[See also my Climate change entrepreneurship as if the planet mattered ]
Geoengineering has been much in the news lately as our Planet struggles with the Climate Crisis. Climate-change skeptics, politicians, and some environmentalists hate the idea, but one pioneering entrepreneur saw huge opportunities.
More than ten years ago, Russ George, ‘geoengineering entrepreneur’, decided to take the planet’s rescue into his own hands. He is best known for his firm San Francisco-based start-up Planktos Inc., which claims to ‘restore ecosystems and slow climate change [by] removing CO2 from our oceans and atmosphere by healing the seas, growing new climate forests, and erasing carbon footprints’. His mantra: ‘Save the world and make a little money on the side’.
Latest research corroborates Ross George’s business concept: Divya, M., S. et al.. “A Study of Carbon Sequestration by Phytoplankton.” In Basic and Applied Phytoplankton Biology, edited by Perumal Santhanam, Ajima Begum, and Perumal Pachiappan, 277–84. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-7938-2_15.
To understand Russ’ great entrepreneurial opportunity, first a bit of background.
What is a geoengineering entrepreneur?
Scientists and entrepreneurs have been developing what are known as geoengineering technologies that could mitigate climate change. In 2007, Richard Branson even offered the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25m award to the inventor of a commercial technology that would remove significant amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (it has not yet been awarded).
To understand what American entrepreneur Russ George had in mind, we need to understand some geoengineering principles. Oxford University defines geoengineering as the ‘deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change’. The two broadest areas of geoengineering remediation techniques focus on solar radiation and carbon dioxide removal.
Here are some of the methods:
Managing and reducing solar radiation
- Changing the Earth’s reflectivity through space-based or ground-based reflectors, or by changing the clouds or the land’s surface so that more of the sun’s heat is reflected back into space.
- Stratospheric aerosols: Introducing small, reflective particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. This mimics the natural cooling effect of volcanic clouds that cooled the Earth during the age of dinosaurs.
Carbon dioxide removal
- Afforestation: Global-scale tree-planting efforts or using artificial ‘trees’ with artificial resin to absorb CO2.
- Biochar: Burning biomass (plant material) and burying it so that its carbon is locked up in the soil.
- Ambient air capture: Building machines that can remove CO2 directly from the air and store it elsewhere.
- Enhanced weathering: Exposing larger quantities of minerals that react with CO2 and storing the resulting compounds in the oceans or soil.
Russ George’s big idea: ocean fertilization
The technique that most interested Russ George and his team at Planktos Inc. was another of the carbon removal ideas known as ocean fertilization: Adding iron — the sort used to improve lawns — to the ocean to increase the activity of phytoplanktons—microscopic plants that form the foundation of the marine food chain. The idea is to increase photosynthesis, thereby drawing CO2 from the atmosphere, and eventually sequestering carbon and sinking it to the bottom of the ocean. Russ’ business model was to then have Planktos sell off commercial carbon offsets.
First failed trial
In March 2007, Planktos announced plans to set sail from Florida to dump tens of thousands of kilograms of tiny iron particles near the Galapagos Islands. In efforts to stop Planktos, civil society groups filed a formal request with the US Environmental Protection Agency to investigate Planktos’ activities and regulate them under the US Ocean Dumping Act. In addition, public interest organisations asked the Securities Exchange Commission to investigate Planktos’ misleading statements to potential investors regarding the legality and purported environmental benefits of their actions.
Hit with negative publicity, Planktos announced in February 2008 it was postponing its plans in the Galapagos because of a ‘highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders.’ The US Environmental Protection Agency warned him that flying a US flag for his Galapagos project would violate US laws. Planktos announced bankruptcy, sold its vessel, and dismissed its employees.
Successful geoengineering experiment
Undeterred, Russ left Planktos (although he is apparently still a shareholder) and in July 2014 he launched the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC). He convinced a tribe of Native American Indigenous Canadians, the Haida, for whom salmon harvesting was a traditional way of life, to invest $2.5m of their own savings. The investors hoped this geoengineering business would stimulate plankton and thus replenish the fish population while at the same time secure millions of dollars’ worth of ‘carbon credits’ that could be sold on the international market.
Russ based his project on some solid scientific research. Williamson et. al. (2012) believe that widespread ocean fertilization over the course of a century could remove 10% of the carbon that humans are expected produce. Smetacek et. al. (2012) found that a man-made algae bloom near Antarctica did successfully sequester carbon on the ocean floor.
Based on this evidence, Russ and his team poured 120 tons of iron-rich dirt into the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon over a period of 30 days. The project resulted in a 35,000 km2 plankton bloom that lasted for several months, turning the waters cloudy red, thereby adding nutrients to stimulate the bloom of plankton on which fish feed.
The resulting 2013 run of pink salmon in Canadian and Alaskan rivers was enormous. Within a few months after the ocean-fertilizing operation, NASA satellite images showed a powerful growth of phytoplankton in the waters that received the Haida’s iron. Reportedly, fin, sperm and sei whales, rarely seen in the region, appeared in large numbers, along with killer whales, dolphins, schools of albacore tuna and armies of night-feeding squid. By 2014, the catch had quadrupled. In his blog, Russ reported in 2013:
This is wonderful news for the planet. It’s means that by working with Mother Nature to undo the terrible wrong we have done by administering our deadly dose of CO2 – we and she have now shown we can re-purpose millions of tonnes of that deadly CO2 into becoming life itself. And the authoritative reports on whether it works, it’s not a few pundits preaching from academic pulpits, but rather hundreds of millions of salmon, each and every one swimming home to us with their carefully recorded lab journals, their very bodies, all reporting that in their world, their ocean pastures have come back to life.
Russ was astounded to see that this ocean seeding resulted in a huge firestorm from the media and politicians. The Canadian government sent a squad of gun-toting Environment Canada agents to raid the headquarters of the offices of the HSRC. In October 2012, the Guardian of London broke the news of George’s expedition, saying it ‘contravened UN conventions’. Scientific American labelled George a ‘rogue geoengineer’. Others have called him the entrepreneurial equivalent of an ‘eco-terrorist’.
The opponents of geoengineering entrepreneurs
Prevailing opinion was that Russ’s business idea underscored how easy it is for entrepreneurs willing to disregard these agreements to manipulate ocean ecosystems. The science and the entrepreneurial business models still need to be worked out. It is true that there is a great deal of uncertainty and concern about the possible negative impacts of geoengineering. Aerosols in the atmosphere could cause droughts. Cloud reflectors could affect precipitation and temperatures. Ocean fertilisation could have adverse effects on other ecosystems.
However, according to Australian scientist Pete Strutton, ‘no deleterious impacts have been observed’.
Whether George and the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation will face legal troubles in the aftermath of the iron dump remains to be seen, but the international rules against such projects are mostly toothless. In any event, the Haida tribe announced it was terminating Russ George in 2013 but a spokesman said, ‘While we are confident in the technology, process and buy-in are key’.
- Would you agree with Michael Specter of The New Yorker magazine that Russ George is a geovilante? Or do you believe that humans do much worse than this every day and so doing something positive is ethical?
- Would you support sending a rocket into space, spreading a few million tons of sulphur-dioxide particles, and cool the earth that way?
- Which statement do you agree with: A Entrepreneurs are destroyers so it follows that the business activities of entrepreneurs must be severely regulated and that someone must be empowered to do the constraining. B Entrepreneurs are a creative force – we invent resources and improve the world — so we have to defend our liberty to repair the planet.
Source: Adapted from Frederick, H. H., A. O’Connor, and D. F. Kuratko. Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice. 5th Asia-Pacific edition. Melbourne, Australia: Cengage Learning Australia, 2019, pp. 93-96. https://bit.ly/cengage-etpp
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