As if that would be our biggest concern in the first place, but it's important to understand, especially for policy makers, that even though dumping CO2 as a byproduct of current energy production methods is a lot cheaper than "cleaner alternatives", in the long run the balance of economics turn.
A new report released today at the Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World highlights the latest science, progress and projections for the future concerning ocean acidification as an effect of CO2 emissions. The report offers projections in best (dramatic cut of CO2 emissions in the world) and worse case scenarios (current growing trend of CO2 emissions), but either way it seems, ocean acidification will likely cause significant economic trouble.
Most of the CO2 released in the atmosphere doesn't stay there, instead it gets absorbed by the world's oceans which act like a sort of humongous carbon sink. As more and more carbon gets absorbed, pH levels decrease accordingly with dramatic effects on the marine ecosystem. The full extent of possible damage is hard to estimate, however the report writes that ocean acidification could devastate coral reefs, shellfish, and even top predators such as tuna. This means that important tourism and food economic sources are at risk. In fact, the authors stress with "medium confidence" that at current trends the damage from coral loss alone could amount to $1 trillion.
It's yet unclear how much damage ocean acidification may pose on large marine life, like sharks, tuna, and other creatures. The report gives only a “low confidence” rating to the idea that top predators and fin fish catches will be reduced, even so 540 million people whose livelihoods depend on such fisheries are at risk.
A “very high confidence” rating is given to the assumption that as the ocean increases in acidity level, it's ability to absorb carbon will decrease. This means that more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas. With this in mind, this would mean that even more drastic cuts in emissions are required to curb global warming.
The report comes on the heels of a recent study which confirmed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) conclusion that “with a certainty of 95%, climate change is man made”. Although the new report was produced with a different methodology, it still represents one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date assessments of a major impact of CO2 emissions currently available. Hopefully, policymakers will take heed of both reports and take appropriate action.
Since the industrial revolution, surface ocean pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1, which might not seem like much, but you need to consider that first of all pH is logarithmic in scale and, second, even the most minute change in an environment can have dramatic effects on the ecosystem. Under the most pessimistic scenario, surface ocean pH could drop by 0.32 by the turn of this century. This scenario is not very unlikely considering that developing countries are feverishly growing, desperate to catch on to developed nations at a great deal of energy expense and, in turn, massive projected CO2 emissions.
The authors caution that extensive models and studies are required to assess whether or not marine animals and plants will be able to adapt to new acidity conditions and how.