15 Oct 2014 Press release Green economy

Global Economy to Lose Billions without Action to Stop Ocean Acidification, UN Report Warns

Pyeong Chang, 8 October 2014- A new international report "An updated synthesis of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity" shows beyond doubt that ocean acidification is an issue of serious environmental and policy concern. "This timely synthesis has considered the impacts of ocean acidification across many levels of biodiversity, and as such represents an important resource for considering the future of our ocean" explains Dr. Salvatore Arico, who acts as the principal focal point on biodiversity science and policy at UNESCO.

As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up (and there was a record-breaking increase in 2013), the pH of the ocean falls. That chemical response is unavoidable; what has been less certain is whether marine life will be affected. Ten years ago, only a handful of researchers were investigating the biological impacts of ocean acidification: whilst their results gave cause for concern, it was clear that a lot more measurements and experiments were needed. Around a thousand published studies later, it has now been established that many marine species will suffer in a high CO2 world, with consequences for human society.

Evidence for such effects has been brought together by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations body committed to the conservation and sustainable use of all forms of life on Earth. An international team of thirty experts, led by UK scientists, has concluded that ocean acidification is already underway, and it is now near-inevitable that it will worsen, causing widespread impacts, mostly deleterious, on marine organisms and ecosystems, and on the goods and services they provide.

The exact magnitude of the ecological and financial costs is, however, still uncertain, due to complex interactions with other human-driven environmental changes. Risks to coral reefs are highlighted in the CBD, due in part to the crucial role they have in helping support the livelihoods of around 400 million people. "As we consider how ecosystems (and species) are changing with ocean acidification, amongst the most important things to consider is how these changes may impact upon food security in developing countries" states Dr. David Obura, Director of Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean.

"A key feature of the CBD synthesis is that it acknowledges the complexity of biological responses to ocean acidification" said Dr Phil Williamson, the Science Coordinator of the UK Ocean Acidification (UKOA) research programme, and co-editor of the report. "Changes in ocean chemistry interact with other stressors, and we now know the importance of such factors as exposure time, temperature, and food supply in determining physiological and behavioural responses".

Laboratory and field studies by the UKOA programme, together with modelling, have made a major scientific contribution to the report. "Our work at Heriot-Watt University and in the north-east Atlantic has given us a much better appreciation of the vulnerability of cold-water corals" said Dr Sebastian Hennige, lead editor of the report. "There is risk that their habitat will literally dissolve away, since living corals grow on structures made by their dead ancestors. These structures will be subject to chemical erosion over very large ocean areas if current trends continue".

"Ocean acidification is not just a concern of the future, it is happening now" explains Dr. Nina Bednarsěk of NOAA. "Pteropods, which are often described as the potato chips of the sea due to the many organisms that eat them, live in shells which are literally dissolving away in high latitude seas and upwelling regions along the continental shelf of the US west coast"."The speed of current ocean acidification is unprecedented" said Dr.Carol Turley, contributing author of the report. "Past ocean acidification events happened much more slowly, and they still resulted in some species becoming extinct and being lost forever". Such past events, due to natural causes happened about ten times more slowly, and the recovery in ocean chemistry took around 100,000 years.

"The threat of ocean acidification is serious" said Se-Jong Ju of the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology "and this is why we launched monitoring platforms off the coast of Korea to assess exactly how quickly changes are occurring and their impact on our coastal ecosystems".

"At the end of the day, the only way to deal with ocean acidification is to reduce CO2 emissions" says Prof Murray Roberts co-editor of the report and Director of Heriot-Watt University's Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology. "But for this to happen people first need to be aware that ocean acidification is an important issue, and having it high on the CBD agenda is a huge step forward."

The CBD report was subject to extensive peer review, with a near-final draft scrutinised by the 18th meeting of the CBD's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice at Montreal in June. That body recommended that the report should be brought to wider attention, including referral to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, on account of the very close linkage between the future severity of ocean acidification and the global success (or failure) in reducing CO2 emissions.

Notes to Editors

  • The report "An updated synthesis of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity" is available online at http://www.cbd.int/doc/publications/cbd-ts-75-en.pdf. The report will be launched on 8 October, when it will be considered in the main session of the 12thmeeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 12) to the CBD, Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea. It will also be discussed at COP 12 side-event on 8th October organised by the CBD Secretariat, with presentations by report authors, Drs Sebastian Hennige (Heriot-Watt University) and Carol Turley (Plymouth Marine Laboratory), and a panel of ocean acidification experts; Drs David Obura (CORDIO), Salvatore Arico (UNESCO), Nina Bednarsěk (NOAA) and Se-Jong Ju (KIOST).
  • The report is edited by S Hennige, JM Roberts and P Williamson, with 27 co-authors from 8 countries. Preparation of the report was supported by the UK government, primarily through the UK Ocean Acidification research programme.
  • The UK Ocean Acidification research programme (UKOA; www.oceanacidification.org.uk) is a £12m, 5 year research programme funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). UKOA outputs feed into the cross-government Climate Change Adaptation programme and the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) programme.
  • UKOA international links and partnerships include those with the German BIOACID programme; the European research project MedSeA; the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Ocean Acidification Program; the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre; and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.