Q&A with Paul Holthus


Tell us about the World Ocean Council’s “Smart Ocean-Smart Industries” (SO-SI) Program.

The WOC “Smart Ocean-Smart Industries” Program works with ocean industries to expand their role in collecting data from the 71% of the planet that the ocean covers. This improved ocean knowledge contributes to describing the status, trends and variability of changing ocean, weather and climate conditions. The data improves the world’s understanding, forecasting, and management of ocean ecosystems and weather (such as extreme weather events), contributing significantly to disaster risk reduction, and improving the safety and sustainability of commercial activities at sea.

The need to better understand the ocean in support of responsible economic use and reducing the risk of disasters has never been greater. At the same time, government and scientific institutions have less and less resources to support ocean data collection.

However, the potential to harness the use of industry vessels and platforms to collect data by hosting or deploying instruments is enormous, but largely untapped. The shipping industry has about 80,000 vessels, the fishery industry deploys 3 to 4 million boats, offshore energy and other ocean sectors, e.g. superyachts, ferries, recreational vessels, aquaculture, offshore wind farms, operate tens of thousands of vessels and platforms, and the telecommunications industry has one million km of cables on the seafloor. Much of this industry infrastructure has the potential to host or deploy data-gathering instrumentation.

The WOC “Smart Ocean-Smart Industries” Program is a comprehensive effort to organize and scale up industry data collecting efforts from ships and platforms and ensure industry data collection is coordinated, efficient, cost effective and that the data flows into public databases. The program engages leadership companies from a range of industries to collect and report oceanic and atmospheric data. The goal is to significantly increase the kind and amount of ocean, weather and climate data resulting from industry.

You’ve said that the ocean’s potential to generate renewable energy and fight against climate change is often overlooked. What types of solutions can the ocean provide to help combat the biggest challenge facing our planet?

Given the size, scope and urgency of the changes affecting our planet, we must look to the ocean as a source of solutions to these challenges. In particular, I would highlight the ocean’s enormous potential to help by producing low carbon energy and by sequestering atmospheric carbon.

For low carbon energy, ocean winds blow harder, smoother and steadier than land-based wind, providing higher potential for electricity generation. Offshore wind is already proving itself as the energy source for changing electricity’s carbon footprint at scale and rapidly. Globally, the offshore wind energy sector had nearly 13,000 megawatts from 111 operating projects at the end of 2016. The European offshore wind industry is more than 20 years old and has grown from less than 3,000 MW in 2010 to more than 11,700 MW in 2016. The EU has a target of 40 GW of offshore wind power capacity by 2020 and 150 GW by 2030. New markets in the US and Asia are coming on strong.

As offshore wind energy project developers seek superior wind resources further offshore and in deeper waters, they are increasingly turning to floating offshore wind foundation solutions. Meanwhile, below the surface, the world’s ocean waves, currents, tides and temperature gradients are estimated to potentially provide 20,000 terawatts-hours of electricity per year, more than the entire current global generation capacity.

All the while, CO2 levels have continued to rise. The Paris Agreement requires the world explore negative emission technologies (or “NETs”) to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Most attention is currently focused on potential land-based NETs. However, the great three-dimensional mass of the global ocean is by far the dominant global carbon cycling and storage system – and it already captures nearly a quarter of human-produced CO2. So, figuring out “Ocean NETs”, i.e. how to maintain and enhance the ocean’s ability to appropriately absorb carbon from the atmosphere, is one of the most pressing climate change challenges.

Closer to shore, healthy mangrove forests, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows play a significant role in sequestering atmospheric CO2 as “Blue Carbon”. These ecosystems are also critical habitat for ensuring coastal resilience to extreme events, creating an important “win-win” opportunity waiting to be harnessed.

What is holding back the implementation of these solutions?

Offshore wind energy development increasingly involves projects that include hundreds of turbines. The expansion of this critical new energy source at such a scale requires addressing issues ranging from environmental sensitivities to interaction with other seas users. Real or perceived conflicts between wind energy and other sectors such as commercial fisheries and shipping is preventing the deployment of offshore wind in some parts of the world.

The WOC is working to create improved dialogue between offshore wind and other sectors in order to remove these barriers. On the other hand, for tidal and wave energy, which is poised to provide significant renewable energy from the sea, there are still many challenges to developing the technology that can work well in the harsh marine environment.

There are a variety of chemical and biological Ocean NETs being proposed, including direct seabed and water column injection of CO2, introducing bicarbonates to create ocean alkalinity shifts, and growing seaweed for deep ocean deposition. Other approaches under consideration include adjusting ocean primary productivity through artificial upwelling, adding macronutrients, nitrogen and/or phosphorus, introducing trace elements such as iron and silicon, enhanced light penetration, or promoting the growth of nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria. There are of course serious concerns with all of these, and they all require very careful evaluation of the impacts, costs and benefits. The WOC is bringing together science, policy, business and other interests to enhance coordination and exchange to help the world explore Ocean NET solutions.

In the meantime, approximately 1.5% of global Blue Carbon ecosystems are being destroyed each year, meaning the services of these Blue Carbon ecosystems are lost. Even worse, they can become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, as locked up carbon is released. Maintaining or restoring Blue Carbon ecosystems is a simple and effective ocean-based method for combatting climate change and creating opportunities for carbon offset credits and investment in both carbon sequestration and coastal resilience.