Save the planet? Here’s a good place to start

Rio de Janeiro — Addressing global warming and sustainable development is daunting: droughts in Africa; sea-level rise in the South Pacific; violent storms in the United States and plummeting fish stocks around the world.

It’s easy to get lost in all that we need to do.

World leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit should start with two issues at the foundation of our planet’s problems: fossil fuel subsidies and ocean acidification.

Each year, governments give almost $1 trillion in tax breaks and subsidies to oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuel companies. These companies are among the most profitable businesses in the world. Do they need subsidies?

Continuing these handouts to huge companies continues our dependence on fossil fuels and leads to problems that come with it – pollution, global warming and human health impacts. Each year, air pollution causes 35,700 premature deaths, 2,350 heart attacks and about 23,300 hospital visits in the United States.

Ocean acidification is another problem arising from fossil fuels. Much of the carbon pollution we generate from burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the sea. The oceans are vast and for decades could absorb our pollution.

But dramatic increases in carbon pollution from our fossil-fuel usage have resulted in dramatic rises in the acidity of the oceans, a 30 percent increase since pre-industrial times.

Ocean acidification is now causing striking declines in populations of corals and other ocean creatures that form the foundation of life in the sea. As those species decline, so do the fish that rely on them – the fish that more than a billion people rely on for their primary source of protein.

Our governments can act now to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and use that money to develop better fuel alternatives, like solar, wind and biofuels that don’t deplete our food stocks.

Committing to reduce carbon emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy over time would put us on a path to reduce ocean acidification.

Let’s take steps now to build ocean ecosystem and marine-life resilience to damage from acidification, by reducing our pollution, stopping overfishing and creating protected areas for marine life.

Here in Rio we’ve seen island nations and others that rely on the oceans showing great leadership. And we applaud the announcements made by the United States and other countries to begin working on a global monitoring system to track ocean acidification.

The world needs its leaders who are in Rio to commit to take action on these issues. Then they need to make sure to follow through – before, once again, we’re too late.

Trip Van Noppen is president of Earthjustice. Frances Beinecke is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This article appeared on page A – 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Trip Van Noppen and Frances Beinecke, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 June 2012. Article.

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