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A carbon removal system, especially one that intervenes in the natural environment, should seek to achieve the highest climatic benefit while minimizing any adverse localized impacts. The system should be designed to have a net positive impact, inclusive of benefits to the climate, ecosystem, and affected communities; it should be designed to be deployed safely, with appropriate safeguard mechanisms and controls in place; and, while starting small, it should be designed for scalability, such that it has the potential to scale to the size of the problem.
From that foundation, a set of key system design principles can be established. The principles outlined below are non-comprehensive and may vary based on project type, but can serve to guide the development of a carbon removal system from initial research to eventual operational deployments.
- Net positive environmental and ecological impact: The carbon removal system must be designed to have a measurable net positive environmental and ecological impact, meaning that the benefits of the intervention must outweigh any potential negative impacts as evaluated by a third party audited environmental impact assessment (EIA). Where possible, any potential negative impacts must be proactively identified and mitigated prior to deployment.
- Positive socioeconomic impact: The system must be designed to have a measurable positive impact on communities that are most vulnerable to climate change, and subject to input and feedback from local stakeholders directly connected to planned research and operational sites.
- Non-exogenous materials: The system will utilize materials that are non-exogenous to the ocean (in this case, regionally native species of macroalgae, minerals that are distributed throughout the world’s oceans such as CaCO3, and terrestrial biomass that already enters the oceans in vast quantities through rivers and other natural pathways). To the extent possible, all algae species within the system should be native to the location where they are deployed, limiting invasive species risk.
- Natural products: The system should minimize the use of non-natural products, particularly plastics, including in any data collection or monitoring hardware deployed.
- Location selection: The system deployment locations are targeted to affect the highest benefit for ocean health, coastal communities, and system efficiency, and factors including but not limited to: carbon removal duration, system performance, the health of the ecosystem, coastal community perspectives (including Indigenous Peoples and Tribal Nations) near operational sites, and possible conflicts with other ocean-based operations. Where available, locations should be considered within the context of Sustainable Ocean Plans.
- Staged progression towards scale: The system must be designed such that as certainty around intervention outcomes and benefits increases, deployments can be incrementally scaled in both volume and complexity in a responsible and sustainable manner.
- A binary switch: The system must be designed with the capacity to be turned off or removed if necessary to minimize the risk of any long-lasting negative effects.
- Intervention duration control: The system must be designed with the ability to control for the amount of time it interacts with the natural environment.
- Intervention size, density, and distribution control: The system is designed such that these factors can be controlled and iterated upon to optimize system performance.
- Cost effective: The system is designed to be deployed at the lowest cost possible.
- Simple: The system should be as simple as possible, and complexity should only be added to reduce risk and increase efficiency.
- Quantifiable: The system must be measurable and modelable so that impacts and performance can be accurately assessed with known levels of uncertainty.
- Auditable: All processes and quantifications of impact must be auditable by a qualified independent third party so that outcomes can be effectively evaluated in a transparent manner, building trust in the underlying system and results.
- Utilizing existing infrastructure: The system should be designed to leverage existing infrastructure (such as underutilized ports or shipping assets), and new infrastructure should be multimodal if possible.
- Minimal slow carbon inputs: The system must be designed with the least amount of slow carbon energy inputs possible.
In seeking to adhere to these principles, the system described in this protocol has been designed to be adaptable to dynamic ocean conditions, can leverage multiple natural pathways for carbon removal, is comprised of readily available natural materials, and is simple in its structure to enable flexibility, mass-producibility, and minimal use of anthropogenic inputs. The small unit size of the carbon buoys enables efficient manufacturing that can integrate a range of substances and components, which are dispersed by natural processes over a widely distributed geographic area, not unlike how the wind carries seeds over long distances. This low-density distribution of buoys limits the potential for negative localized impact while maximizing potential scale. This system also utilizes existing natural energetic pathways, including ocean currents, photosynthesis, and gravity, and has the potential to be deployed at scale without significant land-use tradeoffs, energy consumption, or operational technologies that may require costly maintenance and upkeep in the open ocean.
Figure 2: Illustrative multi-pathway carbon removal system flow.
The multi-pathway design and system flexibility means that the optimal intervention for each deployment may differ, with initial deployments acting as a baseline data set for evaluating changes. As an example, different terrestrial biomass sources (wood species and other biomass residues) or sources of alkalinity may be procured locally, saving transportation emissions, or ensuring a better fit to a specific geography or season.