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Protection Of Oceans A Bright Spot At Rio+20

The news out of the Rio+20 Earth Summit has been bleak. World leaders, yet again caught in the headlights of financial crises and electoral cycles, fundamentally failed us and the planet. However, there is a bright spot—and it is blue. Both the formal Rio text and the voluntary, on-the-ground and on the water commitments nations made, are a reason for hope.

The oceans sequester, or absorb, about 30 percent of the CO2 we spew into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. But this remarkable environmental service, helping to moderate the climate impact of our fossil fuel addition, comes at a heavy cost—ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification has created renewed urgency to reduce pollution, over fishing and coastal damage to build ocean ecosystem resilience against the adverse effects of carbon pollution. The only long-term solution to acidification is deep cuts in CO2 emissions, but to ensure that as much marine biodiversity as possible survives the inevitable acidification in the coming decades, building resilience is essential and urgent.

The ocean is already 30 percent more acidic than in pre-industrial times. Under all emissions scenarios acidification will increase—we’ve already loaded so much carbon into the atmosphere that the oceans will continue to absorb it until they reach the equilibrium point. That means that even if CO2 emissions were to halt tomorrow, acidification would continue to worsen. At stake are the coral ecosystems and wild creatures of the sea, as well as the food security of more than a billion people who rely on the oceans for their primary source of protein.

The Rio+20 text that the nations will likely adopt today addresses many of the most important ocean protection issues, including the need to reduce plastic debris and other pollution from land-based sources, and to work collectively to monitor and prevent further ocean acidification and enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems.

There are renewed commitments to maintain or restore depleted fish stocks and combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, eliminate government subsidies that contribute to overfishing and fleet overcapacity, and substantially increase the number of marine protected areas devoted to conserving biological diversity in the oceans. A process to move forward on protecting high seas marine biodiversity rounds out the oceans section of the text.

The other positive news for the oceans out of Rio was the announcement of a suite of on-the-ground and in-the-water measures. The first news came out of Australia, which announced plans to create the world’s largest marine reserve, covering more than a third of Australia’s waters, including the Great Barrier Reef. In total about 3 million square kilometers will be protected by restrictions on overfishing and oil and gas exploration.

Then, Mexican president Calderón rejected a controversial and destructive resort development in Baja California Sur, overlooking an internationally protected reef. Mexico's decision to cancel the approval for the project is a great step toward safeguarding the precious Cabo Pulmo reef, and was precipitated in part by the Earthjustice-supported work of our partner group AIDA.

And finally, the U.S. and other countries announced that they will provide $1 million over the next three years to launch a global network to monitor increasing acidification in international waters.

The commitments and initiatives announced in Rio are important, but they are also a call to action for the rest of us. It is now our challenge and responsibility to hold our governments to account, to make sure they implement their commitments and turn hard won-words on a page into real gains for the oceans and communities around the world.

Earthjustice will be working to support the voices of oceans champions like the Pacific Small Island Developing States and to turn Rio’s momentum on oceans into new agreements, standards and initiatives to reduce ocean pollution and overfishing, and increase the resilience of marine ecosystems around the world.

Number 6, Sand Key, Great Barrier Reef. Australia has announced plans to create the world’s largest marine reserve, covering more than a third of Australia’s waters, including the Great Barrier Reef.
(David Doubilet /