From sea to carbon cesspool: preventing the world's marine ecosystems from falling victim to ocean acidification.

Author:Lamirande, Heidi R.

    Each year, the oceans absorb up to one ton of C[O.sub.2] per each person on the planet. (1) Although beneficial, this undertaking is cause for alarm because the current amount of C[O.sub.2] in the atmosphere has not been experienced on Earth for at least 800,000 years. (2) While steps have been taken to reduce the amount of C[O.sub.2] emissions, C[O.sub.2] released by human activities has increased by nearly 40% from pre-industrial levels. (3) Since that time, the oceans have absorbed almost half of all C[O.sub.2] emissions, decreasing levels of potential of hydrogen (pH) and making them more acidic. (4) This process, now known as ocean acidification, is rapidly increasing and has shrewdly been dubbed the "other C[O.sub.2] problem." (5) Unless ocean acidification becomes part of the international climate change agenda, the impact on marine organisms and coastal economies could be devastating. (6)

    This Note explores the likely consequences of ocean acidification and the need for an international response to curb its effects. (7) First, Part II of this Note will examine the science behind ocean acidification and the potential effects of increased C[O.sub.2]. (8) Next, Part Ill will consider the history of climate change legislation, as well as proposed local and national law specifically addressing ocean acidification. (9) Part IV of this Note will then analyze gaps in current climate change law and propose the creation of an international treaty exclusively on ocean acidification. (10) Lastly, Part V will urge that the international community adopt such a protocol on ocean acidification to effectively halt any long-term effects on the environment. (11)


    Ocean acidification is a relatively new problem, which has been overlooked and underappreciated in the realm of climate change. (12) Many researchers are still grappling with the purported effects of ocean acidification, while many lay people have never even heard of the term. (13) As experiments dealing with ocean acidification become more concrete, researchers will better predict the consequences ocean acidification will have on the carbon cycle. (14)

    1. The Oceans and the Carbon Cycle

    The oceans play an integral role in the carbon cycle, absorbing C[O.sub.2] from the atmosphere and transferring it to the deep seawaters. (15) The carbon cycle refers to the continuous exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. (16) If more carbon stays within one of these sources than leaves it, then that source becomes a carbon sink. (17) The hydrosphere, or ocean body, is one such sink. (18) The process of absorbing C[O.sub.2], however, affects the carbonate system of the oceans by lowering the levels of pH. (19)

    Once C[O.sub.2] dissolves in seawater, it reacts with the water to form carbonic acid, releasing hydrogen ions and lowering pH. (20) Other dissolved inorganic carbons, or DIC, that are released are bicarbonate and carbonate ions. (21) Each DIC is important for the photosynthesis and calcification of marine organisms, such as providing calcium carbonate (CaC[O.sub.3]) shells for shell making marine animals. (22) After these marine organisms die, carbon can be released back into the atmosphere, remain in the surface waters, or transfer to the deep sea along with CaC[O.sub.3]. (23) This process, known as the biological pump, increases the oceanic capacity to act as a sink for forming organisms. Id.; see also ROYAL SOCIETY REPORT , supra note 1, at 1, 6 (noting C[O.sub.2] plays natural role in defining pH of oceans). C[O.sub.2]. (24) Changing the strength of this pump would significantly affect the amount of carbon sequestered to the deep sea and removed from the atmosphere. (25)

    The DIC also act as a buffer against the addition of hydrogen ions released when C[O.sub.2] reacts with surface waters. (26) When C[O.sub.2] is added to seawater, released hydrogen ions mix with carbonate ions, forming bicarbonate ions, thereby reducing the number of hydrogen ions that could lead to decreased pH. (27) So although dissolved C[O.sub.2] initially increases the acidity of the oceans, the alkalinity of the oceans is maintained due to the carbonate buffer. (28) B. Biological Response to Human-Induced Ocean Acidification

    1. Unnatural Changes by Increased C[O.sub.2] and its Effect on Saturation Horizons

      Carbon dioxide produced by human activities has already led to a 0.1 pH change in the ocean surface water since pre-industrial times, resulting in a 30% increase in hydrogen ions. (29) This concentration of hydrogen ions is outside the natural variation for the oceans' range of pH, and will require thousands of years to equilibrate the oceans' chemistry. (30) Ocean acidification is a direct consequence of the higher C[O.sub.2] concentrations in the atmosphere, and unnatural changes in ocean pH levels will likely have a substantial effect on marine ecosystems and the ability to cycle C[O.sub.2]. (31) At present, the amount of atmospheric C[O.sub.2] concentrations is around 380 parts per million (ppm). (32) The increasing amount of atmospheric C[O.sub.2] will more than double pre-industrial levels by approximately 2050 due to current trends in C[O.sub.2] emissions worldwide. (33) As a result, the oceans are absorbing C[O.sub.2] more rapidly than they have in the last 65 million years. (34)

      The oceans' ability to absorb C[O.sub.2] depends upon the amount of dissolved, Calcium Carbonate, CaC[O.sub.3], which causes carbon matter to sink when marine organisms die and increases the effectiveness of the biological pump. (35) Calcium carbonate exists in two forms--aragonite and calcite--and each form has its own saturation horizon, the mean below which CaC[O.sub.3] dissolves. (36) Aragonite is more soluble than calcite, so marine organisms that utilize this form of CaC[O.sub.3] reside near the surface water where the saturation horizon for aragonite hovers. (37) Regardless of whether organisms exist within the calcite or aragonite horizons, however, increased levels of C[O.sub.2] result in lower pH and a decrease in the saturation state of CaC[O.sub.3], raising the saturation horizons for both forms of CaC[O.sub.3] closer to the surface. (38)

    2. Anticipated Effects of Ocean Acidification on Marine Organisms

      Ocean acidification caused by increased C[O.sub.2] emissions could threaten the reproduction, growth, and survival of various marine species. (39) A decrease in the level of pH makes it more difficult for calcifying organisms to secrete CaC[O.sub.3] and form shells, which is a direct result of diminishing carbonate due to the ramped up buffering

      process. (40) Not only is the rise in ocean acidification a rapidly growing concern due to increased C[O.sub.2] emissions, but the possibility that affected species will not have time to adapt to such alterations in their ecosystems is a concern as well. (41)

  3. History: The Evolution of Climate Change Law

    Climate change emerged as an issue on the international agenda in the mid-1980s. (42) In 1988, the Toronto Conference instituted a significant policy approach to global warming by calling for a 20% reduction in C[O.sub.2] emissions by 2005. (43) Furthering the ideals of the Toronto Conference, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1989 to provide a more accurate view of how global warming affects the world's climate. (44) IPCC reports uncovered the true importance of climate change and the need to place it on the political agenda. (45) It was the IPCC that played a decisive role in creating the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the main international treaty addressing global warming and its effects on climate change. (46)

    1. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

      The UNFCCC, assembled and executed in 1992, was the inaugural forum by which the international community first addressed climate change on a legal basis. (47) The main purpose of the UNFCCC was to stabilize and monitor the deleterious effects of greenhouse gases (GHG) that would have adverse effects on the climate system. (48) Specifically, the UNFCCC established a structure of certain obligations for signatories to begin controlling anthropogenic emissions. (49)

      Under the UNFCCC, parties in Annex I must aim to reduce their levels of GHG emissions to 1990 levels. (50) Although the UNFCCC does not set a specific numeric goal for the reduction of GHG, it does outline that parties must take into account the best available scientific knowledge in conducting their calculations of GHG emissions. (51) Parties to the UNFCCC are to then develop programs implementing the reduction goal of GHG. (52) If disputes arise between parties to the UNFCCC, the parties may seek settlement through negotiation or "any other peaceful means of their choice." (53)

    2. Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC

      The Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC (Kyoto Protocol) was adopted in 1997 to create quantified emissions limitations for each of its member nations. (54) Although the Kyoto Protocol places a binding obligation upon signatories, it does offer various means for parties to implement GHG reducing programs within the required limitations under Annex B. (55) The Kyoto Protocol also does not require developing countries to reduce their GHG emissions. (56) Rather, developing countries (non-Annex B) can voluntarily elect to limit emissions based on a historical base year of their choice. (57)

      The Kyoto Protocol is a cap-and-trade system. (58) Under Article 6, parties can trade their assigned amounts of emissions with other parties pursuant to Annex B. (59) The cap-and-trade system is also a means by which compliance can be monitored under the Kyoto Protocol. (60) Settlement of dispute under the Kyoto Protocol is the same as that utilized under the UNFCCC. (61)

    3. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

      The United Nations...

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