Life below water – on ocean acidification and the UN’s SDGs

One of the key business themes of the UN’s SDG 14 (sustainable development goals) – life below water – is ocean acidification; often termed ‘the other CO2 problem’. It is one of the most serious threats the oceans and humans are facing in this century, but as the slogan term may suggest, it is often ignored and brushed to one side for the more ‘well-known’ climate change problems. Rob Dunbar, Oceanographer and Biochemist, even described ocean acidification as the most frightening of all the current oceanic phenomenons in his TED talk.

Since the Industrial Revolution, more than 1.6 trillion tonnes of CO2 have been emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, land use change and other human activities, of which almost 30 per cent have been absorbed by the oceans. This huge addition of CO2 is drastically changing the chemistry and pH of the oceans and will lead to detrimental effects on us and the industries we rely so heavily on. With estimates of an increase in acidity of 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution, future changes are predicted to occur at such an increasing speed that by the middle of this century, seawater pH could be lower than at any point during the last 20 million years according to NOAA.

How does this affect us and why should we care?

The rising in acidity of the oceans has the ability to change the oceans and alter the availability of the goods and services they provide. Oceans represent 99 per cent of the living space on the planet by volume, and serve as an important provider for the vast majority of people on this planet. Estimates from the Royal Society’s report and the United Nations’ SDG breakdown state that over three billion people depend on the marine biodiversity for their livelihoods through activities such as fishing, and more than 3 billion people depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein. From these facts, it is evident that humans are inextricably linked to the health of the oceans.

Ocean acidification will weaken the ability of both humans and natural systems to adapt to ongoing changes and hence threaten food security by putting entire food chains in jeopardy. If groups of organisms within the marine realm become extinct, this will lead to cascading effects along food webs that will inevitably lead to disastrous effects on us humans. Industries and businesses linked to fishing activities will feel the effects, and additionally the weakening of natural shoreline protections, such as coral reefs, will lead to increases in erosion of low-lying areas.

What can businesses do?

With the pace of ocean acidification accelerating, action needs to occur now. In order to align with SDG 14, and support the target of ‘minimising and addressing the impacts of ocean acidification’, businesses need to start to significantly reduce their carbon impact. Whether that will be minimising the impact of the upstream sourcing of products, re-assessing how products are transported around the world, or even by switching to renewable energy solutions to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

Businesses need to tackle this challenge and drive their sustainability agendas forward in order to align with this SDG and help mitigate the effects of this important, yet often ignored, global phenomenon. Businesses are one of the only entities large and powerful enough to facilitate real change and need to be one of the first to put targets into action. Decreases of your CO2 emissions, large or small, needs to happen now.