From: WWF
Published February 2, 2009 09:03 AM

WWF opposes precarious ocean fertilization project

Hamburg, Germany - A recent decision by the German government to give the go-ahead to a controversial large-scale ocean fertilization experiment (LOHAFEX) in international waters of the Southern Ocean has left WWF doubting Germany’s commitment to global agreements on the environment. 

Last year, the meeting of the parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) imposed a de facto moratorium on large-scale ocean fertilization experiments and commercial uses, only allowing for small-scale scientific research in coastal waters. 

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Subsequently, the London Convention and Protocol (LC/LP), the global framework addressing ocean fertilization projects, urged its parties to use utmost caution with regard to scientific research proposals until further guidance is available.

“The German government’s decision is appalling,” said Stephan Lutter, International Marine Policy Officer of WWF Germany. “Despite the fact that Germany is a signatory to the CBD and London Convention, the government has chosen to forego its international obligations and instead undermine and ignore the agreements made last year.” 

The CBD and LC have also urged their parties to carry out extensive environmental impact assessments (EIA) prior to giving the green light to such experiments. 

Last week a hurriedly assembled assessment was made after heavy criticism of the project by WWF and other environmental NGOs, and as the research vessel “Polarstern” that would carry out the experiment was already steaming towards the Southern Ocean site.

“We know too little about the ecological effects of iron fertilization for such a large-scale project to go ahead,” Lutter said. “The sloppy manner in which EIAs were produced in this case will have international repercussions and encourage commercial geo-engineering all the more.”

Ocean fertilization with iron or nitrogen compounds such as urea has been put forward as a means to slow down climate change. The theory is that iron, for example, a scarce element in parts of the oceans and essential to the growth of algae, is added to seawater, thus causing large phytoplankton blooms. The growing algae trap carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere. So, advocates say, by “fertilizing” the ocean surface we could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and reduce the rate of global warming.

However, the ecological effects of dumping large quantities of nutrients in the ocean are unknown and could turn large parts of the ocean floor into “dead”, oxygen-depleted zones as blooming algae die, sink to the ocean floor and decompose. Shifts in nutrient balance are known to alter plankton species composition and food web structure. Additionally, the economic cost of ocean fertilization, should it be successful, are uncertain and could be far higher than the cost of reducing emissions in the first place.

WWF encourages the development of innovative solutions to tackle the huge threat climate change poses to the planet, but these solutions need to be carefully assessed in order to not create more problems than they solve.

This year is a pivotal year for climate change, and WWF is working to ensure a robust agreement is reached to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December.

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