To date, climate change is commonly discussed as though it is just a uniquely atmospheric phenomenon. But the crisis is deeply entwined with the ocean (and seas, rivers and other water bodies). This has largely been neglected in all international climate talks till date or has always been not streamlined or focused on in the right way.
COP26 negotiations made some progress by, that too for the first time, anchoring oceans permanently into the multilateral climate change regime. But this is only the beginning. The role of the ocean must be an integral part of the carbon discussion as we plan our trajectory to a net-zero future.
The ocean plays an essential role in regulating the earth’s climate. Covering 70% of the planet, it absorbs CO2 and heat, and the life within it produces half the oxygen we breathe. Scientists say the ocean has absorbed 90% of all the warming that has taken place in the past 50 years. Without that protection, the earth would be heating much more rapidly.
At Shakti, our mission is to accelerates ocean-related strategies to address the climate crisis and to sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources.
Global awareness of the importance of oceans has risen, and especially of the need to adopt a Blue Economy approach—defined as the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of marine and coastal ecosystems.
A report commissioned by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy found that by 2050, ocean solutions could contribute as much as one-fifth of the GHG emission cuts needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. At the same time, these ocean-based solutions can create jobs, sustain livelihoods and communities, and lead to a healthier ocean.
From offshore wind to wave and tidal energy, the ocean is an abundant source of renewable power. Development, however, must be done responsibly, considering fishing, fragile ecosystems, and other ocean priorities. Marine transportation, which emits nearly 3% of global GHG emissions, is ripe for innovation with opportunities as transitioning to low or zero carbon fuels, slow steaming, improving energy efficiency or wind-assisted propulsion.
Coastal wetlands such as mangrove forests, salt marshes, and seagrass beds can sequester three to five times as much carbon as tropical forests if protected appropriately, while also serving as buffers from storms and storage areas for floodwaters.
Ocean-based mitigation options do not feature as prominently as they could in countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) or long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies under the Paris Agreement.
The ocean itself is becoming warmer, more acidic and less oxygen-rich as a result of climate change. If GHG emissions are constantly released into the atmosphere, marine ecosystems which are already facing threats from seaborne plastic waste, unsustainable fishing practices and other man-made stresses will be further strained.
The latest IPCC report clearly states that the ocean is under severe threat due to anthropogenic climate. It also states that the Indian Ocean is warming at a higher rate than other oceans as a result of which India will witness increased heat waves and flooding.
The impacts of ocean warming and acidification on coastal and marine species and ecosystems are already observable. For example, the current amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is already too high for coral reefs to thrive, putting at risk food provision, flood protection and other services corals provide. Moreover, increased GHG emissions exacerbate the impact of already existing stressors on coastal and marine environments from land-based activities (e.g. urban discharges, agricultural runoff and plastic waste) and the ongoing, unsustainable exploitation of these systems (e.g. overfishing, deep-sea mining and coastal development). These cumulative impacts weaken the ability of the ocean and coasts to continue to perform critical ecosystem services.
Increased sea surface temperatures are associated with making hurricanes and tropical cyclones more powerful, his has some significant knock-on effects for seawater chemistry and the ecosystems that rely on it.
It is time for international agreements to make increasingly ambitious commitments that both explicitly incorporate how the ocean is threatened by climate change and take advantage of how the ocean can allay it. Nations can reach the agreements needed to ensure a healthy ocean, but those discussions must begin in earnest right now.
Priority actions should strengthen the mitigation, adaptation and resilience potential of the ocean, as well as dependent communities and economies, through measures that can deliver net-zero outcomes.