ENVIRONMENT: Deep CO2 Cuts May Be Last Hope for Acid Oceans

  • by Stephen Leahy (uxbridge, canada)
  • Inter Press Service

Oceans and coastal areas must be on the agenda at the crucial climate talks in Copenhagen in December, they wrote in a declaration. 'We must come to the rescue of the oceans,' declared Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the opening of high-level government talks on Thursday in the northern city of Manado.

It is fair to say most international climate negotiators aren't aware of the impacts of climate change on the oceans, said Carl Gustaf Lundin, head of the IUCN's Global Marine Programme.

'Very few people understand that carbon emissions are making the oceans acidic,' Lundin told IPS.

Over the past 150 years, burning of fossil fuels and deforestation has put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The oceans have absorbed more than one-third - about 130 billion tonnes - of those human emissions and have become 30 percent more acidic as the extra CO2 combines with carbonate ions in seawater, forming carbonic acid.

Each day, the oceans absorb 30 million tonnes of CO2, gradually and inevitably increasing their acidity. There is no controversy about this basic chemistry.

This increased acidity is affecting coral reefs and shell-forming organisms like clams and many types of plankton. Newer research suggests that it may also affect basic physiological functions for many types of marine organisms.

Rising levels of acidity may also increase the size of oceanic dead zones - areas that have too little oxygen to support life, according to research published in Science magazine Apr. 19. Dead zones, such as the one in Gulf of Mexico, have dramatically increased in number and size around the world in the past three decades.

'Climate change will have a huge number of very serious impacts on the oceans,' said Duncan Currie of Greenpeace New Zealand.

'What we do in the next 10 to 15 years (regarding carbon emissions) will affect the oceans for thousands of years,' Currie said in an interview from Manado.

And that is why Indonesia, a country made up of 17,508 islands, is hosting the May 11-15 conference and wants to send a message to Copenhagen about the impacts of climate change on the oceans, he said.

The Copenhagen talks under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are expected to result in a new agreement on reducing carbon emissions by a set target for all developed nations by 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

Participants and experts at the conference spoke about tropical forests receiving far more attention while there was little awareness in the global community about the broad impacts of climate change on the oceans.

There is also little awareness that coastal mangrove forests soak up large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, protect shorelines and are 'fish nurseries'. Protection of mangroves is essential and restoring coastal forests are 'win-win' situations that must be encouraged and supported under a future climate agreement, Currie said.

'The role of coastal mangrove forests has not been part of the climate debate at the climate meetings,' agreed Lundin.

Some coastal plants can increase their size by 10 percent per day, a rapid growth rate that exceeds land-based plants. 'What are the benefits of CO2 capture and sequestration? I think coastal species offer an excellent opportunity to capture carbon,' he said.

IUCN is working with experts to collect data on this and will soon be able to quantify the carbon capture potential, he said. 'Right now no one is talking about this,' Lundin added.

There is also little awareness that oceans and coastal zones have been in steep decline for the past few decades.

At the conference, the international conservation group World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that 40 percent of reefs and mangrove in the Coral Triangle have already been lost. This 5.7 million sq km area, considered the Amazon of the ocean with 75 percent of all coral species, spans eastern Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands.

The 40 percent is probably an underestimate, said the report’s chief author, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral biologist at the University of Queensland, Australia. Much of that decline is not due to climate change but result from pollution, overfishing and damage done to coastal regions such as chopping down mangrove forests and inappropriate coastal development.

'...These are destroying the productivity of ocean, which is plummeting right now,' Hoegh-Guldberg said according to media reports. And since oceans absorb about 40 percent of carbon emissions, damaging that enormous carbon capture system will make climate change far worse.

'To preserve ocean health we're calling for 40 percent of the oceans to be protected,' Greenpeace's Currie said.

Greenpeace is campaigning for a global network of fully protected marine reserves - off limits to all fishing - that would include large areas in the high seas where there is little management. Daniel Pauly, a renowned fisheries expert at the University of British Columbia, has called for protection for at least 60 percent of the oceans.

Lundin says the IUCN also wants large areas of the oceans protected to help restore the health of fish stocks, protect ocean life from habitat destruction and collapse so that they can better withstand climate change.

But creating Marine Protected Areas is not enough - ecosystem-based management of these and even larger regions is needed. Current fisheries management on a species by species basis has been a disaster, leading to collapse of fish stocks like tuna, Lundin said.

Major reforms are needed, among them the creation of regional oceans management organisations based on ecosystem principles, he said.

But when it comes to the impacts of climate change on the oceans, the only solution is a global agreement to sharply reduce emissions. While Lundin is optimistic there will be a deal in Copenhagen, he acknowledges some countries will put their self-interest first and foremost, and the global recession will make it difficult for politicians to agree to significant emissions cuts.

'We have to realistic in our expectations about the emission targets that will be agreed to,' he said.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service