A healthy ocean is vital in the fight against climate change, but it has taken a back seat in climate negotiations. Photo by: UNDP / Vlad Sokhin / CC BY-NC-ND

MADRID — The myriad challenges facing the world’s oceans, as well as the oceans’ role in mitigating the impacts of climate change, were expected to take center stage at last week’s COP25. In one of the side events focused on the oceans, Peter Thomson, U.N. special envoy for the ocean, told the audience that it has taken a long time to get to the point of having a “blue COP.” “It’s the first time the ocean is fully integrated and where it should be,” he said.

While the Paris Agreement only mentions oceans in the preamble, there are now calls for the inclusion of blue carbon — the carbon captured by the world's oceans — and coastal ecosystems in countries’ revised nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which are due to be submitted in 2020. There is also a proposed work program specifically for the ocean, as well as Article 6 on carbon markets and international cooperation.

“The most important thing is for us to understand the opportunities that nature has already given us to help create solutions.”

— Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth secretary-general

But some experts say that it is too little, too late.

“Oceans have been missing in the climate change debate,” said Minna Epps, director of the global marine and polar program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Progress has been made in the last 10 years … But for someone who lives and breathes in the realm of the ocean, I think it’s still far too underrepresented, especially if you look at the NDCs.”

Epps noted that currently only 19% of NDCs from countries with coastal ecosystems refer to nature-based solutions, or NBS, which are actions that sustainably manage, protect, and restore natural or modified ecosystems and are often discussed as one way to help build resilience against the impacts of climate change. Coastal and marine ecosystems, such as mangroves, and other wetlands, such as peatlands, are relatively poorly represented for mitigation purposes, added Epps.

A warming ocean

As the oceans become warmer, sea levels rise — causing flooding and coastal erosion — and the increased heat content of the ocean fuels more intense hurricanes and cyclones, while marine heat waves lead to huge coral-bleaching events. The effects of ocean acidification are also starting to be seen — although predicted impacts on food webs are yet to be observed — as is deoxygenation, which has potentially devastating effects on biodiversity, marine ecosystems, biomass, and availability of habitats. This, in turn, could have wide-ranging socioeconomic consequences, particularly in low- and middle-income countries that depend on fisheries and reef-based tourism.

Released by IUCN during COP25, a new report on ocean deoxygenation — a topic that is barely mentioned in the Paris Agreement — found that the average amount of oxygen in the oceans has already reduced globally by 2%.

That may sound like very little, Epps said, but more extreme figures are also being seen — for example, a 30% decrease of oxygen in waters off the coast of California and the occurrence of one hypoxic event in Panama that resulted in a 75% loss of coral diversity.

The report predicts a 3% to 4% decline in oxygen on average by 2100, which “will have enormous implications on our oceans,” Epps said.

Taholo Kami, Fiji’s special representative for oceans, said that while some people at COP said oceans “are a distraction” and the focus should be on emissions, those coming from the ocean states “can’t separate climate from the oceans.” According to Kami, the two are connected: Much of the focus in negotiations has been on the obviously devastating effects of climate change on the oceans and less on the role the oceans play in climate mitigation. According to a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in September, the ocean has absorbed 20% to 30% of carbon dioxide emitted since the 1980s. Other research estimates it has also absorbed more than 90% of the heat gained by the planet.

Kami warned, however, that the role that the ocean is currently playing may not be permanent: If the ocean starts to put out more carbon than it absorbs, then that’s a very different scenario. “I shudder to think what happens when the dynamics change — especially in a warming ocean space,” he said.

“We don’t know how much and how soon, but warming waters not only change the composition of the oceans so you get acidification, but also increases the likelihood of more disruptive storms that destroy everything and much of the upper layer of the water,” Kami said. “We need to keep emissions targets aligned with the biggest impact areas … and the ocean is the biggest by far.”

The role of nature

Can 'nature-based solutions' be more than a buzzword?

"Nature-based solutions" have been hailed as a vital part of the battle against climate change, but some critics warn the rapid rise of this agenda risks harming local communities and deflecting attention away from the need to rapidly decarbonize the global economy.

Certain nature-based solutions, including mangrove planting and coral reef restoration, could be a key part of helping to ensure that some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change can help protect their coastlines and livelihoods.

“When we talk about NBS, it is to maintain ecosystems’ integrity so they are intact and functioning as a whole, because it is all intertwined,” Epps said, adding that it is vital to recognize that nature-based solutions concern both mitigation and adaptation.

Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are also an “essential tool towards a healthy ocean” and an important way to help build resilience, Kami said. At the helm of the Ocean and Climate Change Action Group as part of the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter, Fiji has already committed to ensuring that 30% of its coastlines will be MPAs by 2030, Kami said. He added that this 10-year timeline provides an opportunity to ensure rigorous management, making sure that the 30% commitment covers the most important ecosystems. And starting Jan. 1 of 2020, single-use plastics will be banned in Fiji.

“We need to keep our patch of the ocean abundant and productive … Anything you can do to build resilience — meaning less pollution, all the other impacts we could control, and protected areas — [are] the only tools you have that’s in our control when you can’t touch the emissions cycle,” he said.

The MPAs are also locally managed, and so far the positive impacts have been visible.

“People are seeing species they haven’t seen in 30 years. The size of fish starts to change, diversity improves,” Kami said, noting that since these areas are locally managed, they could also help create jobs and secure livelihoods.

Other small island developing states are also driving action on climate change. At the COP25 side event titled “Climate-Proofing Our Oceans and Coasts Through Nature-Based Solutions,” Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland flagged Seychelles’ achievement of 30% marine protection by 2020 — 10 years ahead of global ambitions — which was met by applause from the audience. The goal of 30% marine protection by 2030 has not been adopted as an international target yet, though there is growing support for this to be adopted next year.

“The most important thing is for us to understand the opportunities that nature has already given us to help create solutions,” Scotland told Devex in an interview. But we also have to understand “some of the things we have inadvertently done that have been causative to some of the changes” that need to be reversed, she added.

For example, she noted the tragic impacts of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka could potentially have been averted if not for the lack of mangroves that lined the coast: Mangroves provide a natural protective barrier again high seas and storm surges, but many mangrove forests on the island had reportedly been felled to build prawn farms and tourist resorts.

Following the tsunami, Sri Lanka began to replenish the mangrove forests with international funding. Championing the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods, the country has so far allocated 14,000 hectares of land for mangrove restoration. These have, in turn, created nurseries for fish, improving the lives of fishers and securing livelihoods, Scotland said.

While discussions around the positive impacts of nature-based solutions were frequent throughout COP25, IUCN’s Epps stated that they are not a panacea.

“We want to promote nature based solutions, but we’re not selling it as the only thing that will save the world. We still need to cut emissions drastically, dramatically. NBS are complementary,” she said, adding that it is essential to “invest in nature and NBS.”

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Funding mechanisms

But the lack of a long-term funding strategy was noted by experts as one of the biggest obstacles to achieving real progress implementing these solutions.

One financial mechanism that could help to tackle this in the future is the Blue Natural Capital Financing Facility, which is managed by the IUCN. The BNCFF provides grants for project developers with the aim of protecting and restoring natural ecosystems to better support climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts while also conserving biodiversity and other vital coastal and marine natural resources. However, a framework for NBS specifically is due to be published in coming months.

The Commonwealth’s Climate Finance Access Hub also aims to unlock capital that has been allocated for climate adaptation and mitigation. Through the hub, national climate finance advisers are placed for one to two years in particularly climate-vulnerable countries receiving funds, with the tall task of navigating the labyrinth of climate finance bureaucracy to help ministries identify and apply for funding streams.

While there is no specific allocation for ocean action, current projects may already be involving ocean and coastal activities, such as the grant of $2.3 million secured for a Global

Environmental Monitoring Information Alert System, an initiative lead by the Mauritius Oceanography Institute for monitoring environmental pollution in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of East Africa.

Projects are based on demands and requests from the countries themselves. Of the current projects, around 70% are for adaptation and 30% for mitigation. Currently, $28.7 million has been secured, with $460 million applied for in the pipeline, generated from an initial investment of about £1 million ($1.3 million) from the United Kingdom and Australia, with Mauritius contributing as host of the hub.

Despite these shifts toward securing funds for ocean-based resilience building, Scotland highlighted that only 1% of philanthropic and other resources is directed to oceans. She called for more attention to be placed on this issue and to make oceans a truly integral part of climate change adaptation and mitigation. The stakes could not be higher, she said, “because if not now, when? And if not us, who?”

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

About the author

  • Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is a former associate editor and producer at Devex, focusing on climate change and resilience building as the editorial lead of Devex’s Turning the Tide series, and opinions editor for Devex’s Global Views section. With a background in human rights, migration, and sustainable development and design, Helen has written for a variety of international publications in Buenos Aires and Shanghai before moving to Barcelona to study contemporary migration.