law has been developed to be various disciplines which discuss several
different issues specifically. Regimes have been devised to address specific
global or regional environmental problems, such as particular sources and types
of trans-boundary pollution, rather than to promote trans-boundary
environmental governance in integrated manner. As
a consequence there is today an array of international environmental regimes
but a lack of coordination among them, and many regimes operate independently,
and sometimes even inconsistently, in relation to each another.
The changing chemistry of
the oceans as a result of the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,
called ocean acidification, is one of many challenges in addressing new
environmental challenges effectively in environmental regime complexity. Such matter
is caused by the atmospheric pollutant that is also the main driver of
anthropogenic climate change, having effects on the marine environment as serious
as other climate change, having effects on the marine environment as serious as
other pollutants entering the oceans. As
the phenomenon has only recently been assessed in scientific literature, and
much further research remains to be done, there has been little opportunity for
an influential epistemic community of concerned scientist to assemble and raise
global awareness of the seriousness of the problem. Flowing
from this, attention is only now being directed to what role international
environmental law can and ought to play in addressing ocean acidification.
There are two main
environmental regimes appear to have obvious application to ocean
acidification, which are the climate change regime established upon the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the marine
pollution regime constituted by the UNCLOS that regulate pollution of the
marine environment from various sources. However, while the phenomenon is
partially regulated by both of these principal regimes, or collections of
regimes, it is addressed wholeheartedly by neither. Ocean acidification
therefore exists in somewhat of an international legal twilight zone, a
regrettable position given the serious threat it presents to the ecological integrity
of the world’s oceans.
In connection with the legal
implication of ocean acidification by co2 of climate change, after the
introduction, next section discuss the ocean acidification itself by describing
the causes and the consequences. Section 3 will analyze the international law
regimes to address the problem. Afterwards, this article argue that there is a
need for amendment to the UNCLOS.
The present atmospheric
concentration of CO2 is higher than it has been for the past 420,000 years, and
possibly for the last 15 million years. While
the effects of this change to the carbon concentration of the atmosphere on the
global climate system is widely acknowledged and increasingly well understood, the
impact of CO2 on the chemical make-up of the oceans has only recently attracted
attention from scientists and policy makers.
The Causes of Ocean
The chemical process of
ocean acidification is relatively straightforward, although there is substantial
regional and seasonal variability in ocean pH. As
the term ‘ocean acidification’ suggests, when CO2 dissolves in the oceans it
reacts with H2O to form an acid, carbonic acid. The
oceans are naturally alkaline and the pre-industrial pH of the oceans was
around 8.1. The ocean pH has now
declined by 0.1, such that the oceans are more acidic today than at any time in
the last half-million years. Moreover,
ocean pH may fall by up to 0.5 units by 2100 if CO2 emissions are not
This process results in
substantial changes to the carbon chemistry of the oceans. Hydrogen ions
released in the formation of carbonic acid combine with carbonate ions in the
water to form bicarbonate, removing substantial amounts of carbonate ions from
the water which are essential for the formation of a range of marine organizations.
There has been a ten percent decline in carbonate concentrations compared to
pre-industrial levels, 17 and these are projected to decrease by 50 percent by
The Consequences for Marine
Organism and Ecosystems
It can be said that there is
a consensus in scientific knowledge that ocean acidification already having
high impacts on many ocean species and ecosystems. Many
marine photosynthetic organisms and animals, such as molluscs, corals,
echinoderms, foraminifera and calcareous algae, make shells and plates out of
calcium carbonate. It
could happened when the seawater contains a sufficient concentration of calcium
carbonate. Increased concentrations of CO2 will increase acidity which impedes
the process of calcification. Calcifying organisms will be negatively affected
in the present century, with estimates suggesting that calcification rates will
decrease by as much as 50 percent by 2100 due to the fall in calcium carbonate
Calcium carbonate is
employed as a construction material for organisms in several crystalline forms,
such as aragonite and calcite. All calcifying organisms are likely to be
adversely affected by ocean acidification, but those that use aragonite will be
affected first as aragonite dissolves more readily due to its crystalline
structure. At most risk are coral
organisms that require aragonite to be deposited in excess of erosion to build
coral reefs and if oceanic pH falls by as much as 0.4 pH units by 2100,
carbonate levels could potentially drop below those required to sustain coral
reef accretion by 2050.
The threat is severe for
tropical and sub-tropical coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef that are
highly sensitive to the combined effect of increased acidity and increased
water temperatures from climate change. A recent investigation indicates that
calcification throughout the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 14.2 per cent
since 1990. Reduced calcification
leads to weaker coral skeletons, reduced extension rates and increased
susceptibility to erosion from wave action. Of
even greater concern is the compounding effect reduced calcification will have
on the health of reef ecosystems particularly given that few scientific studies
have examined changes in the physiology of corals over the long term.
While corals are the most
spectacular calcifying organisms in the oceans, they account for only 10
percent of global calcium carbonate production. Ocean
acidification will have less visible but no less serious impacts on the
development and survival of other marine calcifying organisms such as molluscs,
crustaceans and some planktons. As
many of these organisms form the basis of diverse ocean ecosystems, the
consequences of reduced calcification cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the
Inter-academy Panel on International Issues, a global panel of science
academies, in its June 2009 Statement on ocean acidification observed that fundamental
ecological ocean processes will be affected as many marine organisms depend
directly or indirectly on calcium carbonate saturated waters and are adapted to
current levels of seawater pH for physiological and metabolic processes such as
calcification, growth and reproduction.
Changes in ocean acidity may
also have physiological impacts on marine species. Ocean acidification will
increase sensitivity and decrease the water temperature threshold. Additionally
there is evidence of lower rates of protein synthesis with negative impacts on
the functioning of large animals including growth and reproduction. These
negative impacts have been highlighted in experiments carried out with CO2 concentrations
much higher than would be expected in emissions scenarios for the period up to
2100, and field research is needed to determine whether such effects will also
be experienced in ocean environments.
The International Law Regimes
The Climate Change
The climate change is the
primary relevance regime to ocean acidification in the environmental law
context. The regime regulating human interference with the atmospheric commons.
Such regime, that comprises the UNFCC and Kyoto Protocol, is significant
because it still the primary focus for international society efforts to reduce
the greenhouse gas causing ocean acidification (carbon dioxide). Ocean acidification had not been
examined in depth in the scientific literature when either the UNFCCC or
the Kyoto Protocol were negotiated. However while there is no mention of
the phenomenon in either text, a range of provisions in both have relevance and
are deserving of close scrutiny as they provide foundations for the
international law of climate change that are likely to be retained in the
outcomes of the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009.
The article 2 of the UNFCCC, that
related with the Kyoto Protocol and other implementing agreement provides that
the main objective of the convention is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse
gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level would prevent dangerous interference
with the climate system (atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and
their interactions). As oceans are part of the hydrosphere, marine organisms
are part of the biosphere, and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are inextricably linked to the process of ocean
acidification, the problem of ocean acidification is one of interaction among
the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere, all of which are components of the
climate system. It is arguable that article 2 of the UNFCCC encompasses
an obligation to take into account the impacts of climate change upon the
oceans. This interpretation is consistent
with an understanding that the climate can be understood as the continuation of
the oceans by other means.
The UNFCCC objective raises main
question “what is ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ with the climate
system and is ocean acidification relevant for determining what is dangerous?” To
determine in a general sense whether there has been dangerous interference the Parties
may draw upon the work of subsidiary bodies established under the UNFCCC, and
the reports of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Nevertheless, while ocean acidification receives express mention in the IPCC’s
Fourth Assessment Report, given
the atmospheric focus of Article 2 of the UNFCCC it is questionable whether
determination of ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ could be defined by
reference to a dangerous ocean pH threshold.
As such the climate regime’s capacity
to address ocean acidification occurs only as an incident to minimizing the
effects of climate change. This conclusion is reinforced by an analysis of
other provisions of the UNFCCC. Article 1(2) of the UNFCCC defines ‘climate
change’ as the change of climate attributed to human activity that alters the
composition of global atmosphere.
Furthermore, Article 1(1) defines ‘adverse effects’ of climate change to be
alterations in the physical environment or biota resulting from climate change
which have significant deleterious effects on composition, resilience or
productivity of natural and managed ecosystems. The result is that Article 3,
which requires State parties to protect the climate system and limit adverse
effects, does not appear to include an obligation to prevent or limit ocean
The consequence of the climate
regime’s atmospheric focus is that the emissions targets set by the Kyoto
Protocol are calibrated by reference by their atmospheric rather than oceanic
effects. Hence the climate regime bundles together all of the major six
greenhouse gases when allocation emissions limitation and reduction budgets
with no discrimination between them.
The Kyoto Protocol imposes no specific requirement to reduce CO2 emissions, but
rather allows State parties to fulfil their commitments by limiting their
aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of greenhouse gases
(see Article 3(1)).
This means that Annex B parties to the Kyoto Protocol will be able to increase
their CO2 emissions so long as there is a necessary reduction in their emission
of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, even though this
will worsen ocean acidity.
 See generally T. Stephens,
International courts and environmental protection (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2009).
 See R. Wolfrum and N.
Matz, Conflicts in international environmental law (Berlin: Springer,
 Rachel Baird, et al, “Ocean Acidification: A Litmus
Test for International Law”, Sydney Law
School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10/139, 2010, 2
 In contrast to the ozone
depletion and climate change that has attracted far more scientific attention
over a longer period, with correspondingly greater impacts upon global
environmental regime building. See generally Peter M. Haas, “Banning
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