A sea change in climate action

Killer Whales in Monterey Bay, California - helping to sequester the carbon emissions from those smokestacks in the background. Photo: © John Krzesinski 2012 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Killer Whales in Monterey Bay, California - helping to sequester the carbon emissions from those smokestacks in the background. Photo: © John Krzesinski 2012 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
It’s time for the ocean to to lead the way in the fight against climate change.

But with a myriad of technologies, agencies and policies all trying to address climate change, how do we make sure that the potential and fragility of the ocean isn’t overlooked?

Five years ago, we were racing around the COP21 climate summit in Paris with a press release in hand, telling everyone we could find that - after much debate - the final Paris Agreement included the ocean.

But not a single journalist wrote about it. It was a depressing realisation that - despite the critical role the ocean plays in regulating our climate - the ocean still took a back seat in the climate negotiations.

Since then, things have changed for the better. Last week, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held its first ocean and climate change dialogue.

Targets

It shows the international community is beginning to recognise the connections between the global environmental challenges of managing the ocean, biodiversity and the climate crisis.

But with a myriad of technologies, agencies and policies all trying to address climate change, how do we make sure that the potential and fragility of the ocean isn’t overlooked?

There’s enormous potential in the work of the most powerful climate body we already have: the UNFCCC. First, it needs to do everything within its power to encourage every government on earth to have a plan for the ocean.

As each country releases its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) ahead of next year’s COP 26, the UNFCCC should encourage countries to include a robust plan for ocean-based targets. The UNFCCC can also help countries incorporate the ocean into their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).

Juristiction

Next, the UNFCCC should use its influence, to help countries mitigate the worst effects of climate change, to encourage climate-smart fisheries practices, and to protect marine biodiversity that provides food security for billions of people around the world.

This would allow more species to flourish in the ocean, incentivise more sustainable development, and protect fisheries from the worst effects of climate change.

But the UNFCCC can’t address the ocean-climate-biodiversity nexus alone. It should engage with other UN processes like the UN Law of the Sea, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Ocean and Climate Dialogues present fruitful opportunities for collaboration: for example, given the UNFCCC’s main jurisdiction is within national boundaries, it needs to consider the potential of its work to protect parts of the world outside of those boundaries.

The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBJN) Treaty, which is currently being negotiated, covers areas beyond national jurisdiction and could ensure that the ocean and the climate are protected at the same time.

Fisheries

Protecting oceans doesn’t just need a chorus of voices - it needs a drumbeat to accompany them. A regular assessment of ocean health could bring us together and drive us forward in the same way the IPCC report has brought momentum and urgency to the climate emergency.

The World Ocean Assessment is a comprehensive report on the current state of oceans, and how humans benefit from and affect them. The report is an underutilised, yet rich resource offering policy options for decision makers to focus minds - and the next report is set to be released in 2021.

Next, it’s time to tap into the power of the ocean to help mitigate and adapt to climate impacts. The more ocean biodiversity dwindles away, the more we lose its vital protection against climate risk - and the less effective climate interventions will be.

Take mangroves and other coastal wetlands that grow on nearly all tropical and subtropical coastlines. They help protect communities from storm surges and flooding, and provide food. But they’re also critical for capturing carbon.

That means when mangroves go, we don’t just lose biodiversity, nursery grounds for fisheries species, and coastal storm surge protection — we also lose active removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, driving up climate risk.

Catastrophic

There are already a range of biodiversity processes to lean on: the Convention on Biological Diversity; the 30x30 campaign to protect a third of the global ocean in the next decade; the SDG14 goals, and the BBJN treaty.

Now, it’s time to put them to work and match the ambition shown by the High Level Ocean Panel, 14 world leaders who’ve just committed to sustainably manage every inch of their national ocean waters by 2025.

Next year marks the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development - a once in a generation effort to stop the decline in ocean health and make a plan to reverse it. This must be the decade when we recognise the links between oceans and the climate emergency, and then get to work.

It’s an exciting time to be an ocean scientist. There’s an abundance of potential for the climate agenda to protect the ocean: collaborations between civil society groups and national and international governing bodies; new milestone reports; proper protection of biodiversity.

Our ocean has enormous potential to guard against some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change. But it can only do that if we look after it.

These Authors

Lisa Levin is distinguished professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

Natalya Gallo is a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. 

Bobbi-Jo Dobush, J.D., is a Ocean Advocate and Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative Member.

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