As part of the public outreach actions within the BlueRemediomics project, a thought-provoking science-to-policy workshop was hosted in Galway, Ireland on September 14th 2023 in collaboration with partners from Tara Ocean Foundation, the Horizon Europe funded project BiOcean5D and the Irish Marine Institute. The event took place against the backdrop of the Traversing European Coastlines (TREC) project, within which the research schooner Tara is sampling European waters and was in town. We were privileged to have the French Ambassador Vincent Guerend deliver an inspiring opening speech at the event.
The focus of BlueRemediomics lies not only in understanding marine microbiome organisms but also in exploring innovative and sustainable ways to utilise these natural resources, including through “Town Hall” engagement with all parts of society. The Galway session was the first “Town Hall” event with the aim of fostering a dialogue between the scientific community and wider society on the crucial ‘do no harm’ ethical principle as applied to ecosystem management. A group of more than 20 marine stakeholders from across Ireland came together to discuss local challenges faced in relation to restoring marine biodiversity, the potential of innovative blue carbon solutions, and how policy can address these issues.
Town Hall Discussion on Blue Carbon
Each science-to-policy workshop focuses on a different topic. In Galway, one of the workshop’s focal points – led by Abbe Brown from the University of Aberdeen – was the above-mentioned “Town Hall” Discussion, which engaged in an ethics dialogue about the importance of science “doing no significant harm”, in the context of blue carbon, which refers to carbon that is captured and stored by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems. As part of this, a discussion was initiated on how best to involve stakeholders (of all kinds) when planning, regulating and sharing science – especially when it comes to ethically controversial topics such as blue carbon. The ‘do no significant harm’ principle raises critical questions about the best approaches to ecosystem restoration, carbon capture, and sustainable solutions. It also prompts us to consider the ethical boundaries of chemical, biological and other interventions.
As an introduction to the “Town Hall” discussion, BlueRemediomics co-coordinator Chris Bowler demonstrated how human-induced changes in the environment, particularly since the 1950s, have led to tangible alterations in the ocean. In Chris’ words: “We are exerting too much power on the carbon cycle. Our power on the carbon cycle – through activities such as burning fossil fuels – is adding a factor of 1 million to the carbon cycle.” This induces rising sea temperatures, acidification, and shifts in sea ice dynamics. The critical question arises: how can we effectively manage a sustainable carbon cycle? While blue carbon solutions typically focus on coastal ecosystems, the open ocean offers even more potential. Three potential blue carbon scenarios utilising the open ocean might be:
- Manipulating ocean chemistry to chemically take CO2 out of the ocean by dumping large amounts of olivine (olivine is a magnesium-iron silicate that is particularly good at absorbing carbon dioxide) into the ocean, which can sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide. The implications of this are unclear.
- Manipulating the biology of the ocean involves the more immediately controversial topic of manipulating biological processes in the ocean by adding nutrients such as Iron into the open ocean, stimulating algae blooms to sequester carbon.
- Introducing Synthetic Organisms: an even more radical approach involves synthetic biology—engineering organisms designed to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and all the way down to the ocean. This approach is particularly rife with ethical considerations and uncertainties regarding its effectiveness, including the risk of the new organisms becoming part of the food chain and the carbon dioxide ending up back in the atmosphere.
Are these solutions “a risk worth taking”?
An informal discussion revolved around the implementation of the concept of “doing no significant harm”. What this might mean for blue carbon solutions, how it should be approached, and what information should be conveyed.
In searching for open ocean Blue Carbon solutions, the need for precaution was highlighted. It was suggested by many that the manipulation of ecosystems through the above-mentioned solutions is in general too risky as there are many unknowns and we as humans “don’t have a good track record of messing around with ecosystems.” There was consensus that any potential solution needs to be backed up by significant basic research and that their potential harm needs to be assessed extensively. We have to look into connectivity because all ecosystems are tightly connected, and solutions should not advance without knowing what the impacts may be down the line. A strong focus was also put on science and especially on “more scientists across disciplines”, which highlights the perceived need for a holistic approach and interdisciplinary work from early on, including for instance conservation scientists, engineers and social scientists. An additional point that received considerable attention as part of the workshop was the importance of educating society on the issue from early education levels, with the process being led by trusted journalists, bringing in all ages. An issue was raised of public/society often getting their news and information from social media, while scientists will often choose to more rationally focus on what is shared in schools/universities, which highlights the importance of engaging all parts of society through trusted journalism and a range of adequate channels.
The BlueRemediomics event offered a platform for engaging discussions on vital questions surrounding ecosystem management. Striking the right balance between nature-based and technology-based interventions remains a challenge. The ‘do no significant harm’ principle is a guiding light, urging us to navigate the complexities of ecosystem management with care, ethics, and scientific rigour. This event confirms that as we move forward, it is crucial to involve a diverse array of stakeholders, foster interdisciplinary collaboration, and ensure that decisions are grounded in sound scientific evidence.
The next major stopover with local science-to-policy dialogue will be in Bilbao, Spain in October.