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Save the reefs, not the banks

There is new and dramatic evidence that rising carbon emissions have increased the acidity of the world’s oceans ten times faster than predicted, endangering many species and corals.

Last year the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that without urgent action to reduce CO2 emissions, most coral reefs would disappear by the end of this century. Now an eight-year long study monitoring pH levels in an area of the north-east Pacific has found that acidity is increasing so fast that the survival of shellfish, molluscs and corals is under urgent threat.

Not all carbon dioxide emissions rise into the earth’s atmosphere. About one third of CO2 is fixed in the oceans – without this, the greenhouse effect that causes global warming would be dramatically worse. But dissolving CO2 in water creates carbonic acid, and that lowers alkalinity, making it harder for creatures to form shells.

Professor Timothy Wootton, head of the study carried out by Chicago University scientists, said the findings show that “variation on ocean pH through time was most strongly associated with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which supports the prediction that increasing release of CO2 to the atmosphere leads to ocean acidification". And this is already damaging some species:

Our study reveals the strongest negative impacts of declining pH are on several species of particular importance – large calcifying mussels and goose barnacles. This finding illustrates several reasons why the effects of declining ocean pH are of general concern, as these species create critical habitats for other coastal species, are important players in coastal nutrient processing, and reflect the more general risks to shellfish harvesting.

Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, inhabited by at least 25% of all marine species. Destroying them will have a dramatic effect on the marine food chain – not only threatening the loss of millions of species but also the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities.

So far, world governments have thrown $4.2 trillion at saving the wreckage of the banking system. US President-elect Barack Obama has promised to spend just $150 billion over the next 10 years to support the development of alternative energy. As Time magazine's special "energy issue" says:

The problem is, it won't be enough. As ambitious as Obama's campaign promises were – at least compared to his predecessor's – the future state of global energy will demand government policies with a much longer reach... The International Energy Agency's (IEA) annual World Energy Outlook, released Nov. 12, projects that global energy demand will increase by 45% between 2006 and 2030 – and that $26 trillion in power-supply investments will be necessary simply to meet those needs. Barring radical changes in our energy policy – beyond what Obama has pledged – greenhouse gas emissions will rise 45% by 2030, and extreme global warming would be virtually unavoidable.

Meanwhile here in Britain, the climate change and energy Minister Ed Miliband made clear he plans to set aside air pollution targets in order to ease permission for a third runway at Heathrow, which is bitterly opposed by the local community. And he got the backing of Lord Adair Turner, chair of the “independent” Climate Change Committee (former director-general of the CBI, and executive at Standard Chartered Bank and Merrill Lynch and now head of the Financial Services Authority). Turner has made the astonishing claim that it would be possible to meet the target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the middle of this century even if aviation expands “especially if airlines were able to use biofuels or other low-carbon power sources”.

Meanwhile, back here in the real world, it is increasingly clear we need to remove the power of such people to determine decisions about our energy future. They would sacrifice millions of species – and millions of their fellow human beings – to keep the capitalist wagon rolling (even with several wheels already gone). We urgently need to seize the initiative, to develop and implement plans for a not-for-profit energy revolution, alongside urgent protection for species and habitats under threat. A World to Win says: “Save the reefs – not the banks!”

Penny Cole
Environment editor
27 November 2008

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