Greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities do not only cause rapid warming of the seas, but also ocean acidification at an unprecedented rate. Artificial carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere has been proposed to reduce both risks to marine life. A new study based on computer calculations now shows that this strategy would not work if applied too late. CDR cannot compensate for soaring business-as-usual emissions throughout the century and beyond, even if the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration would be restored to pre-industrial levels at some point in the future. This is due to the tremendous inertia of the ocean system. Thus, CDR cannot substitute timely emissions reductions, yet may play a role as a supporting actor in the climate drama.
“Geoengineering measures are currently being debated as a kind of last resort to avoid dangerous climate change – either in the case that policymakers find no agreement to cut CO2 emissions, or to delay the transformation of our energy systems,” says lead-author Sabine Mathesius from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). “However, looking at the oceans we see that this approach carries great risks.” In scenarios of timely emissions reductions, artificially removing CO2 can complement efforts. “Yet in a business-as-usual scenario of unabated emissions, even if the CO2 in the atmosphere would later on be reduced to the preindustrial concentration, the acidity in the oceans could still be more than four times higher than the preindustrial level,” says Mathesius. “It would take many centuries to get back into balance with the atmosphere.”