South Africa’s stance on ocean acidification

I recently attended the 14th meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and Law of the Sea held from 17 to 20 June 2013 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York as part of the South African government’s delegation. The meeting focused on the “impacts of ocean acidification on the marine environment”. Our delegation, like other delegations, was very elated that the meeting was focused on this important topic.

In the meeting, our delegation expressed its belief that the vast increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere leads to CO2 increase in the ocean, consequently leading to the acidification of the oceans. It was the view of our delegation that the ocean acidification resulting from climate change is a global threat to the ocean and coastal ecosystems. It was our further view that if oceans become more acidic, it will critically threaten the functioning of the marine habitats that are so effective at taking up atmospheric CO2.

Our delegation being the member of G77 and China aligned itself with the position of the group on the ocean acidification. G77 and China believes that the high level of acidity in the ocean has placed great stress on the marine ecosystem, thereby directly impacting coral reefs, mollusks, and crustaceans, and will have a negative impact on fish stocks. The group also believes that small island and coastal communities that rely heavily on artisanal fisheries as a major food source, and on reefs as a major tourist attraction, stand to suffer significant social and economic losses as a result of ocean acidification.

Our delegation noted, however, that over the last decade, there has been much focus on studying the potential impacts of ocean acidification. Since sustained efforts to monitor ocean acidification worldwide are at their infancy stage, and currently impossible to predict exactly how ocean acidification impacts will cascade throughout the marine food chain and affect the overall structure of marine ecosystem. Our delegation recommended to the meeting that, in realization of the environmental support that oceans afford the planet, states must not seek “quick fix” solutions. Most importantly, we indicated that there must be extreme caution exercised in discussions on ocean fertilization and ocean geo-engineering.

Our delegation, being part of the developing world and with so many of our people immediately linked to the functions of the environment and oceans, believes that it will directly receive the undiluted impact of any unforeseen and unintended negative consequences of large scale of ocean fertilization or geo-engineering. Our plea was that while we must equitably realize all the potential of oceans, we must not irresponsibly alter the functioning of natural systems, without appreciating the full range of impacts.

Finally, our delegation recalled paragraph 166 of the Rio+20 outcomes titled the “The future we want”, which called for states to support initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources and reiterated the need to work collectively to prevent further ocean acidification; enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems and of the communities whose livelihoods depend on them; and support marine scientific research, monitoring, and observation of ocean acidification and particularly vulnerable ecosystems, including through enhanced international cooperation in this regard. Our delegation welcomed the establishment of the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre at the International Atomic Energy Agency Environmental Laboratories in Monaco. The Centre serves the scientific community as well as policy makers, universities, media and the general public by facilitating, promoting and communicating global actions on ocean acidification.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation or the South African Government.

Michael Kabai, Foreign Policy Journal, 15 July 2013. Article.

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