The demand for carbon offsets will increase in the coming years. Companies try to buy credits to meet their climate and sustainability goals, offsetting emissions they can't reduce on their own.
To seize the opportunity of this business, a startup is growing large quantities of algae (to extract CO2 from the atmosphere) to settle them on the ocean floor, capture carbon for millennia and sell carbon offsets.
When Adam Baske he was a boy he wanted to become a fisherman: he lived on the shores of Lake Michigan, and sea bass and carp were everyday stuff. Today, decades later, Baske is CEO of Running Tide, a company that has just entered the carbon offsets market.
Researchers are exploring innovative ways to sequester more and more carbon, with ideas like genetically modified trees, or industrial scrubbers. If they seem futuristic or unlikely solutions, that of algae appears much more sustainable.
At the attack of global pollution
Tropical forests are considered a defense against climate change due to their ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, as deforestation and fires destroy forests, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, researchers are looking for other forests to grow elsewhere: algae forests. These underwater jungles are very efficient at storing carbon.
Like trees, algae take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their tissues during photosynthesis. Colette Feehan, a marine ecologist at Montclair State University, says the productivity of kelp forests is comparable to that of tropical rainforests. The plant needs sunlight on the surface to grow and absorb carbon. But once it reaches deep water, where the environment limits decomposition, the carbon remains buried for hundreds, or thousands of years.
Algae grow fast, but to know how much carbon they sequester, and what their fate is when they are consumed, we need more research.
An active and promising research area
When algae are consumed (by fish or microbes), the carbon is released into the atmosphere through the respiration of those consumers. If the algae are not consumed, however, they sequester carbon for millennia. For this reason, understanding how many algae remain and how many are consumed (indirectly releasing carbon) is an active research area.
Research begins to show that Large-scale algae farming can play an essential role in offsetting carbon emissions. From one study transposed to our country makes us understand that the breeding of algae in 5,3% of Italian waters could offset the carbon emissions from the agricultural industry for 40 billion euros.
One weakness: no one knows how. Algae grow near the coast. But while shallow water is great for growing them, algae need deep water to sequester carbon.
Adam Baske says his startup, Running Tide Technologies, believes it has it figured out.
Mini offshore algae farms to grow carbon offsets
Baske's solution is to grow algae in mini-farms attached to biodegradable floats adrift in the deep ocean.
As the algae grow, the floats keep them close to the surface, capturing essential sunlight. Once the algae reach a critical length and weight (after about six months), the carbon-laden fronds are too heavy for the buoy and the entire mini-farm sinks to the sea floor. Carbon sequestered.
The project is still in the research and development stages. The startup put around 1600 buoys into the water, fixed with sensors and trackers, and is testing the amount of carbon stored, safety for ships and marine mammals, and more. In the future, says Baske, the hope is to have millions of micro-farms, which absorb billions of tons of carbon.
Algae can help us get to "net zero"
In recent years, the growing effects of climate change (fires, droughts, floods, etc.) are putting more and more pressure on cities, towns and businesses to reach “net zero”. It is an overall balance between the amount of emissions produced and the emissions carried out of the atmosphere.
The future of these methods lies precisely in the carbon offsets market. Large companies, cities and even entire states are trying to reduce emissions, but also to offset them. Among the first companies to buy offsets from Baske's startup is Shopify, the popular ecommerce company.