Tackling the Other Carbon Problem

By Jennifer Langston, posted on Sightline Daily Sep 6, 2011 — What we can do about ocean acidification.

This post is part of the research project: Northwest Ocean Acidification


In this blog series, we’ve explained how carbon dioxide pollution is making the oceans more acidic, demonstrated that it’s happening now, looked at which marine creatures are most at risk and talked to oyster growerscommercial fishermen, andNative American teenagers about their prospects if the ocean systems that support their businesses and culture collapse.

So what can we do about ocean acidification? Here are some of the key solutions:

  • Reduce carbon emissions by developing policies that assign a cost to that pollution and encourage a shift away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy.
  • Use existing laws—from local land use planning to building codes to the Clean Water Act—to curb pollutants that make the problem worse.
  • Invest in research and monitoring to see how important marine species will be affected, inform fisheries and ocean management plans, and help seafood producers adapt.

Curb carbon emissions

The root cause of ocean acidification is carbon emissions. They’re the catalyst that makes seawater more acidic and removes carbonate ions from the ocean that vast numbers of species need to build shells and skeletons. Without that essential ingredient, economically important species such as oysters and ecologically important plankton at the bottom of the food chain will run into trouble.

Most people can take simple steps to reduce their own carbon footprints, from driving less to insulating their homes to hanging a clothesline in the back yard. But the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions on a meaningful scale is to assign a cost to those emissions. Under that scenario, a cement factory or coal plant that releases carbon dioxide would have to pay for the right to do so, and would have incentive to pollute less. Gasoline would cost more, spurring demand for more efficient cars, bike-friendly streets and convenient transit options. And putting a price on carbon pollution would generate revenue at a time when government coffers are distressingly bare.

There are different economic models for achieving those goals. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a market-based approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in 10 Northeastern states. California, New Mexico and three Canadian provinces are actively working towards another regional cap and trade program that would cap and reduce carbon emissions over time, issue permits to polluters, and allow the market to figure out how to meet those limits. British Columbia in 2008 introduced a new graduated tax on carbon sources, which allowed the province to cut personal and corporate income taxes by an equal amount. So far, the carbon tax has saved BC residents and companies more than $850 million, and there are signs that it is generating energy savings.

Brad Warren, who works with commercial fishermen through the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, points to other examples where we’ve successfully gotten the flow of harmful emissions under control, such as the sulfur dioxide trading programthat has reduced acid rain.

These are not easy problems but they’re not as hard as they’re often made out to be. We’re going to have to become managers of things we didn’t feel like we had to manage. It’s really just an old school resource management problem. We’ve done it before, we can probably do it again. You can use taxes, carbon markets, implement other controls, energy efficiency, increased use of cleaner power. There are many tools, but no one I think can credibly argue that you can do it without some kind of carbon policy.

Passing legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a national scale in the US has proved difficult. But Brian Baird, the former US Congressman from southwest Washington who has served on science, marine, and energy committees and scuba dives in his spare time, thinks ocean acidification has the potential to reopen that conversation, precisely because it lacks some of the political baggage that now surrounds global warming.

The chemistry is simple and irrefutable—you can exhale carbon dioxide into a beaker of water and watch it turn more acidic, he said. People have an intuitive sense that acids can do bad things, like eat through a metal safe or disfigure a face. And ocean acidification speaks to new audiences—from Florida hotel owners who rely on healthy sport fishing populations to a landlocked teacher who spends her vacations snorkeling to the Northwest’s commercial fishing industry.

You have to some extent a more easily-grasped case to make. You can demonstrate it more readily and it has impacts that are more comprehensible. And in my experience the so-called skeptics and climate deniers have not marshalled a serious challenge to the ocean acidification argument yet.

Use existing laws

Read the rest of the story here.