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Does the ocean need its version of the International Space Station?
A Canadian research centre based in Halifax says the answer is yes and is promoting an ambitious observation system for the North Atlantic.
"The North Atlantic Carbon Observatory is a structure that allows nations to invest in ocean observation as a consortium, the way they do in the International Space Station or with some international telescopes," said Anya Waite, CEO and scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute.
The North Atlantic, and Labrador Sea in particular, is one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet, where carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed and stored deep in the ocean.
Understanding its role in mitigating greenhouse gases is behind the proposed carbon observatory and one of the themes at an Ocean Frontier Institute conference underway in Halifax this week.
Scientists say more research is needed
"We need to reduce uncertainty in the carbon uptake," Katja Fennel, a professor in the oceanography department at Dalhousie University, told the conference Tuesday. Fennel was awarded a $3-million Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant to deploy Argo autonomous floats in the North Atlantic to measure changing ocean conditions.
"We need better predictive understanding for projections for carbon accounting, monitoring and verification of carbon dioxide reduction."
So do businesses like e-commerce company Shopify.
It was the first to buy carbon credits from Nova Scotia-based Planetary Technologies, which wants to use purified mine tailings to neutralize carbon in the ocean.
Stacy Kauk, Shopify's head of sustainability, said it is a bet on a good idea, but companies like hers need more certainty if carbon credits are based on promised benefits derived from the ocean.
"We basically buy an odourless, colourless gas that's going to be stored in the ocean," Kauk told the conference. "You can't see it. You can't touch it. You can't feel it. And we're actually not doing the work. We're buying an environmental attribute.
"In order for that to be something that we can rely on to allocate … against our corporate carbon footprint down the road in the future, we need monitoring, reporting and verification protocols to give us the confidence to be a buyer."
How do you create an ocean space station?
These are big questions, and Ocean Frontier Institute is promoting its observatory as a way to co-ordinate and expand international efforts already underway to better understand carbon absorption and what to do about it.
"It's about getting that global reach and integration, then coming to a solution, figuring out the design of how you then execute," says Waite.
Tension at DFO over who pays?
In briefing notes from May 27, 2021 prepared for then Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, officials were hesitant to commit to the project, saying DFO "does not have incremental resources to scale up ocean observation capacity from existing levels."
The note was in preparation for a meeting with Clearwater Seafood founder and billionaire John Risley, who was lobbying for the observatory project.
The note said proponents suggested the cost to Environment and Climate Change Canada would be $40 million, but Risley told the previous minister "it was too early to discuss potential resources."
The note was obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request.
"Because the NACO has not yet been scoped. It is not possible to estimate the resource implications for DFO. While Dr. Waite has indicated a cost of $40-million to Environment and Climate Change Canada; it is understood that Mr Risley subsequently told (then ECCC) Minister Wilkinson that it was too early to discuss potential resources," the briefing note reads.
Who has been briefed at cabinet
DFO Minister Joyce Murray, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault have been briefed. But Canada has not committed to the project.
Guilbeault did not even mention it in his opening remarks to the Halifax conference.
Waite said the project is making progress with the federal government.
"We're working with three or four ministries right now. We've talked to ministers, but also to the researchers and the modellers. I think what's happening is that the conversation is getting more intense and we're starting to flesh out what are the roles of federal agencies in such a big program."
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