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Ocean Acidification from Climate Change Could Cost $1 Trillion

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The United Nations Environment Programme and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) released a report this week at a conference in Korea, compiling studies on the impact of increased ocean acidification, caused by absorbing carbon dioxide, on the marine and coastal ecosystems. The report updated a 2009 report, since the amount of research into ocean acidification has grown, along with concerns about the effect it is having on marine organisms and the economies dependent on them.

New research demonstrates threats to marine ecosystems but growing awareness points to solutions. Photo Credit: Convention on Biological Diversity

"The oceans are facing major threats due to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," said CBD's executive secretary Braulio Ferreira de Souzo Dias in the report's introduction. "In addition to driving global climate change, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide affect ocean chemistry, impacting marine ecosystems and compromises the health of the oceans and their ability to provide important services to the global community. The impacts of ocean acidification are beginning to be felt in some areas, but future projections indicate even more broad-reaching deleterious impacts if action is not taken."

The report finds that ocean acidification has increased about 26 percent in the past 200 years, absorbing more than a quarter of the carbon released by human activity. "Ocean acidification is a direct result of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations due to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, cement production and other human activities," it says.

It points out that the absorption of carbon by the ocean has significant benefits: by absorbing more than a quarter of human-produced carbon emissions, it has substantially slowed climate change. But that's offset by the negative impact on seawater chemistry and its effect on marine life, as well as the economies and communities dependent on it.

"It is now nearly inevitable that within 50 to 100 years, continued anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will further increase ocean acidity to levels that will have widespread impacts, mostly deleterious, on marine organisms and ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide.," says the report. "Marine calcifying organisms seem particularly at risk, since additional energy will be required to form shells and skeletons, and in many ocean areas, unprotected shells and skeletons will dissolve."

It points out that the cost to industries linked to just coral reefs could lose as much as $1 trillion annually by the end of the century if no action is taken.

“When ecosystems stop delivering the way they should, they essentially deliver less services and less benefits," said Salvatore Arico of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "In the case of coral reefs, those systems are essential for people’s livelihoods in many regions of the world and they will be significantly affected."

But the report also finds that international awareness of these consequences is growing, along with the amount of research being done.

"Many programs and projects are now investigating the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity and its wider implications, with strong international linkages," it says. "The United Nations General Assembly has urged States to study ocean acidification, minimize its impacts and tackle its causes. Many United Nations bodies are focusing attention on these issues."

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