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A New Push to Make Ocean Issues a Priority as U.N. Climate Talks Begin

As this year’s meeting to implement the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, marine advocates will be present to argue that ocean protections play a crucial role in fighting climate change.

Written by Emily Gertz Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Will nations look up when it comes to the oceans’ role in slowing climate change? Orjan F. Ellingvag/Dagens Naringsliv/Corbis via Getty Images

As the United Nations’ annual international climate conference kicks off in Bonn, Germany, this week, many marine advocates plan to be there, pushing ocean issues to the forefront of the talks.

Delegates at the 23rd Conference of Parties (known as COP23) will be working to persuade negotiators from 197 countries that protection for ocean life, including its benefits for human civilization, needs to be a stronger component of national and international plans for blunting the intensity of climate change and adapting to effects that can no longer be averted. Fiji, the small Pacific island nation that will preside over this year’s talks, has called ocean and climate issues a “two-front war.”

Dozens of organizations, universities and businesses have united behind the “Ocean & Climate Platform,” a nine-point policy framework for integrating global efforts to reverse ocean degradation with climate change actions. Its recommendations range from expanding development of offshore wind, tidal and other marine-based renewable energy resources to dedicating millions of dollars in international climate financing to the protection of vulnerable coastal ecosystems that, like forests, are important storehouses for carbon dioxide pollution.

“The more the oceans are depleted or getting weaker, the less the ability of the ocean to produce oxygen and [store carbon],” said Patricia Ricard, president of the Paul Ricard Oceanography Institute, a French research organization that serves on the Ocean & Climate platform’s steering committee. After two decades of increasingly anxious climate discussions, Ricard believes attention to the ocean is long overdue.

“We have to get out of COP23 with the ocean integrated in all the tools existing and maybe to be invented,” she said.

The oceans have a crucial role in slowing down climate change. Marine waters and ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangrove and seagrass beds, absorb about a third of annual carbon dioxide pollution and, to date, have taken up over 90 percent of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by this excess CO2.

But their ability to keep doing so is in doubt. Increased ocean temperatures have stressed undersea ecosystems worldwide and are fueling stronger storms. Rising temperatures could also affect the ocean’s capacity to generate oxygen, which accounts for more than half of the global supply. Fragile coral reefs are being hammered by multiple threats including bleaching, an increase in extreme weather and pollution. More CO2 dissolving in the ocean has caused its acidity to increase about 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution.

Climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany, in 2016 and they’ll gather there again this week. (Xinhua/Tang Zhiqiang via Getty Images)

Much of this has been known in broad strokes. But the science underlying the role played by the oceans in the global carbon cycle has come into sharper focus in recent years. For example, authors of a recent report that is the culmination of eight years of work and hundreds of studies have found that ocean acidification is a threat to all kinds of sea life far beyond the commonly cited reef ecosystems. They noted that increasing ocean acidity could speed up global warming in unexpected ways, such as by slowing the growth of tiny algae that soak up carbon. The authors of the report, called BIOACID, will present the findings to the Bonn conference and argue that acidification is one more reason to take stronger action to curb fossil fuels.

The issue for marine experts is that many of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters take for granted the ocean’s role in slowing climate change and its overall resiliency.

A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change just a week before the Bonn meeting analyzed 161 national blueprints for climate action and adaptation. Governments have created these “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, since 2015’s watershed climate talks culminated in the Paris agreement, which requires nations to set goals and take concrete steps for reducing emissions and reevaluate them every several years.

More than two-thirds of nations do consider ocean issues and resources in their climate action plans, the study found. This group includes many smaller and coastal nations, from Bahrain to Vietnam, but few of the world’s largest emitters. Other than countries without coastlines, major industrialized nations and groupings such as the United States, Russia, Australia and the European Union were those most likely to discount oceans in their plans.

“Those countries really underrepresent oceans in their NDCs, despite being coastal, despite having large exclusive economic zones, despite having really important fisheries,” said lead author Natalya Gallo, a marine biologist and policy analyst at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Gallo and her colleagues reached that conclusion by calculating how often ocean-related content appeared in each national climate plan and how varied it was. However, they didn’t assess whether an action would be environmentally beneficial, such as increasing the size of a marine protected area, or potentially destructive, such as desalinating seawater to replace freshwater supplies lost to climate change.

Of the 112 nations that included ocean issues in their climate plans, the small island nation of Maldives scored highest in the study’s rankings. Although responsible for just 0.003 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the country has committed to reducing its total reliance on fossil fuels by 10 percent by 2030. With a population of nearly 350,000 spread across 197 low-lying islands, Maldives has identified dozens of ocean-related measures it can take, ranging from protecting its main airport from sea-level rise to building better sewage treatment plants to lower the pollution stresses on its coral reefs, which are crucial to the island’s fishing and tourism industries.

Even among nations that discuss how climate change affects ocean and coastal environments, relatively few included the ocean in their blueprints for curbing carbon pollution, such as proposing protections for marine ecosystems that sequester carbon dioxide.

“Oceans and marine ecosystems seem to show up a lot more frequently within the adaptation sections of the NDCs,” said Gallo, with sea-level rise and beach erosion mentioned by nearly 100 countries, rising ocean temperatures by 77 and harms to fisheries by 72. Small-island nations were among those most likely to factor these effects into their plans, the study found.

Two major issues that are almost never mentioned by any nations are ocean acidification and oxygen levels, however. Gallo believes this is a sign that ocean research and policy needs to be a bigger global priority.

Gallo’s analysis is a valuable contribution to that effort, Ricard said, because it has systematically identified gaps in national climate action plans. In coping with climate change, “the ocean is not the last chance, but it’s our best chance,” said Ricard.

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