The ocean: a drop of water in the Paris climate negotiations


Adrien Comte Doctorant, UMR AMURE Institut Universitaire Européen de la Mer

Adrien Comte
Doctorant, UMR AMURE
Institut Universitaire Européen de la Mer

Having followed the COP for the past couple of weeks, it is now time to reflect on what happened and what can we take away from it. Because there are too many interesting subjects to cover and because I am an expert in none of them but (perhaps) one, I will focus on the case of the big blue ocean. The ocean has, for the first time during a COP, been at center stage for an entire day (out of 12, I admit). This show may have created momentum to protect the ocean and to increase recognition of its importance in these climate negotiations.

Thanks to initiatives like the Ocean and Climate Platform, the word “oceans” appears in the Accord de Paris, in the preamble (next to ecosystems, biodiversity, Mother Earth, and climate justice). This is a big deal because this mention, a first in the climate negotiations, recognizes the role of the ocean in the climate system. Even better, the many mechanisms the world uses to combat climate change, like REDD which focuses on the role of forests for carbon sequestration, may be extended to coastal and marine ecosystems that store carbon (like mangroves, saltmarshes, and seagrasses that are often referred to as blue carbon).

Of course, this attention to the carbon storage role of the ocean also presents risks. One fear is that the ocean, being a major sink of greenhouse gases, is a good candidate for geoengineering. Technological approaches including iron fertilization and other means of enhancing the carbon pump are already on the shelves of a few mad scientists and perhaps even some decision-makers. This means that we must remain vigilant and wary of the dangers of geoengineering while stressing the benefits of other means of combatting climate change: marine renewable energy, ecosystem restoration, protection of the ocean.

It is possible, though, that the ocean community has pushed too hard. The larger ocean community, in concert with Large Ocean Developing States (also known as SIDS-Small Island Developing States), lobbied successfully for the recognition of 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial level as a target that should replace the 2°C target. This new temperature limit is now present in the text of the Paris accord (article 2) and has already perplexed many experts, partly because this target may be too ambitious to be realizable, at least without the dangerous use of geoengineering (see the blog of my friend Aglaé here). Nevertheless, the inclusion of “oceans” in the COP21 has achieved a new global recognition of the role of oceans in our wellbeing, and recognition that old targets of 2°C warming would mean unacceptable risks for ecosystems such as coral reefs and shellfish, and for human populations living near the sea.

At least as important as the mention of the ocean in the Accord is the beginning of a dialogue between actors that rarely speak with each other. When I entered the “ocean community” as a PhD student last year, I did not know many people working in this field, and the issues were very distant to me. But when I dived into the problems and solutions for climate change and the ocean, I really got excited and wanted to learn more about coral reefs, coastal communities, adventurers and explorers of the sea. Still, my first impression remains: the community of people working on the ocean (being scientists, business leaders, or NGOs) is a very small community and one with few interactions with other parts of the world. The ocean is part of the global environment, yet in most universities environmental science and marine science programs remain separate. Why am I telling you this? Well because the same thing happened during the COP! With the organization of an ocean day, all the events with a link to the ocean happened at the same time, and drew in the ocean community. As an example, I was in an event dedicated to the fate of coral reefs under climate change. When a panelist asked the people in the room who has dived on a reef before, three quarters of the room raised their hand. Have you dived on a reef? That’s great, but it’s not representative of the climate community and not of the global community. The speakers were preaching to the choir.

For me, this partitioning of people into ocean people and everyone else may be why the word “oceans” has not been heard very much in the climate negotiations before and in the many other places where decision-making happens: we speak about oceans all the time, but only within the ocean community. Two things that I witnessed at the COP, though, make me think that things are changing. First, I saw all these groups come together to discuss issues such as coral bleaching or plastic pollution and more importantly solutions to tackle climate change for and with the ocean. This is truly inspiring for the future, and it is a trend seen in the COP in general (see this blog post from my friend Yann). Second, more interactions between the ocean community and others, such as decision makers in the COP or the general public, is very promising to raise the awareness of people on the ocean, but also to bring the ocean community out of their boats and into the cities, like Tara’s boat that moored in Paris for the COP.  

By Adrien Comte