Don’t Look Up, Look into Solutions for Ocean Acidification

Dying corals are only one aspect of the devastating effects of ocean acidification. Photo: Hiroko Yoshii
Dying corals are only one aspect of the devastating effects of ocean acidification. Photo: Hiroko Yoshii

By Stephen Peters, Dan Millison

We need to start planning today to accelerate our policy and investment options to address the potentially devastating impacts of ocean acidification.

When calculating the existential risk posed by ocean acidification, the movie “Don’t Look Up” comes to mind. How do we alert people to this looming crisis?   Most people don’t even know what ocean acidification is.

Ocean acidification is caused by too much carbon being dissolved in the ocean, making the ocean increasingly acidic. The excess carbon is absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere due to carbon emissions.

This acidification impacts marine life and biochemical processes which are essential to regulating our global environment.

The current rate of increasing acidity in the oceans is 10 times faster than anything experienced in the last 300 million years, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A recent article in Nature stated that even under a stringent emissions scenario, “warm-water corals will be at high risk by 2100. Under our current rate of emissions, most marine organisms evaluated will have very high risk of impacts by 2100 and many by 2050.”

To compound this, non-greenhouse gas pollution creates additional stress in our ocean as it acts in synergy with increasing temperature and acidity, specifically affecting the microscopic ocean life that absorbs gigatons of carbon yearly and produces more oxygen than all forests on Earth. 

We need to start planning today to accelerate our policy and investment options.   

Important first steps include a focus on building the knowledge and scalable investment strategies to provide regeneration options.  Displacing fossil fuels with marine renewable energy and reinforcing the process which produces half our oxygen and sequester a third of our carbon dioxide (CO2) is a good start. Using hydrogen as an energy carrier globalizes these benefits. 

Currently, exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are used for extractive industries like fishing and petroleum production.  These EEZs contain enormous amounts of energy waiting to be harnessed.  Based on ADB estimates, 1% of the EEZs of the developing countries studied could produce 100% of current global electricity consumption. Converting this electricity to hydrogen could displace 40% of global natural gas production, eliminating about 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. 

Recent advances in manufacturing and years of piloting technologies in offshore wind, wave, in-stream tidal conversion, and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) provides performance, environmental and economic data which can be used to determine the best sites for development.  By adding advances in marine spatial planning, drones and sensor technology, we are no longer blind to the possibilities of our oceans.

Don’t be distracted by the noise of climate denial or the fear of climate change.

We can combat ocean acidification by cultivating co-located seagrass, shellfish, and reefs. The challenge is to make these activities financially self-sustaining by co-locating with income generating aquaculture, ecotourism, and offshore renewable energy production. By providing self-reinforcing economic activity with opportunities for rapid and scalable growth, we can give our oceans time to clean up carbon and other pollutants. A recent presentation by Ogilvy at the Dubai Expo explained how businesses will need to embed sustainability into their operations. Over the last 12 months, there has been a marked increase in corporate “ambition” on climate and wider resilience issues. Large corporates are increasingly assigning resources to reorient their business to preserve their capital base.

McKinsey recently shocked with a yearly estimate of US$ 12.4 trillion to meet Paris Targets. Interestingly, Dr. Mekala Krishnan, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute said: "About 85% of the emissions reductions that we need to get to net-zero in Europe are viable with technologies that exist today."

We already know the solutions that will clean up our legacy.  The business-use cases need to be worked out, shared and implemented using existing industrial capacity. This can be done through advance market commitments as we are already seeing in the hydrogen economy. 

In a near future, energy companies could produce 80% of a country’s energy production from its EEZ using carbon negative marine renewables under a production sharing agreement.  A decade ago, this comment would have been met with a polite smile: now it’s an emerging opportunity.

By co-locating regenerative marine aquaculture, this new marine industry cluster can locally buffer the effects of ocean acidification while providing food and energy security.  The cluster will grow naturally to include coastal defenses and eco-tourism.  It will grow faster as production ramps up and exportable surpluses of energy and seafood are created.  How all this fits together is currently being researched for implementation, starting at locations with high energy prices.  As global circumstances change, this new industry can thrive.

Don’t be distracted by the noise of climate denial or the fear of climate change.  Don’t look up.  Look to the ocean.

This blog post is based on  a webinar on ocean acidification and its impacts with the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON).