The other CO2 problem – IAEA highlights ocean acidification at climate change conference

Often called “the other CO2 problem”, 24 million tonnes of CO2 are absorbed by the oceans each day, or about a quarter of all CO2 emissions. In ocean water, CO2 is transformed into carbonic acid making the ocean’s chemistry less hospitable for many forms of marine life. The challenges this new threat presents were discussed during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP19) in Warsaw on 18 November 2013, including the need for greater international observation and coordination.

David Osborn, Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco, opened and moderated a side event, “Ocean Acidification—the Other CO2 Problem”, co-organized with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO), the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP).

“We often refer to ocean acidification as “the other CO2 problem”, yet we should really be calling it ‘the urgent CO2 problem’. This is not a problem for 100, 50 or even 10 years from now. It is a problem now and we urgently need to understand its implications”, Osborn said.

The panel stressed the need for international cooperation in this field as advocated by the outcome document of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, ‘Rio+20’. Osborn highlighted the close collaboration between the IAEA and other UN agencies, in particular with IOC-UNESCO. Many intergovernmental organizations already coordinate through the Agency’s new project, the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC), which fosters collaboration by bringing together experts and stakeholders, coordinating and promoting new research.

The event highlighted some of the initiatives to address the threats posed by ocean acidification. Speakers included Carol Turley (PML), who introduced the science of ocean acidification; Richard Feely (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who described international activities to create a global observation network on ocean acidification; Lauren Linsmayer (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) presented the impact of ocean acidification on marine organisms; Astrid Dispert (IMO) explained climate change mitigation under the London Protocol; and Jorge Luis Valdés  (IOC-UNESCO) discussed international cooperation on ocean acidification.

Valdés emphasized that “ocean acidification can no longer remain on the periphery of international debates on climate or the environment. We have to start taking it seriously; even if all carbon emissions stopped today the acidification will continue for decades jeopardizing the stability of marine ecosystems. The IOC is encouraging its Member States to take the necessary action towards developing practical and routine procedures in order to implement ocean programmes to monitor ocean acidification and to reduce other human stressors on oceans.”

“Ocean acidification research is still in its infancy but we already know enough to act”, Osborn said. He further highlighted the critical need to bring international attention to this “hidden” consequence of increasing CO2 emissions. Despite the potential serious impacts of rising CO2 emissions on our oceans, they have been largely absent from the UN climate discussions.

“Ocean acidification is happening now at a rate not seen for at least 55 million years. The more CO2 emitted to the atmosphere, the greater the acidification and the greater the risk to marine ecosystems and all the wonderful resources they provide us – such as food and shore protection for millions. Ocean acidification is “the other CO2 problem” and an excellent additional reason to reduce human induced CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. There is a growing understanding, at the governmental and intergovernmental level, of the potential seriousness of ocean acidification and the need for it to be incorporated in carbon dioxide reduction and adaptation strategies and decision making”, said Carol Turley of PML.

IAEA/Ocean Acidification at COP 19

Since the 2009 Conference of the Parties (COP15, Copenhagen), an international partnership led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) and supported by the IAEA has been working to raise the profile of the oceans at COPs through an exhibit stand: “Hot, sour and breathless – oceans under stress”. This effort continued at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland. The IAEA booth (#97) with more information about ocean acidification and IAEA’s related activities can be found on Level 2 of the National Stadium, at the far end of the IT area towards Zone B1.

International Atomic Energy Agency, 18 November 2013. Article.

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