pollution and over-allocation to irrigation. Similarly, awareness of New Zealand’s loss of indigenous biodiversity is building.

These issues were highlighted in this year’s OECD Environmental Performance Review and a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on the parlous state of New Zealand’s native birds.

Both issues damage New Zealand’s 100% Pure branding and pose significant risks to tourism and the export food sector. Indigenous ecosystems are a huge draw card to surging numbers of international tourists.

Battle lines in fight for the environment

Powerful economic arguments have been put forward by business actors, both internationally and in New Zealand. For example, Pure Advantage supports protection of ecosystems and landscapes. Yet, governance mechanisms are limited.

Since 2009, environmental protection and conservation have increasingly become major battle lines as the National government doggedly pursues its business growth agenda. This favours short-term economic growth over environmental protection.

A key principle behind the Supreme Court decision is that protected conservation land cannot be traded off. It follows a High Court case in which environmental organisations argued unsuccessfully that the transfer of land was unlawful.

However, in August 2016, the Court of Appeal ruled against the Director-General of Conservation’s decision to allow the land transfer. It had been supported on the grounds that there would be a net gain to the conservation estate. The court’s ruling said that the intrinsic values of the protected land had been disregarded.

The Supreme Court has reinforced the importance of the permanent protection status recognised by the Court of Appeal.

Anticipatory governance

In response to the court’s decisions, the government argued that land swaps of protected areas should be allowed. It may seek to amend legislation to facilitate such exchanges.

The Supreme Court made reference to section 2 of the Conservation Act 1987. It defines conservation as “the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations”.

Section 6 of the act states that the Department of Conservation should “promote the benefits to present and future generations of the conservation of natural and historic resources”. As such, the legislation and the department contribute to what is known as “anticipatory governance”.

Anticipatory governance is fundamental to good governance, as Jonathan Boston argues in his recent publication Safeguarding the future: governing in an uncertain world.

It requires protecting long-term public interests. Conservation of our unique ecosystems and landscapes protects their intrinsic values and the services they provide. These include tourism benefits and basic needs such as water, soil and the materials that sustain human life.

The department has correctly recognised that conservation promotes prosperity. However, long-term prosperity is quite different from the short-term exploitation associated with the government’s business growth agenda.

This promotes exploitation in the form of mining on conservation land and increased infrastructure for tourism and other industries, such as the proposed Ruataniwha dam.

The ConversationAmending the Conservation Act to allow land swaps involves a significant discounting of the future in favour of present day citizens. This is disingenuous and an affront to constitutional democracy. It would weaken one of New Zealand’s few anticipatory governance mechanisms at a time when they are needed more than ever.

Christine Cheyne, Associate Professor, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.