Rising CO2 Emissions: The Sea of Lemon Juice

CrabChances are that when you think of nature’s ability to absorb the nasty CO2 that we humans pump into the atmosphere, you think green. That is, trees and very likely the Amazon Rainforest. But what many of us don’t know is that our vast and beautiful ocean acts as a massive CO2 “sink” as well, absorbing approximately 25 percent of CO2 emissions. This CO2 absorption, however, is not all good. While the oceanic CO2 sink lessens atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas and assists in the prevention of climate change, the benefits don’t necessarily outweigh the costs. As oceanic CO2 concentrations increase, so does acidity. Indeed, the ocean has become almost 30 percent more acidic since the onset of the Industrial Revolution as a result of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations and thus increasing absorption by the sea. Acidity is expected to rise another 90-120 percent by the year 2100.

What does this mean for marine life and for you? Well, sea creatures will be forced to swim in water that increasingly resembles lemon juice. Of course, the ocean won’t become nearly that acidic (at least not in the next 100 years), but even small increases in acidity can have a detrimental effect on marine life. Shellfish will suffer as acidification inhibits shell formation. And we’re not just talking about the shrimp, crab and lobster that we humans enjoy. But smaller shell-clad creatures are an important food source for numerous species, including salmon, mackerel, herring, cod and even whales! Take away the food source, take away the prey. Likewise, coral reefs could be wiped out as corals become unable to build their skeletons, which will devastate tourism and fishing industries, and will rid vast swaths of coastline of the valuable protection that reefs provide against strong currents, waves and storms. Importantly, the aqueous laboratory proved that the coral reef is a valuable source of medicines used to treat serious conditions including cancer.

So what’s the story with CO2? In 2010 the U.S. emitted more than 6.8 billion tons of greenhouse gasses, the vast majority of which (5.7 billion tons) was CO2. In San Diego County alone, the hard data reveal that we emit some 34 million tons of CO2 (and CO2 equivalent) annually. Projections indicate that CO2 emissions will worsen materially by 2020 – increasing by more than 26 percent or to 43 million tons.

ReefWhat can you do to save the valuable marine ecosystem? What can you do to make sure these CO2 projections don’t materialize or, better yet, reverse? I’m glad you asked. At the level of the individual, the use of passenger vehicles (a.k.a. driving) is the largest sources of CO2 emissions. An average American vehicle emits 1 pound of CO2 for every mile driven. As a driver, you can reduce your CO2 emissions in two ways: (1) drive less or (2) increase your fuel economy. Car pool if you can. Walk, ride a bike, take public transportation – even a portion of the way. Many trolley stops in San Diego have large parking lots nearby. If you take the trolley 7 miles to work, you’ll avoid emitting 14 pounds of CO2 every work day. That’s 3,500 pounds of CO2 a year (assuming 50 work weeks). If that’s not an option, you can certainly drive a little more slowly! Driving at 65mph instead of 75mph, for example, reduces CO2 emissions by approximately 15 percent. You can stop emitting hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of CO2 annually by driving 10 mph less. And let’s face it, speeding never really gets you there faster. Remember the time you raced around that annoyingly slow driver blocking your path, only to find yourself squirming uncomfortably when the car caught up to you in traffic? Haha, we’ve all been there.

In addition to changing your driving habits, you can reduce your household energy consumption – another major contributor of CO2 emissions. Turn off lights, fans, TVs, stereos and heating and cooling systems when you don’t need them. Use energy efficient light bulbs. Shorten your showers, install a low flow shower head or take cooler showers! Hot water use is a major drain (no pun intended) on the energy supply.

In short, there are lots of things you can do to reduce your personal carbon footprint and save our oceans. Some effort is better than no effort. If you change just one CO2 emitting habit, you can have an impact. Although it would be best to start big, even small changes help.

P.S. If you want to get serious about reducing your CO2 footprint, check out this fancy calculator made available by the EPA.