Reframing ocean acidification in the context of the UNFCCC

In the mid- to late 2000s, the marine science and policy community was grappling with a newly recognized threat to the ocean: the insidious changing of ocean chemistry due to the absorption of human produced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. It was becoming clear that the influx of CO2, which results in a series of chemical reactions that makes sea water more acidic and reduces the availability of carbonate ions, posed a serious threat to marine calcifiers—such as corals and molluscs—which use carbonate ions to create their shells and skeletons. Many of the scientists, both within research institutions and civil society organizations, realized that was an issue that needed to be brought to the attention of policy-makers, and quickly. But, it was unclear how best to do that, especially given the ongoing politicization and highly partisan politics that characterized the US climate change discussions of the time.

This newly formed group of ocean acidification advocates decided that trying to keep ocean acidification separate from this policy quagmire would help to advance it in the US policy context and thus, framed the issue as a separate, albeit related problem to climate change. Ocean acidification quickly became known as ‘the other CO2 problem’ and the ‘evil twin of climate change’. Positioning ocean acidification above the fray of climate change politics proved to be a smart strategic choice with bipartisan support garnered around the issue on Capitol Hill and the passing of the 2009 Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act in Congress.

Framing ocean acidification as a separate problem to climate change, does not appear to have been as successful in the international context however, with the framing positioning ocean acidification uncomfortably between the mandates of the climate, biodiversity and ocean regimes, with none appearing willing or able to wholeheartedly address the issue. In the UNFCCC context, many legal scholars suggested that the mandate of the regime was to address climate change only – understood as encompassing the thermal impacts resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases – and not the chemical changes to the ocean. Thus, the UNFCCC was understood as containing no obligation on Parties to consider ocean acidification within the regime nor to extend their work to address it.

Ironically, as the primary international instrument for regulating global emissions of CO2, action within the UNFCCC has also long been viewed as the only pathway for mitigating ocean acidification. However, framing ocean acidification as a separate problem to climate change left the issue in a legal ‘twilight zone’ with no regime having jurisdiction over the mitigation of the issue.

It is suggested in the paper in Climate Policy that this can be remedied by legal amendment to the UNFCCC, the creation of a new ocean acidification treaty, or attempting to address the regulation of CO2 emissions under the austpices of other regimes. These proposals are likely to however be time consuming, unpalatable to many policy makers and create conflicts between existing regimes. An alternative avenue, as outlined in my paper, would be to reframe ocean acidification as an effect of climate change, thereby allowing a novel interpretation of the UNFCCC that would include an obligation to address ocean acidification along with other effects of climate change, such as sea level rise.

Reframing ocean acidification as an effect of climate change, ultimately hinges on the way in which ‘climate’ is understood. There are two primary ways of understanding what the climate is; as the average weather, or as the state of the climate system. ‘climate’ is not defined by the UNFCCC, therefore an ambiguity exists. While, many legal interpretations seem to utilize the first, narrower understanding of climate, it is possible (and arguably preferable) to use the second broader understanding. Doing so allows for interpretations of the obligations to combat climate change and its effects as being inclusive of ocean acidification.

Reframing ocean acidification as an effect of climate change in the context of the UNFCCC would result in the need for a paradigm shift in the way in which the issue is addressed under the Convention. Ocean acidification should no longer be seen as a problem to be addressed in addition to climate change, but rather its attenuation should become a yardstick by which to measure the success of efforts to combat climate change. Following the ‘Blue COP’, it is important that ocean acidification be framed as a consequence of climate change and that Parties are made away of their obligation to include ocean acidification in their efforts to combat climate change and protect the climate system for future generations.

Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb, 10 February 2020. Blog.

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