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Experts: Include Ocean Acidification in Climate Change Negotiations

Coral reefs are unique ecosystems that support a third of marine biodiversity, but they are under serious threat from ocean acidification. (Photo: M. Madsen/IAEA)

Monaco – Actions to mitigate and adapt to ocean acidification in a future global climate deal could make the agreement stronger and facilitate its implementation. That was one of the conclusions from last week’s international workshop on ocean acidification organised by the IAEA in Monaco.

Scientists aren’t alone in raising the threat from ocean acidification; many world leaders are also being alerted to the importance of the ocean’s health for our planet. “Ocean acidification is, I believe, one of the greatest scourges resulting from the considerable development of anthropic greenhouse gas emissions, to have both concrete and global impact,” said H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco. His address to the workshop described how scientific, political, and economic approaches need to be considered in unison to tackle ocean acidification.

Some 60 international experts discussed the challenges of ocean acidification for coastal communities and how those challenges can be addressed in this year’s upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Organised in collaboration with the Scientific Centre of Monaco, the workshop considered the links between environmental change and economic development, as well as how the meeting’s recommendations could be incorporated in the forthcoming Paris Conference.

The December 2014 Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Lima, Peru, made significant progress towards a new multilateral agreement, but the challenges facing the ocean and the coastal communities dependent on marine ecosystem services remained essentially absent, experts said. “All nations, from the world’s very richest to the very poorest, are and will be affected by ocean acidification,” said David Osborn, Director of IAEA’s Environment Laboratories. “Acting quickly to address this issue is in everyone’s interest.”

Ocean acidification is a direct result of increasing amounts of CO2 in our atmosphere. Ocean chemistry is changing rapidly and impacts are already being felt in some regions, Osborn said.

Governance, governments, and legislation

“Recognising that billions of people are dependent on a healthy ocean for their well-being and economic development is the first step,” explained Alexandre Magnan of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris. Acknowledging in a climate deal’s legal text the threats facing the ocean could enable coastal communities affected by ocean acidification to benefit from climate financing, he said.  This will enable them to improve their understanding of the ecological and biophysical changes expected in their region, adapt to the changing social and economic balance in their region, and pressure further concrete actions by governments, he said.

Participants called for stronger emphasis on ocean acidification observations within the framework of the UNFCCC and to develop advance warnings and forecasts.

Kieran Kelleher, a fisheries and ocean specialist formerly with the World Bank, highlighted the impact of ocean acidification on species and how their decline may impact societies, including a fall in employment opportunities for women who depend on the fishing industry. “In rural coastal communities many women are employed in the fishing industry — not necessarily on boats and out at sea, but in processing, marketing, and accounting,” Kelleher said.

Coral reefs and tourism revenues under threat

Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to environmental change. With the combination of ocean acidification, global warming, increased storm events, droughts, sediment run-off, and overfishing, enormous pressure is placed on these ecosystems. Coral reefs have more than just an environmental or scientific value; they also have a vital economic one.

Hong Kong based environmental economist, Luke Brander, explained that in 2010 coral reef tourism was valued at US$ 11.5 billion. “More than 100 countries benefit from reef related tourism — many of them small island developing states. As the reefs decline so will their profits in tourism,” he said.

“The biggest losers of coral reef loss won’t be large hotel chains or million dollar resorts; it will be local restaurants and taxi drivers,” explained Linwood Pendleton of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The group recommended that through innovative financing, reef-dependent countries could develop alternative tourism attractions.

Addressing this issue, the meeting recommended that developed countries should assist less developed countries in gaining expertise and experience on the protection of coral reefs from damage and loss.

Modelling the biological, economic, and sociological impacts

The workshop recommended that food-web models be developed for species of interest and that demonstration programmes be established to assess the models. Protocols of communication between those that make models and those that use them also need to be developed.

David Yoskowitz of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained. “Models require a transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach, “We need to prioritise building on what’s already been done. We need dynamic eco-models that include fishing pressures and cover socio-economic impacts. Open ocean models are not applicable to coastal communities.”

The Environment Laboratories of the IAEA use nuclear and isotopic techniques to understand processes and changes in the marine environment, while the IAEA’s Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC) promotes and facilitates key overarching international activities in the areas of science, capacity building and communication in order to make the most effective use of available science.

Recognising that billions of people are dependent on a healthy ocean for their well-being and economic development is the first step.
Alexandre Magnan, Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris