During the past two weeks (29th November to 10th December 2010) environment officials and government ministers have been meeting in Cancún, Mexico for the 16th COP Climate Talks. The aim of these talks is to co-ordinate international action to tackle climate change. Key areas of negotiation include cuts to carbon emissions, plans to protect forests, the creation of a fund to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climates and an extension of the Kyoto protocol due to end in 2012.
International commitments to reducing carbon emissions were first made in 2005 with the Kyoto Protocol which bound 37 industrialised countries to reducing their carbon emissions to a level that was 5% below each countries 1990 carbon emission level by 2012. In order to continue reducing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide beyond 2012 a new international framework has to be developed but Russia and Japan have already said they will not back an extension to the protocol. Binding deals that commit governments to reducing carbon emissions are not expected to be made at this year’s talks and may only lead to further talks in 2011.
So why is it so important to address carbon emission levels and tackle climate change?
Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are leading to a rapid increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that has never been seen before. This increase is contributing to a change in climate which is seen in the gradual increase of global temperatures and the increasing frequency and intensity of weather events such as hurricanes.
All species of life including mammals, invertebrates, amphibians, birds, fish and plants have to adapt in order to cope with these changes and there is fear that species will not be able to adapt quickly enough to keep up. For example mammals may have to move to higher latitudes where temperatures are cooler and migrating species such as whales, including EDGE Mammals the Blue whale, Fin whale and Sperm whale may begin to change their migration routes as ocean currents begin to change.
Scientists are already predicting that 2010 will be the hottest year since records began and this is causing particular concern to coral reef scientists. Coral species are particularly sensitive to changes in sea temperatures and increases of just 1 or 2°C above average can cause coral bleaching, where coral expels symbiotic, energy-providing algae called zooxanthellae from its tissue, potentially killing the coral. It has already been reported that 60% of corals on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have been bleached and if bleaching in 2010 is as bad as the last time sea temperatures were this high in 2005 then some regions could see up to 80% of their corals bleached.
Ocean acidification is another important threat to coral reefs that make it essential that global carbon emission levels are cut. Historically the ocean has absorbed excess atmospheric carbon dioxide but the increasing uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide is causing a decrease in pH of sea water . This change has a negative impact on organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons such as coral as it weakens skeletons and slows growth rates. If the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to rise at the present rate then by 2040 we could be seeing a rapid and terminal decline in coral reefs which in turn will have serious social and economic impacts on the many people who depend on the reef for sustenance and livelihood.
You can read more about coral reefs on the EDGE here.
To prevent further, irreversible impacts of climate change and ocean acidification it is essential that governments continue to co-operate in an international effort to reduce carbon emissions that in turn will benefit every species on our planet.