The latest international climate negotiations have moved forward by anchoring the oceans permanently into the multilateral climate change regime for the first time. But the Glasgow Climate Pact is still a long way from what it needs to be to adequately reflect the importance of the oceans to our climate system.
Most countries have targets for emissions from land-based emissions – but there are no such targets for the oceans. Yet the ocean plays a vital role in helping to balance the conditions that humans and most other species need to survive, while also providing a substantial part of the solution to stopping global warming beyond. the crucial limit of 1.5 this century.
So how can the oceans help us cope with the climate crisis? And what progress has been made in international negotiations?
The incredible potential of the ocean
Since industrialization, the ocean has absorbed 93% of human heat and a third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO₂). The consequences are profound, including thermal expansion of water (the main cause of sea level rise), ocean acidification, deoxygenation (loss of oxygen) and forcing marine life to withdraw. redistribute to other places.
Alarmingly, this could one day cause the ocean to reverse its role as a carbon sink and release CO₂ into the atmosphere, as its absorptive capacity decreases.
Equally important is ocean-based climate change mitigation, which could provide more than 20% of the emissions reductions needed for the 1.5 target.
Above all, we need to see changes in the maritime industries. The shipping industry alone has a carbon footprint similar to Germany’s – if shipping were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-largest emitter. Although high on the agenda of the International Maritime Organization, decarbonization of maritime transport still lacks adequate targets or processes.
The oceans can also provide sustainable and climate-safe food choices. Current food systems, such as emission-intensive agriculture, fisheries and processed foods are responsible for a third of global emissions. Considerable environmental (and health) benefits can be achieved by changing our diets towards sustainable “blue foods”.
These include seafood from fisheries with sustainable management practices, such as preventing overfishing and reducing carbon emissions. Markets and technologies should also be geared towards the large-scale production and consumption of aquatic plants such as seagrass beds.
“Blue carbon” also offers a multitude of opportunities: capturing CO₂ in the atmosphere by conserving and restoring marine ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes. However, the success of nature-based solutions depends on a healthy ocean ecosystem. For example, emerging concerns about the impact of plastic pollution on the ability of plankton to absorb CO₂.
But perhaps the biggest impact would come from the adoption of offshore renewables. This has the potential to deliver a tenth of the emissions reductions we need to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target. The International Energy Agency has estimated that offshore wind could power the world 18 times more than its current consumption rate.
Climate talks progress slowly For more than a decade, the inclusion of the oceans in climate talks has been piecemeal and inconsistent. Where they participated in negotiations, including at COP26, discussions focused on the potential of coastal areas to adapt to the impacts of climate change such as sea level rise, as was raised for the first time in international forums in 1989 by small island states.
The final COP26 deal, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, has progressed slightly.
The pact recognized the importance of ensuring the integrity of the ocean ecosystem. It established the “Dialogue on Ocean and Climate Change” as an annual process to strengthen ocean-based action. And he invited the bodies of the UNFCCC to consider how to “integrate and strengthen ocean-based action into existing mandates and work plans” and report back.
Although these are positive steps, at this stage they do not require any action from the parties. Therefore, they are only a theoretical inclusion, not action-oriented.
We still lack national targets and clear and binding international requirements for countries to consider offshore sinks, sources and activities in their climate planning and reporting.
Where COP26 has made progress is by focusing on whether the impacts and mitigation of the oceans will finally be mainstreamed into the overall climate agenda. For the first time in five years, a new “Because the Ocean” declaration has been released, which calls for the systematic inclusion of the oceans in the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement process.
What shall we do now?
What is needed now is a list of mandatory requirements that ensure that countries report and take responsibility for climate impacts in their maritime territories.
But as COP26 President Alok Sharma said of the summit as a whole, it was a “fragile victory”. We still lack any reference to consistency with existing mechanisms, such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea or how funds will be allocated specifically to the oceans.
Thus, the real impact of COP26 on the inclusion of the oceans in climate action remains uncertain. This will depend on how the bodies of the UNFCCC react to these guidelines and on their success in extending the obligations to States Parties.
Responding to the climate crisis means we need to stop pretending that the ocean and the atmosphere are separate. We need to start including ocean action as part of climate action.