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Slaying the climate dragon with nature-based solutions

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By Eyal Harel

· 5 min read

Our greatest ally in solving the global climate crisis is nature. Oceans and coastal ecosystems, forests, grasslands, and soil are the planet’s greatest natural carbon sinks. These carbon-absorbing powerhouses must be protected, conserved, and utilized like never before if we are to slay the climate dragon looming before us. 

The world has its marching orders: the 28th United Nations climate change conference known as COP28 produced a historic consensus among countries to begin a global transition away from fossil fuels and to triple the global capacity of renewables. The agreement also calls for an acceleration of carbon abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilization and storage. 

It is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, indeed, if nations follow through. But achieving the goal of “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 degrees Celsius pathways” will not happen without a heavy assist from nature. While the deal struck at COP28 highlights the importance of conserving, protecting, and restoring nature and ecosystems, it only “encourages” and “invites” participation. We can do better than merely “recognizing” and “emphasizing” nature’s importance in our fight against climate change; global leaders, policymakers, corporates, and other decision-makers can adopt concrete actions that leverage nature-based climate solutions.

Carbon capture conundrum

Consider the challenges and pitfalls associated with the development of large-scale, land-based carbon capture engineering projects: they are expensive and energy-intensive with inherent environmental impacts and limited scalability, making widespread adoption difficult. The exorbitant investment associated with the development and implementation of engineered solutions puts them out of reach to poorer countries and communities, lessening their global impact.  

Only a few dozen completed projects are in operation worldwide and their track record is well known. Many have been plagued by chronic mechanical problems, outages, and a failure to reach stated targets. Those that have succeeded have been criticized as serving to enhance the fossil fuel industry’s production of more fossil fuels, exacerbating the very cycle fueling our climate crisis. 

These technologies should be improved and pursued, but they need additional investment, innovation, advancement - and time - to be viable. Time is something we do not

Achieving rapid decarbonization at scale

Rapid decarbonization at scale can only be achieved by drastically slashing emissions and leveraging nature-based solutions. Tapping into the power of nature, particularly our vast oceans, coastal ecosystems, and freshwater lakes must rank higher on the global priority list. 

The ocean is the world’s most significant sink for anthropogenic carbon dioxide, absorbing more than 30 percent of CO2 emissions globally. Coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, seagrass beds, estuaries, and mangrove swamps are highly efficient at capturing and sequestering carbon, storing ten times more carbon than mature tropical forests. 

Freshwater bodies are globally significant in their ability to process carbon as well. Though freshwater lakes make up less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface area, they bury more than three times as much carbon as all of the world’s oceans combined.

Slaying the climate dragon

Innovators and scientists are stepping forward with new methods and technologies to maximize the superpower of water and help mitigate our climate crisis. Harmful algal bloom remediation, as one example, can put us on the pathway to gigaton carbon removal within a very short timeframe. Here’s how that works.

Phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms that live in marine and freshwater environments, pull gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, using chlorophyll and sunlight to create energy. When an aquatic ecosystem is balanced, these microalgae also serve as a source of food for marine life; when phytoplankton die, they sink to the bottom of water bodies carrying their sequestered carbon with them. Some will biodegrade, releasing their carbon load back into the carbon cycle. Part will form fossil fuels while others will mineralize into the sediment, essentially locking away carbon forever. 

When excess nutrients are present in water bodies, certain species of phytoplankton, such as cyanobacteria (commonly known as blue-green algae), explode in number producing powerful toxins and triggering harmful algal blooms that can threaten human and animal health, suffocate vital ecosystems, disturb biodiversity, render drinking water supplies unsafe, and harm local economies. This toxic menace is infecting water bodies worldwide with increasing frequency and intensity --  a cycle exacerbated by climate change.

Remediating algal blooms using a floating, time-release algaecide to generate surgically localized sub-lethal oxidative stress initiates a biological chain reaction known as programmed cell death, causing the cells to implode and sink to the sediment en masse along with the toxins, nutrients, and carbon they have sequestered. Treating a severe bloom of just one hectare can permanently remove more than 100 tons of CO2 within days. The process has already been scaled to cover far greater water bodies and can be further applied to lakes and swaths of the ocean of any size, scrubbing enormous volumes of carbon from the atmosphere and allowing beneficial, nontoxic species to repopulate the ecological niche, restore biodiversity, and reactivate the natural carbon pump.

Other innovative water-based carbon removal methods include deploying carbon buoys, farming seaweed and kelp, and utilizing electrolysis and deep sea storage. As one example, UK-based Seafields not only farms Sargassum, it compresses, bales, and deposits it on the deep-sea floor, along with the carbon it has sequestered.

Land-based methods encompass reforestation, regenerative agriculture, sustainable buildings, and ecosystem conservation and restoration.


The bottom line is that Earth’s natural ecosystems present a wide-open frontier for mitigating the emissions choking our atmosphere. This power must be tapped, along with significant emissions reductions, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5C, let alone reverse climate change effects by aiming for net-negative targets. 

Nations gather every year for a great global reckoning on climate. Nature-based solutions can and must be elevated to the top of the agenda. Where concerns or knowledge gaps exist, let this be the year that we tackle them head-on. We simply cannot wait until the next global climate conference to make our move. The health of our planet, the fate of its ecosystems, and life itself depend on it.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Eyal Harel is a clean water advocate and CEO of BlueGreen Water Technologies, a global water-tech company whose mission is to restore, safeguard, and optimize the health of water bodies worldwide.

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