Inserting “Oceans” into the Paris Climate Conversation

Marine scientists and conservation professionals are organizing to make “oceans” a priority at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) talks in Paris this December. Oceans, and the ecosystems they support, play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

The Climate Meeting in Paris provides an opportunity to highlight the connections between oceans and climate—good and bad. But these meetings are the result of complicated and bureaucratic international processes and have all the constraints associated with major international agreements. 

I sat down with Dorothée Herr, Oceans and Climate Change Manager at the IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, to discuss what we might expect at COP21 on the topic of oceans.

Pendleton: How is the UNFCCC applicable to Oceans?

Herr: The Convention itself makes references to the need to manage and conserve the oceans at

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large – and coastal and marine ecosystems in particular – for climate change mitigation as well as adaptation.  So far a lot of effort has been put on implementing adaptation activities across the world’s coastline, but less attention has been put on the mitigation role of coastal and marine ecosystems.

Oceans play an important role in the carbon cycle and act, in their entirety, as a carbon sink. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, saltmarshes and seagrasses, are efficient and profound at sequestering and storing carbon mostly in sediment from which they grow. These coastal ecosystems play a valuable role in climate change mitigation and can currently be included in national carbon accounting mechanisms.

Marine ecosystems and species in the open ocean or deep sea, including corals, kelp, plankton and marine fauna, play a significant role in absorbing, moving, and storing carbon but are currently not considered or suited to be part of UNFCCC accounting mechanisms.

Pendleton: REDD+ was designed for Forests. Why is there no carbon accounting system specifically for Oceans?

Herr: For years, the COP discussed forests under one specific agenda item. These discussions have generated the emergence of the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+) effort which allows countries and projects to obtain credit for carbon storage, offering an incentive for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands. No other emissions sector —energy and transportation included—has ever been singled out like this.


There are distinct challenges for oceans, specifically for open oceans to have their own carbon accounting mechanism or incentive scheme. A large portion of oceans is beyond national jurisdiction, but the carbon schemes are based on national or sub-national action. Furthermore, so much of the carbon held by oceans is not held in a long-term stock, like forests or wetlands, but is simply a dynamic part of the global carbon cycle. While carbon in stocks can be accounted for, cycling carbon cannot. The UNFCCC is not (yet) structured to fully incorporate these complex characteristics into national carbon balances and efforts.
 
By comparison, coastal ecosystems can be included in national greenhouse gas accounting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created a 2013 Supplement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories: Wetlands that extends national carbon accounting to these coastal ecosystems. All countries have or are in the process of preparing their national climate change plan, or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), that provides an opportunity to reflect coastal wetland carbon accounting. And, under REDD+, if a country has classified its mangroves as “forests,” mangrove carbon management activities can be incentivized and accounted for as a top mitigation solution.
 

Pendleton: Should the UNFCCC at least define “oceans?”

Herr: Potentially, but it is important to be clear what is meant by “ocean.” Is there one ocean or regional seas? Nearshore and offshore? Deep ocean and shallow? Where does the ocean stop and the coast start? What about estuaries?
 
Pendleton: The Natural Ocean Carbon Cycle plays an important role in climate change mitigation, but how is this impacted by climate change?
 
Herr: At the cost of ocean warming, ocean acidification and deoxygenation (‘the deadly trio”), the oceans have so far acted as a buffer for atmospheric climate change impacts. The continuous uptake of anthropogenic CO2 by the oceans depends on processes that are sensitive to climate change. Climate change diminishes the oceans’ function as an effective carbon sink and only a fraction of 21st century emissions will continue to be absorbed by the oceans. More specifically, emissions remaining in the atmosphere are projected to increase by 30% to 69% depending on the emissions projections of possible future climate change.
 
The open ocean is at a crossroads, threatened by CO2 emissions that cause ocean acidification and damage marine ecosystems and fauna, which play a crucial role in the carbon cycle (as well as for the storage of heat). An ecologically degraded ocean loses its capacity to support the carbon cycle as well as to provide other ecosystem services. The “deadly trio” has and will alter earth-system-regulating processes such as climate, carbon sequestration, heat distribution, weather, water flow, and waste treatment. Ocean-derived ecosystem services that provide food and security are at risk, as well as public health, human wellbeing, cultural services (e.g., recreation and leisure), and cultural heritage.
 
Pendleton: What else threatens oceans climate mitigation efforts?
 
Herr: IPCC reports have identified that climate change and carbon emissions pose a serious ecological threat to oceans and the people who depend upon them. Less obvious in UNFCCC documentation is the acknowledgment that oceans are adversely affected by some climate change mitigation efforts, especially those that seek to use the oceans for enhanced carbon storage or geo-engineering schemes. The UNFCCC should contain language and objectives that curtail the threats to the continuation of the ocean’s role as a global carbon sink. Other international and national policies such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on Biological Diversity must mobilize to sustainably manage our manifold marine resources and their services while heightening the debate and discussion of how to integrate and incentivize better ocean carbon management.
 
Pendleton: How can ocean acidification be measured and reduced?
 
Herr: For many ecosystems, the effects of sea temperature change and ocean acidification are now known to be synergistic —each compounding the effects of the other. At COP21, the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) status report will be presented during the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) meeting. Parties attending this meeting should use the opportunity to encourage the development of the GCOS and its capabilities for ocean observation and determining degrees of ocean acidification.
 
Pendleton: How does COP21 set the stage for conversations on oceans?

Herr: Overall, COP21 is just another, albeit important, milestone in the fight against climate change and the debate and efforts must continue beyond COP21. Many UNFCCC agreements and mechanisms address ocean activities and now must be properly implemented. For instance, the carbon emissions of ships are already accounted for and regulated by the International Maritime Organization. The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Wetlands Convention are other international regimes already discussing and working on issues such as ocean acidification, coastal and marine adaptation and sequestration. These organizations’ incentive tools must be implemented at national and regional levels, and their efforts must be harnessed to ensure that “oceans” are properly reflected in the broader climate change discussions.