At any given time, there are roughly 50,000 different shipping vessels traversing open waters.
Given the volume and sheer size of these freights, the maritime shipping industry is responsible for 3-4% of the earth’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
This makes it the sixth-largest source of emissions worldwide, emitting a similar amount as the entire countries of Japan and Germany, respectively.
However, there are a few startups devising plans to not just change the harm caused by this industry, but to transform it into a big part of the climate change solution.
Unfortunately, this is not necessarily something the entire scientific community is celebrating, and it brings to the forefront ethical questions surrounding for-profit companies deploying experimental business plans at the potential cost of the environment.
If successful, the companies responsible will surely receive financial support beyond their wildest imaginations. If unsuccessful, it could just have the entirely opposite of its intended effect and further exacerbate the climate problem.
The basis for this proposed approach stems from a then-controversial 1988 scientific study now accepted as more or less fact.
During a lecture, oceanographer John Martin said, “Give me half a tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.”
In the most simple explain-it-like-I’m-5 terms possible, the proposed work by the startup Blue Dot Change involves these aforementioned shipping vessels releasing iron-rich particles into the atmosphere via their exhaust streams.
These iron particles, which contain chloride, would theoretically act to convert the methane in the atmosphere into carbon dioxide. Considering that methane is 80X more harmful to the environment, this would be a big deal.
However, the “theoretically” part of this equation is the most problematic, and there are a lot of people who feel releasing these particles into the atmosphere without certainty about their impact is not just an unnecessary gamble, but a potentially calamitous one.
“My head is spinning by the immediacy of the leap from ‘Wow, this is an exciting area of research’ … to ‘We’re testing it now, we know it will work, and we’re creating a for-profit,'” UCLA environmental law professor Ted Parson told MIT Technology Review.
There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding this proposal, and for many, that is precisely the reason it shouldn’t be applied in the real world.
Of course, for the startups involved, that unknown is precisely the opportunity they’re putting on a pedestal.
But it raises ethical questions about the nature of climate technology in the world of startups, and while these companies will undoubtedly play a critical role in that fight, the other side of the coin shows the possibility of undue effects.
Blue Dot Change founder David Henkel-Wallace says he hopes to develop the ability to remove 100 million tons of methane per year by 2027 by using more than 3,000 shipping vessels.
For Henkel-Wallace, simply approaching climate change from the perspective of limiting rising temperatures to 2-degrees Celsius is insufficient. He aims to restore the climate to its previous levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases, before the industrial revolution took hold.
It’s a lofty goal that could produce lifechanging rewards. That said, the risk involved is far from negligible.
That’s what makes this such an interesting case study for startups. Click here to read the full MIT Technology Review piece about this dilemma.