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Bringing Ocean Acidification to the Climate Change Agenda

Monaco, Ocean Acidification Workshop

There has been a 26 per cent increase of ocean acidification since pre-industrial levels, and the current rate of ocean acidification is over ten times faster than any other period in the last 55 million years. Carbon dioxide is driving ocean acidification, a global issue with serious repercussions. A workshop in Monaco is bringing international experts together to determine avenues for bringing ocean acidification forward as a dimension of a future climate deal. (Photo: M. Madsen/IAEA)

Monaco — Ocean acidification poses a growing threat to coastal communities and needs to be on the agenda of any global climate deal, said speakers at a conference hosted by the IAEA this week.

The three-day workshop, organized by the IAEA’s International Ocean Acidification Coordination Centre (OA-ICC)  and the Scientific Centre of Monaco, aims to determine avenues for bringing ocean acidification forward as a dimension of a future climate deal. The participants are looking at the science of ocean acidification, the effects it has on communities and the actions policy makers can take to address it.

“This workshop is unique in that it puts natural scientists, economists and social scientists in one room to explore the many dimensions of ocean acidification,” said David Osborn, Director of the IAEA’s Environment Laboratories.

In his keynote speech, Gunnar Haraldsson, an economist from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies, explained that services derived from the oceans were not properly valued in the global economy, which is one of the biggest challenges for advocates addressing ocean acidification. “If I could have picked my topic today, it would have been ‘an economist’s apology,’” Haraldsson joked.

“I’m happy we’re discussing the costs of ocean acidification and climate change, but it’s not enough,” Haraldsson said. “Our oceans provide essential cultural and environmental services that industries depend on. These services are unfortunately not yet being considered by climate negotiators.”

The burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere directly lead to the acidification of oceans. There has been a 26 per cent increase of ocean acidification since pre-industrial levels, and the current rate of ocean acidification is over ten times faster than any other period in the last 55 million years.

Coral reefs shrinking

Some effects of ocean acidification and global warming are already apparent, said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of Queensland University’s Global Change Institute. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which provides a protective barrier during storms, a great tourism incentive and nurseries for fish, has declined by as much as 50 per cent in the last 30 years, explained Hoegh-Guldberg. It is not yet clear how much reef can be lost without wider consequences, he said.

Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues are developing models that can directly show how ocean acidification and reef loss will have an impact on the wider ecosystem and people, and this will help policy makers make the right decisions. “I’m confident that governments will pull through, and that the world will come together to find a workable solution to climate change,” he said. “It’s not too late.”

Acids and ecosystems

The next frontier in ocean acidification research is to study its effects on ecosystems. Examining individual species in isolation does not provide enough information to establish the amount of carbon dioxide oceans can absorb without major harm to their flora and fauna, said Sam Dupont, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences. “What gets tricky is how plants, animals and the ecosystem in general, respond to ocean acidification. We need to look at entire mechanisms, not just species,” he said.

Dupont explained that ocean acidification can seem like a distant problem to the public and is not as visible as other aspects of climate change, like increased storm events or rising temperatures. The scientific community has a responsibility to better communicate the impact of climate change on oceans, he emphasized. He highlighted how a scientific study can be framed to draw the public’s attention. “Swedes love shrimp, so we created an experiment to see how their favourite shrimp’s taste would be affected by acidified oceans. We found that people preferred the taste of shrimp reared in waters of today’s pH compared to those reared in scenarios predicted by IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports. The results got a lot of media coverage and had the public talking about ocean acidification,” he said.

Involving businesses

Businesses, not only governments, have a major role to play in addressing ocean acidification, said Paul Holthus, founder of the World Ocean Council, a consortium of industry players concerned with the health of the world’s oceans.

The World Ocean Council highlighted its programme in facilitating cooperation for responsible business in the Arctic, as well as to increase the understanding of acidification by placing equipment on some of the estimated one million vessels crossing the high seas, Holthus said. “Getting even one per cent of those ships equipped with scientific equipment would give us a treasure trove of data on seas that research vessels never visit.”

The OA-ICC uses nuclear techniques to understand processes and changes in the marine environment. The use of radioisotopes, such as calcium-45 and carbon-14, provides important information on the rate and impact of ocean acidification. The Centre implements key overarching international activities and facilitates global communication in order to make the most effective use of science.

“Nuclear techniques are used by many research centres around the world to provide very specific data, underpinning the scientific community’s growing understanding of the severity and impacts of ocean acidification,” explained Osborn. “This is key to anticipating economic and social impacts.” 

You can follow the proceedings of the conference via the IAEA’s Twitter feed.

Our oceans provide essential cultural and environmental services that industries depend on. These services are unfortunately not yet being considered by climate negotiators.
Gunnar Haraldsson, economist from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies
Last update: 26 July 2017