Study Finds That Top Fossil Fuel Companies’ Emissions Responsible for More Than Half of Ocean Acidification Since 1880

More Than One-Fifth of Ocean Acidity Increase Linked to Just 20 Companies

Published Dec 11, 2019

WASHINGTON (December 11, 2019)—A peer-reviewed study published today in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters found that emissions traced to the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are responsible for more than half of the ocean’s acidification since pre-industrial times.

Focusing on the 88 largest gas, oil and coal producers and cement manufacturers, the study calculated the amount of ocean acidification that occurred as a result of carbon released during fossil fuel extraction, production and use.

The study examined companies’ emissions during two time periods: 1880 to 2015 and 1965 to 2015. Recent research has documented that the oil and gas industry was aware of the climate risks of their products since at least the mid-1960s. Once these risks became widely known, fossil fuel companies launched a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign to convince the public that climate science was too uncertain to warrant action.

“We’ve known for several decades that burning fossil fuels is by far the largest driver of ocean acidification, but we weren’t able to track how much any one fossil fuel company contributed to the problem, and in what way,” said Rachel Licker, lead study author and senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Scientists can now quantify how much more acidic the ocean has become as a result of each fossil fuel company’s products.”

Licker and her co-authors used a dataset developed by the Climate Accountability Institute and adapted their methodology from a 2017 study, which for the first time linked global climate impacts—global temperature increase and sea level rise—to product-related emissions of specific fossil fuel producers for slightly different timeframes. Because ocean acidification and its impacts are not uniform across the globe, the team used a 3-D model to map these differences, and to identify five regions where ocean acidification and related changes in ocean chemistry are affecting nearby communities whose livelihoods depend on thriving marine life.

The study found that:

  • Emissions traced to 88 major carbon producers from 1880 to 2015 have contributed to more than half (~55 percent) of the observed increase in ocean acidification over this time period.

  • Emissions traced to 88 major carbon producers from 1965-2015 have contributed to more than half (~51 percent) of the ocean acidification that has been observed between 1880-2015.

  • More than one-fifth (~23 percent) of that increased acidity from 1880 could be traced to the emissions from the 20 largest investor-owned and majority state-owned companies since 1965, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell.

  • Regions that face disproportionately high risk of damage from ocean acidification include the Coral Triangle, Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, Peru Current, Arctic Ocean and California Current.

  • Increasing ocean acidification in the California Current further stresses fisheries that provide more than 43,000 jobs along the U.S. West Coast, which is already being impacted by warming ocean waters.

  • Similarly, ocean acidification in the Gulf of Alaska further stresses fisheries that provide more than 53,000 jobs in a region that is already being impacted by warming ocean waters.

  • The Coral Triangle is home to more than three-quarters of the world’s reef-building corals. Increasing acidification further stresses fisheries that provide nearly 4.3 million jobs in the region, which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.

  • In the Peru Current, increasing acidification further stresses fisheries in Chile that provide 90,000 jobs.

The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the planet and absorbs most of the excess heat caused by our heat-trapping emissions to the atmosphere, raising ocean temperatures. The ocean also absorbs much of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, changing marine chemistry. As a result, the ocean is acidifying at a rate unparalleled in the last 66 million years, harming marine life and the health and livelihoods of coastal communities. Since 1880, the ocean’s surface water acidity has increased more than 25 percent.

“Ocean acidification makes it more difficult for many marine organisms to construct their shells and skeletons,” said Scott Doney, study co-author and the Kington Professor of Environmental Change at the University of Virginia. “The organisms at risk from acidification form the foundation of the marine ecosystem food chain—including some types of plankton, algae, shellfish, and coral that may struggle to grow and survive in a future warmer, more acidic ocean.”

Coral reefs are now at a tipping point. Rising ocean temperatures are bleaching coral at a rate so unprecedented that they don’t have enough time to recover before more bleaching occurs. Recovery attempts are further hampered by ocean acidification, which studies suggest prevents corals from rebuilding and reproducing.

Loss of marine life can have wide-reaching consequences for communities that rely on tourism and fishing for their livelihoods. In some regions, fishing is also a main source of nutrition. The U.N. Environment Programme estimates that developing countries will need $140 billion to $300 billion annually by 2030 and $280 billion to $500 billion annually by 2050 to adapt. However, Licker noted that scientists, policymakers and community leaders are likely underestimating the risks and costs to some regions because ocean acidification and its impacts are not uniformly distributed, and climate impacts compound other human-caused stressors, such as overfishing, erosion and nutrient pollution. Many coastal communities, especially those of indigenous people and developing nations, have limited financial resources to adapt and are already struggling with other challenges, such as chronic poverty and hunger.

“As impacts worsen and become more costly, frontline communities and affected industries are now calling on fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for their outsized contribution to the problem,” said Peter Frumhoff, report co-author and director of science and policy at UCS. “Companies could have acted responsibly to inform the public about risks and taken actions to reduce emissions. They chose instead to disinform and delay. By putting a number on fossil fuel company contributions to disruptive ocean acidification, our study can inform decisions about their responsibilities for damages that could have—and should have—been avoided.”