One-off ocean nitrogen fertilization as carbon dioxide removal strategy?

Exploring its long-term carbon sequestration potential

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To limit global warming to 2 °C or below, the IPCC emphasizes the need for large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) alongside emissions reductions. There is a growing recognition of ocean-based CDR techniques and expanded research is needed. This thesis investigated the long-term (>100 years) carbon sequestration potential of enhancing the biological carbon pump by ocean nitrogen fertilization, a research domain which so far has received little attention. The objective was to make an initial rough quantification of the (cumulative) CDR potential of one-off ocean nitrogen fertilization achieved within 5 years after the fertilization, to evaluate its potential as a global CDR technique and for commercial implementation.
An idealized one-dimensional vertical (1DV) model framework, coupling a marine ecosystem model with a vertical eddy diffusion physical model, was established to simulate ocean nitrogen fertilization, incorporating essential processes of ocean productivity and the biological carbon pump. Half of the ocean was excluded from the framework since these regions are incompatible with 1DV modelling. Additionally, regions where nitrogen is not the first limiting nutrient were excluded. Various fertilization simulations were performed in which the nitrogen limitation in the mixed layer of the remaining ocean areas was replenished by a one-off addition. Long-term carbon sequestration resulting from fertilization was assessed by comparing these simulations with baseline simulations of the biological carbon pump. An aggregated global outcome, forming the basis for feasibility assessment, was derived by averaging over simulations, while excluding hexagons with low sequestration efficiency as they contribute insignificantly to CDR.
In principle, the one-off nitrogen fertilization shows an effective carbon sequestration efficiency (2.95 kg CO2 per kg N). However, the high and challenging-to-reduce carbon footprint of current urea production, coupled with challenges in collecting manure and the priority of utilising it in agriculture rather than directing it for carbon removal, leads to a low overall global carbon sequestration potential. Nevertheless, it is demonstrated that implementing one-off nitrogen fertilization at a location with high sequestration efficiency using manure can be commercially viable. The cost per net tonne of CO2 sequestered is lower than the current market price of a carbon credit, considering the transportation is conducted with vessels that would have navigated the route regardless.
Based on the findings of this study, it is concluded that nitrogen fertilization has very limited potential to serve as a large-scale global carbon dioxide removal strategy, but can be effectively employed on company-level using surplus manure without agricultural purpose. The initial quantification, despite inherent limitations such as the use of a 1DV modelling approach, serves as a valuable addition to the scarcity of research in the domain of ocean nitrogen fertilization. Further more detailed research into strategic nitrogen fertilization for company-level CDR is justified, with this study providing valuable guidance on optimal research locations.