Catalyst. Can Seaweed Save the World?
Episode One: Seaweeds - ancient and neglected
Former Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery is on a quest to make the world fall in love with seaweed. You could be forgiven for dismissing seaweed as an entanglement of icky, slimy, stinky stuff at the beach. But what if we have seaweed all wrong? What if seaweeds were some of the most valuable organisms on Earth? What if seaweed could save the planet? For almost a billion years seaweeds have forged a home on this planet. Long before the evolution of land plants, seaweeds harnessed the power of photosynthesis to absorb carbon dioxide, expel oxygen, and grow in abundance. We are about to discover that today, seaweeds are beginning to play a central role in restoring dwindling freshwater supplies, enriching depleted soils, and helping feed the world. As well as being a nutritious food for humans, seaweed could help us grow more fish, and it might even solve the problem of livestock burping up methane. Not only that, seaweed’s unique molecular structure can heal wounds, battle obesity, and help treat a range of other modern health maladies.
While ancient seaweeds became some of the oil that powers the economy today, by a quirk of history we’re about to discover that seaweeds might now be central to not only overcoming that same catastrophic dependence on fossil fuels, but they might be our best chance to roll back rampant global climate change, by capturing the hundreds of gigatons of atmospheric carbon our civilization has emitted over the last hundred years. Seaweeds are as ancient as they are neglected by much of humanity, but those who delve into their secrets are treated to a world of immense possibility. Professor Tim Flannery begins his journey into the world of seaweed with a mountain of carbon to climb. In order to forestall cataclysmic climate change human beings need to draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, but how can seaweed – bane of the beach – help?
What Tim seeks is to use the power of seaweed to actively sink carbon. For that hes searching for two things: incentives to grow more seaweed, and a way to keep the carbon in seaweed from returning to the environment. Tim contacts his friend Adam Bumpus at Melbourne university with a challenge: Could we get seaweed into the construction cycle? If you can store carbon in a house made of trees, could you make a house out of seaweed? As Adam takes up the challenge, Tim continues his search... Farming seaweed on a big scale would be a perfect fit for Australia and its massive ocean territory, but the industry is almost non existent today. An early starter is seaweed researcher turned entrepreneur Pia Winberg who is growing a secret strain of seaweed on the waste products of a wheat refinery. Her seaweed grows even faster - 20x terrestrial plants – because she’s actively injecting wheat waste CO2 into the water in which the seaweed grows.
Episode Two: Seaweed - the paradox of value
Tim’s excited to get down to inspect the vast Wando seaweed farms, and he has an appointment with a Korean seaweed researcher to do that the following morning. In the meantime Tim has a chance to visit the big show in the city of Wando – their annual seaweed expo! It’s a huge event that occupies the length of the Wando marina, and Tim is blown away by the immense variety of seaweed related products on display, including a mock up of a seaweed house! He meets a Korean entrepreneur who’s developed an innovative an eco-friendly seaweed paper, and then catches up with the Mayor of Wando, himself a seaweed researcher!
Back in Australia Tim wants to find out how seaweed could find its way into a carbon offset scheme – he meets Peter Macreadie, a marine ecologist who’s seeing some success in having what’s called Blue Carbon – mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses – recognized as official carbon offsets. These environments sequester huge amounts of carbon, yet all too often they’re ripped out by developers who see only their waterfront property potential.
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