Geoengineering discussed at IMO London Convention and Protocol

Phytoplankton helps to reduce marine CO2. Credit: NOAA

The 41st consultative meeting of the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter 1972, known as the London Convention, was carried out in conjunction with the 14th session of the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) headquarters in October.

The London Convention’s main aim is to protect the marine environment from human activities and to promote the effective control of all sources of marine pollution, more specifically in preventing pollution by dumping of waste and other matter. The 1996 London Protocol’s main aim is to modernise the London Convention and eventually to replace it. The meetings, which took place between 7 and 11 October and are known under the acronym LC 41/LP 14, focused on four areas affecting dredging activities and the industry as a whole: marine geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, marine litter, and microplastics.

These subject matters were therefore evaluated within the framework of the London Convention and Protocol, as described by IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim, as part of a global action push to combat climate change.

Geoengineering technology

Marine geoengineering is defined by the IMO as “a deliberate intervention in the marine environment to manipulate natural processes, including to counteract anthropogenic climate change and its impacts, and that has the potential to result in deleterious effects, especially where those effects may be widespread, long-lasting, or severe”. The secretariat has published a new leaflet on the subject, outlining how the London Convention and Protocol can responsibly regulate climate change mitigation techniques to safeguard and protect the marine environment, including marine geoengineering and ocean fertilisation.

Ocean fertilisation introduces nutrients such as iron or nitrates into the ocean to increase the uptake of marine carbon dioxide (CO2) by phytoplankton. The benefits are twofold: an increase in marine food production as well as the reduction or removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The link to the leaflet can be found on the IMO website.

The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) also brought to the attention of the meeting that it has published a Working Group on Marine Geoengineering (WG 41) report, titled High Level Review Of A Wide Range Of Proposed Marine Geoengineering Techniques. The report discussed whether it would focus on techniques that directly impact the marine environment, it then made recommendations for a co-ordinated framework for proposing marine geoengineering activities, and the development of an approach for submitting supporting evidence and integrating independent expert assessment. The full report can be found on the GESAMP website.

The concluding actions from the sessions reiterated the importance of having more ratifications of the 2013 amendment to the London Protocol, further regulating marine geoengineering and ocean fertilisation as tools to mitigate climate change.

Carbon capture

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) or sequestration is another climate change mitigation technique. In layman’s terms, CO2 emissions are captured at source and then injected in carefully selected sub-seabed rock formations, typically a few kilometres below the seafloor. Depleted oil and gas fields, for example, can provide permanent storage for CO2 waste. The technique may be appropriate for large single point CO2 emission sources such as power stations, chemical and cement plants, and steelworks.

The London Protocol provides the basis in international environmental law for governments to allow CCS under the seabed – which is recognised as one tool in climate change mitigation, while ensuring protection of the marine environment.

During the meetings, the London Convention and Protocol adopted a resolution to allow the provisional application of an amendment to article 6 of the protocol, to allow sub-seabed geological formations for sequestration projects to be shared across national boundaries, an amendment that was adopted in 2009 by parties to the London Protocol. However, this amendment has yet to enter into force.

The resolution to allow the provisional application of the 2009 amendment as an interim solution, pending sufficient acceptance by contracting parties, enables countries who wish to do so to implement the provisions of the amendment in advance of entry into force. To do this, the parties concerned will need to deposit a declaration of provisional application and provide notification of any agreements or arrangements with the secretary-general of the IMO.

“The adoption of the resolution will remove a barrier for countries who wish to make use of carbon capture and storage – but which do not have ready access to offshore storage sites within their national boundaries,” said Fredrik Haag, head of the Office for the London Convention and Protocol and Ocean Affairs at the IMO. “An important point to note is that reduction of CO2 emissions at source should be the primary focus, and provisional application of the amendment should not be seen as a substitute for other measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Carbon sequestration can be considered as one of a portfolio of options to reduce levels of atmospheric CO2 and can be an important interim solution in the fight against climate change.”

The issue of the proper monitoring of dumping of dredged materials and dumping permits was highlighted as a compliance issue. The meeting noted that the overall reporting rate of the signatories to the London Convention and Protocol was 35% for 2016, and 31% for 2017, set against the target reporting rate of 75% by 2022. The secretariat therefore urged all parties to provide their annual reports, even if they had not carried out any dumping activities. The parties would have to do this through the online Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS) portal.

This includes submitting the corresponding dumping permits as well as the location of the dump sites and the kind of dumped dredged materials for yearly monitoring and reporting processes.  The GISIS reporting and monitoring portal can be found on the IMO website. In the closing address to the delegates of the London Convention and Protocol meeting, Lim highlighted the standout item on the meeting agenda, which was the adaption of the resolution allowing the transboundary export of CO2 for CCS.

Lim noted how this was a proactive and measured step taken to address climate change through mitigation technologies. However, he warned that this did not abdicate the importance of ensuring that the amendment comes into force and that the contracting parties should accept the corresponding geoengineering amendments.

The next meeting will take place at the IMO headquarters from 28 September until 2 October 2020.