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Home / Lounge / Features /  Seaweed is a very scalable solution to the climate crisis: Tim Flannery

Professor Tim Flannery is one of the world’s leading voices on climate change. A scientist, explorer and conservationist, Flannery has held various academic positions, including director of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, principal research scientist at the Australian Museum, and visiting chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University. In 2007, he co-founded and was appointed chair of The Copenhagen Climate Council, and in 2017 he published Sunlight And Seaweed: An Argument For How To Feed, Power And Clean Up The World. Mint caught up with Flannery at the Bangalore Literature Festival, where he gave a talk on his latest project, the Ocean Forests Foundation, which intends to mobilize large-scale use of seaweed to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Earlier this year, you said in an interview that ‘people are shocked about climate change, but they should be angry’. Do you think we are not angry enough?

Yeah. Look, as a climate scientist, I and my colleagues have been warning governments and society for 30 years about the dangers that we face. And we have watched as one prediction after the other has become a reality. And we can see that there are extremely dangerous times ahead, and yet we are still not being listened to. So for me, the sense of having a discussion and trying to persuade—those days are now over. We have to move on from that to get action now, and I think young people understand that. So, you have the climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion—these are a part of a new response, where they hopefully will get a breakthrough and get the vested interests moving away from their path.

Certainly the young generation has that anger—we see it in Greta Thunberg—but do you think by the time they get to a place where they are the decisionmakers, it might be too late? Because the current decisionmakers are not motivated enough?

That’s absolutely clear. It is the current generation of politicians and decisionmakers that have to, and will make, the critical choices. Twenty years from now, it will be too late to do anything. My anger now has come about from being a father of three children. Every time I hear a new justification from the fossil fuel industry or a new lie, I get very angry because they are threatening my children’s future in a very real way, just like a predator, a sexual predator, would be. I feel it in the same personal way, because I know what will happen if we don’t act. I know how my children’s lives will suffer. This is the brief window we have to do two very difficult things at once: One is to cut emissions now as hard and fast as we can. The second is to get some of the pollutants out of the atmosphere, which is a very difficult job, but that’s why I’ll be talking about seaweed.

What are some of the most alarming indications of the current climate crisis?

Let’s understand that this year, we saw the start of what I think, what I fear, is a major breakdown of the old system. This year, the summer in the Arctic was record ice-free. In October, the extent of Arctic sea ice reached its lowest point of all time. And, for the first time we saw mass outgassing of methane from the permafrost. So, there were 10 readings this year of above 2050 parts per billion methane in the permafrost, which is unheard of, never seen before. And, methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. There’s enough in the permafrost to cook our planet if it all escapes. To see it starting to escape at that rate this summer has really filled me with fear. If we see the same next summer and the summer after, we will know that we have reached that tipping point where the consequences will keep on getting worse. We thought until recently that sea levels would rise by half a metre to one metre by 2100. Now the recent recalibrations say at least two metres and we know that at the current projections at least 197 million people will lose their homes as a result of that sea level rise. These are not small consequences, these are very large consequences.

Is it the incremental nature of these consequences that blind people to what’s going on—since people have already adjusted to the new reality, whether it’s bushfires or heatwaves?

Yes, the boiling frog syndrome. I think it’s true for climate change and it is true for politics—politicians can get more and more corrupt and we don’t notice from year to year, right? So it’s the same for everything, but that’s no excuse for not acting.

What are some of the economic arguments one can make to businesses and governments to convince them to act fast and make drastic changes to their emissions and fuel policies?

Governments must start cutting pollution very substantially, starting now, so that means a shift to clean energy in transport, in industrial processes... and this does make economic sense. Let me put it this way: if, at some point in the next five or 10 years, we wake up to the news that there is no ice left in the Arctic, what will be the response of the people?

The climate system is telekinetic; changes in one part of the system manifest instantly through the whole system. So, if you know that year is coming, why would you start building a new coal-fired power plant and put a billion dollars into it? We need to start not throwing away our capital on polluting technology, which we know will have to be shut down. Globally, clean tech is the cheapest way to generate energy. But fossil fuel companies keep on getting subsidies from the government. It’s basically a case of corruption—governments offer subsidies for these industries because they are the incumbents. They’ve been there a long time, they’ve been involved in the political system, they have deep tentacles going into government. It’s a political problem as much as anything else. And we need someone in the government to stand up and say, we’re going to shift to those investors and those people who are promoting clean energy. And actually, coal-fired power plants are barely making a profit. I have worked with Tata Power, and saw the Mundra power plant. It is barely profitable, has been unprofitable for many, many years, so the government should be encouraging the closure of these old plants and the deployment of new clean energy in their place.

Can you talk a bit about the seaweed solution?

I became interested in seaweed since I realised that it was inevitable that we need to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at scale. And initially, I thought perhaps we can do this by planting trees—and planting trees is a very good thing to do. But the scale of the climate problem is such that planting trees will not solve it. So, at the moment, we put into the atmosphere, collectively, between 50 and 60 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year. That’s 50 to 60 giga-tonnes. How many trees would you need to plant to get out one-tenth of that, can you guess?

You need to cover the entire contiguous 48 states of the USA in rapidly growing forest for just that 10%. When I realized that, I saw that we need a larger-scale solution. Now the oceans cover 71% of the surface of our planet, and seaweed is the fastest growing plant that we know of. Trees grow slowly—seaweed grows 60 centimetres a day. So, it captures carbon very rapidly and even better, there is a permanent storage for that carbon in the deep ocean. So, if we grow the seaweed in what’s called ocean permaculture, growing fish, shellfish and seaweed along with it, harvest the fish and shellfish, and drop the seaweed into the ocean depths, we have a very scalable solution to the problem.

And how would you go about convincing governments to put their money into this?

Emissions reduction alone will not address the stock of greenhouse gases which already exist at dangerous levels in the atmosphere. We need new thinking and new tools to meet this challenge. Global emissions continue to rise. If we are to reach our Paris commitments of keeping global temperature rises well below 2°C, efforts need to be made to draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

This method, we call it “ocean sequestration", has significant potential as a means to draw down greenhouse gases at scale. Through the Ocean Forests Foundation, which is still quite new, over the coming five years, we will raise awareness of this as the most effective biological system to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations at the scale and speed required, assist with projects to cultivate seaweed, and we will advocate for policies that incentivize seaweed sequestration. In July 2020, we will be hosting the inaugural Congress on Ocean Sequestration in the Hague.

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