With the upcoming World Oceans Day on June 8th, we decided to dedicate our latest blog to the health of our oceans. Although this year’s theme is plastic pollution, our blog will explore another issue – Ocean Acidification – and what our research from last year shows about sustainable business action on the problem.
What is Ocean Acidification?
Like global warming, this phenomenon, which is known as ocean acidification, is a direct consequence of increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere. The addition of CO2 to the oceans increases the acidity (lowers pH) of the surface seawater. In the past 250 years’ ocean pH has decreased by about 30%. Crucially ocean acidification is occurring at a rate 30 to 100 times faster than at any time during the last several million years - driven by the rapid growth rate of atmospheric CO2 that is almost unprecedented over geological history. It is predicted that if we continue emitting CO2 at the same rate by 2100 ocean acidity will have increased by about 150% (Ocean Acidification Programme 2016).
Ocean acidification results in the loss of calcifying marine organisms seriously impacting on the productivity of coral reefs with ripple effects up the food chain. Critically, the capacity of the oceans to absorb CO2 decreases with increasing acidity. Ocean acidification therefore poses a challenge to marine biodiversity and the ability of oceans to continue to function as a sink of CO2 (currently oceans capture roughly 25% of human emissions).
Why it matters to business
Ocean acidification is particularly important to the food sector, as it results in significant damage to pteropods, an important source of food up the food-chain for fish such as tuna (see image above). Researchers have found that increased ocean acidification will dramatically affect global populations of phytoplankton — microorganisms on the ocean surface that make up the base of the marine food chain. Dutkiewicz et al (2015) report that increased ocean acidification by 2100 will spur a range of responses in phytoplankton: Some species will die out, while others will flourish, changing the balance of plankton species around the world.
Business action on ocean acidification
Despite the importance of marine life, our research found there was only one company who had publicly disclosed a measure or target relating to ocean acidification. The one target that was set relating to ocean acidification was to ‘Reduce Hydrocarbon Content (Energy Company)’. There was no company that cited ocean acidification as an SEC risk - even with companies regarding ocean health and food security as material risks.
Ocean acidification is inextricably associated with CO2 levels and marine biodiversity levels. A lack of action on this issue is therefore worrying, as its impact on our food systems will be greatly felt in years to come. Coastal societies will likely experience the worst of this if they are reliant on the food the ocean provides.
Dutkiewicz, S., Morris, J., Follows, M., Scott, J., Levitan, O., Dyhrman, S. and Berman-Frank, I. (2015). Impact of ocean acidification on the structure of future phytoplankton communities. Nature Climate Change, 5(11), pp.1002-1006.
OceansMOOC, SDGindex, 4.1, Marine Food Chains
UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme, UKOA, 2016
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, ND, Ocean Acidification – see here