Climate Change Is Killing Coral Reefs, and That Could Cost the Economy $1 Trillion a Year

Carbon emissions have triggered a 26 percent increase in ocean acidification.

(Photo: Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

Oct 9, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

At the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week, a frequent refrain was that humanity does not value the oceans, treating the planet’s life support system as a source of free food and, alternatively, a garbage dump for carbon dioxide, plastic, and other pollution.

Well, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity has just put a price tag on our neglect: $1 trillion a year.

That’s how much the acidification of the ocean from greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cost the global economy annually by 2100. The loss will come mainly from the death of coral reefs that support a variety of marine life as well as 400 million people.

The world’s oceans act as a giant carbon sink, absorbing greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. But all that carbon dioxide throws the oceans’ pH off balance, turning the seas increasingly acidic. The U.N. report released Wednesday found that since the Industrial Revolution, the acidification of the ocean has jumped 26 percent.

“The impacts of ocean acidification are beginning to be felt in some areas, but future projections indicate even more broad-reaching deleterious impacts if action is not taken,” Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, wrote in the report.

The study makes for grim reading.

“It is now nearly inevitable that within 50 to 100 years, continued anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will further increase ocean acidity to levels that will have widespread impacts, mostly deleterious, on marine organisms and ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide,” the authors wrote.

The oceans won’t be recovering anytime soon. When high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere triggered ocean acidification 56 millions ago, it took 100,000 for the seas to bounce back, the report noted.

Some marine species, such as sea grass and algae, may flourish in acidic waters, but many others will suffer.

“Early life stages of a number of organisms seem to be particularly at risk from ocean acidification, with impacts including decreased larval size, reduced morphological complexity, and decreased calcification,” the researchers wrote.

What is certain is that acidification is exterminating the tropical coral reefs that 400 million people around the world depend on as a source of food and livelihood, according to the report.

The researchers calculated the estimate of a $1 trillion annual loss to the global economy based on the impact on tourism and fishing.

But they acknowledged that the estimate likely does not account for the true economic consequences of ocean acidification.

“The estimated impacts are, however, considered to be partial, since the underlying value data is largely focused on recreational values and includes limited information on the value of other services such as coastal protection or non-use values for biodiversity,” the report states.