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UNFCCC COP26: Building A Sustainable Ocean Economy To Fight Climate Change

Emily Heaslip

The United Nations COP26 Climate Change Summit ended a few weeks ago, concluding two weeks of negotiations and planning to combat the impact of global warming around the world. World leaders gathered to update the Paris Agreement into action and create the “Paris Rulebook” that will govern how the world will actually reach the emission reduction goals set forth in the Agreement. 

Before the conference, news outlets reported that countries around the world were “far off-track” to reach the emission reductions goals of the Paris Agreement. At our current emissions rate, global warming will devastate coastal communities in the coming years — and set off a humanitarian crisis never seen before. 

Scientists have long recognized that the ocean plays a critical role in mitigating the impact of climate change. So, how did leaders factor oceans into their plan to fight climate change at COP26?

“Saving the planet while ignoring two-thirds of it”

The relationship between the ocean and climate change has been largely overlooked in past climate conferences As journalist Ian Urbina wrote

“Climate change agreements, such as the Paris Accord, have embraced the goal of restricting global temperatures to within 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. But what does that ambitious goal mean for marine life? If global temperatures rise by 1.5 °C, only about 10 to 30 percent of coral reefs will survive, diminishing the habitat of roughly one-quarter of all ocean species, not to mention the impact on coastal storm protection, food and job security, and our marine prospects for biomedical research.” 

Global carbon emission targets don’t account for the ocean's potential to combat the climate crisis. Rewilding coastlines, for instance, would restore coastal habitats such as mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses. These ecosystems absorb more carbon than all the world’s forests.  

What came of COP26?

The COP26 summit brought forth Glasgow Climate Pact, which calls on 197 countries to report on their progress toward reducing emissions in Egypt at COP27 in 2022. Much of the pact is related to halting and reversing deforestation, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and shifting away from coal. 

Leaders focused on the ocean at COP26’s “Ocean Action Day” on November 5. A broad coalition known as “Blue Leaders” included heads of government and ocean advocates from countries including Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Fiji, Finland, Gabon, Monaco, Nigeria, Palau, Panama, Seychelles, and Spain. These Blue Leaders called for immediate action to protect ocean ecosystems and marine life from climate change and harmful human activities. Specifically, the Blue Leaders called for: 

  • A global target to protect at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030. 
  • A robust United Nations treaty to conserve and protect marine biodiversity in the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.

Protecting 30% of the ocean would require a globally interconnected network of marine protected areas. . As for the proposed new UN treaty, this agreement would strengthen the assessment and management of human activities outside these protected areas, according to the NRDC. A potential model for this type of solution can be found in Palau, where the country has mounted an aggressive conservation response to protect its 230,000 square miles of ocean. 

There were plenty of ocean-related discussions, panels, and events at COP26: you can see some of them here. However, the agreements that resulted from this year’s UN Climate Change Summit largely focused on land-based solutions rather than innovative strategies offshore. 

UN Sustainable Development Goal 14

Even though the ocean played somewhat of a supporting role at COP26,there’s credible progress being made toward the UN SDG 14, “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.” Goal targets range from reducing marine pollution to minimizing ocean acidification to conserving marine coastal areas and preventing overfishing. 

A statement by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy at COP26 encouraged world leaders and governments worldwide to accelerate specific targets under UN SDG 14, namely: 

  1. Invest in Nature-based Climate Solutions 
  2. Harness Ocean-based Renewable Energy 
  3. Decarbonise Ocean Industries 
  4. Secure Sustainable Food for the Future 
  5. Advance the Deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage 
  6. Expand Ocean Observation and Research 

The Panel noted that ocean-based climate actions can deliver up to 21% of the annual greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed to limit global temperature rise by 1.5℃ by 2050

We’ve highlighted numerous ways in which protecting the ocean through the use of data can also play a role in meeting Paris Agreement emissions targets. Read more about ongoing efforts to conserve marine ecosystems and opportunities to reduce carbon on our blog: 

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