Will there be a greater role for the oceans at COP26?

The Covid-delayed UN climate change conference begins in Glasgow this month. How deeply will ocean issues feature in negotiations?
<p>There are growing calls for ocean issues to be integrated into this year’s COP26 climate negotiations (Image: Rosanne Tackaberry / Alamy)</p>

There are growing calls for ocean issues to be integrated into this year’s COP26 climate negotiations (Image: Rosanne Tackaberry / Alamy)

World leaders, civil society and media will gather in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November for the United Nations climate change conference (COP26), originally scheduled for 2020 but delayed because of the pandemic.

The UK government hopes the conference will see countries put forward more ambitious emission reduction targets for 2030, and commit to an overall goal of reaching net zero by 2050. This would keep alive the possibility of countries holding global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5–2C above pre-industrial levels, as they committed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The UK is asking countries to prioritise phasing out coal, hastening the arrival of electric vehicles, mobilising international climate finance and ending deforestation.

The last conference, COP25, held in Madrid in 2019, was promoted as the “Blue COP” because it aimed to set a precedent by bridging ocean issues and UN climate change negotiations.

With days to go before COP26 opens, it isn’t fully clear how much weight ocean issues will carry within the current agenda, but marine experts have high hopes they will be prominent.

How will the ocean feature at COP26?

Marine issues will likely figure in the COP’s formal discussions as well as in side events, which could lead to a political declaration on the ocean–climate issue at the end of the summit.

Countries will also introduce updated climate pledges at COP, known as NDCs (nationally determined contributions), which are expected to include specific ocean targets.

Lisa Schindler Murray, senior manager of policy and partnerships at Rare, a US-based conservation organisation, said momentum around ocean–climate action will continue to grow at COP26, with countries integrating ocean and coastal ecosystems into their mitigation and adaptation targets. She also expects a greater recognition of the role of local communities in ocean–climate action.

Millions of people who live along coasts or on low-lying islands cannot afford for the ocean to remain an afterthought

Because the Ocean, an initiative comprising 39 developed and developing countries that aims to bring the ocean into climate change policy, will launch a new declaration on the first day of the conference to highlight the ocean–climate nexus. As well as demanding revised NDCs with ocean targets, they are calling for a holistic approach that addresses the climate and biodiversity crises as one through COP26 and COP15 – the biodiversity conference that began in Kunming this month and will conclude in a second session next spring.

Calls for a “30×30” target – to put 30% of the global ocean under marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2030 – have been growing louder. The target is already in the initial draft of the COP15 deal, and is the clearest and most widely supported of the proposals to the conference. MPAs currently cover about 8% of the ocean. They are considered one of the best ways to enhance coastal ecosystems, which capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Marine protected area sign on the beach
Well-managed marine protected areas are one of the most effective tools for building climate resilience and capturing carbon (Image: Hanna Tor / Alamy)

For Kat Dawson, of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK’s ocean agenda for the Glasgow COP includes: mobilising finance to deliver ocean action, recognising the health of the ocean as key for staying with the 1.5C limit, championing ocean science for ocean action, and supporting the 30×30 target and marine nature-based solutions.

Why is the ocean relevant for climate – and vice versa?

The ocean provides us with food, trade, energy and livelihoods. Covering more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, it absorbs around 23% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. It also regulates the climate by taking in more than 90% of the excess heat created by human-caused greenhouse gases.

But we can’t take it for granted. Due to global warming, the ocean has been slowly losing its ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which means more of the gas remains in the atmosphere, where it can warm the planet further.

Global warming poses big challenges for the ocean. Along with acidification, it has led to changes in marine ecosystem patterns with serious impacts on species richness and distribution, and bringing social and economic consequences for humans, too.

Coral Bleaching
Warming seas lead to coral bleaching, which threatens the many marine creatures that rely on these habitats (Image © Lion Yang / Greenpeace)

Murray Roberts, professor of marine biology at the University of Edinburgh, says there is a lack of awareness of the oceans and the role they play in the climate system. “They are so much warmer now and becoming corrosive through CO2 leading to ocean acidification,” he adds. “Their very foundation is starting to crumble.”

Is enough attention being paid to ocean conservation?

In the lead-up to COP26, governments and marine organisations raised the profile of ocean conservation in a set of conferences, including a high-level debate organised by the UN in June and a meeting on the Port State Measures Agreement in the same month.

What is the Port State Measures Agreement?

A UN treaty requiring countries to close their ports to illegal fishing vessels, and to share real-time information to make that possible.

The message was the same across all meetings, calling for “transformative” and actionable solutions on the ocean following delays caused by the pandemic. Targets in Sustainable Development Goal 14 include reducing ocean pollution, protecting and restoring marine ecosystems, tackling illegal fishing, and ending subsidies contributing to overfishing.

In a recent high-level meeting of the UN Global Compact, John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, recognised the “inextricable link” between the climate crisis and the ocean crisis. He said the US will support the 30×30 target and the Zero-Emission Shipping Mission, which aims to have at least 5% of global deep-sea vessels run on emission-free fuels by 2030.

Peter Thomson, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean, wrote in a recent op-ed that COP26 is the world’s “best opportunity to strengthen the ocean’s role in fighting climate change”. He also sent an open letter to Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to ask for action on oceans at COP26.

What would ocean NGOs like to see at COP26?

Ghislaine Llewellyn, acting global practice leader for oceans at WWF International, said a successful COP26 would embed and integrate oceans into climate solutions, and secure investments and commitments at the scale needed to address the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, Anna-Marie Laura, director of climate policy at Ocean Conservancy, said the ocean has to be better integrated into the processes of the UNFCCC, with an ocean–climate dialogue established as a result of COP26. “Millions of people who live along coasts or on low-lying islands cannot afford for the ocean to remain an afterthought,” she added.

For Louisa Casson, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, governments at COP26 have to “step up their climate action and protect the oceans like our lives depend on it – because they do”. The climate crisis is an ocean crisis, she added, with ocean warming currently pushing entire ecosystems to the brink.

“The ocean cannot be neglected when countries operationalise the ecosystem provisions under the UNFCCC,” Carolina Hazin, global marine policy coordinator at BirdLife International, said. “We hope that state representatives at COP26 fully embed marine biodiversity in their climate commitments, but also act to deliver those when back home.”

In a statement, the NGO Seas at Risk said all countries have to “urgently act responsibly”, starting by “drastically” reducing emissions and acknowledging that ocean action is climate action. “The ocean can only protect us against climate change if it’s resilient, with thriving and diverse marine life and healthy ecosystems,” they added.