Confronting Climate Change

Taking the ocean into account is critical for successfully addressing climate change, and addressing climate change is critical for the future of the ocean.

Markers of a Blue COP25

The upcoming U.N. climate summit, known as COP25, will focus on the ocean. What does it mean for a COP to be “blue?”

By Gwynne Taraska

Science has well-documented the ocean-climate connection. Climate change is devastating ocean ecosystems—through effects from acidification to deoxygenation—and threatening communities and economies globally. Yet the ocean is also at the center of climate solutions, from reducing emissions from maritime transport to protecting and restoring coastal “blue carbon” ecosystems.

In light of this connection, international climate agreements include language that refers to the ocean. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), for example, mentions the ocean as a carbon sink. The Paris Agreement, for its part, recognizes the importance of protecting ecosystems, explicitly including ocean ecosystems, in its preamble. Until recently, however, countries had not yet robustly addressed the ocean in the context of these pacts.

healthy coral reef
© Ethan Daniels

There is now an expanding set of climate leaders who are working to elevate ocean issues. In 2015 and 2016, Chile and others launched the Because the Ocean declarations, which call for countries to take the ocean into account in their national climate goals (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. In 2017, Fiji and Sweden launched the Ocean Pathway, which aims to increase ocean-climate action and incorporate ocean issues into the processes of the UNFCCC. Meanwhile, the recent “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chronicled the profound disruptions to the ocean system and underscored the urgency of these and other efforts.

Chile holds the presidency of the upcoming U.N. climate summit (the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, or COP25). In recognition of the increasing importance of ocean issues to the parties, Chile announced in April 2019 that the ocean would be a key theme of its presidency and has since referred to COP25 as a Blue COP. Although Spain will now host the COP in Madrid given the turmoil in Santiago, Chile retains the presidency and its priorities remain.

What would it mean for COP25 to be a Blue COP?

There is a core set of options for the COP to advance ocean-climate action and diplomacy.

Better integration into the UNFCCC

Countries could collectively decide to better integrate ocean issues into the work of the UNFCCC. This could ultimately be through a new work program, recurring high-level dialogues, or some other arrangement. Since 2018, the Friends of the Ocean and Climate group—which includes countries from both the Because the Ocean and Ocean Pathway groups—has met to discuss the options for elevating ocean issues in the climate regime. At the Pre-COP meeting in October, Indonesia advanced these discussions by presenting language that countries could potentially include in a COP decision. These conversations are ongoing at COP25 and in the arc toward COP26.

waves splashing against a rock at sunset
© Greg Tucker

Ocean-smart climate commitments

Individual governments could make ocean-climate commitments or indicate that they will be taking ocean issues into account in their next set of NDCs, due in 2020. This should involve enhancing overall climate ambition, given that dramatically reducing emissions, particularly carbon dioxide emissions, is of primary importance to ocean health. NDCs could also include ocean-specific actions, such as supporting well-sited offshore renewable energy or reducing emissions from ocean industries. To help facilitate ocean-smart NDCs and other climate commitments, Chile is launching a platform with information on ocean-related climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Similarly, state and provincial governments could discuss their ocean-climate actions and make new commitments. In the United States, it is notable that states—including California, Washington, Maryland and others—are continuing to pursue ocean-climate action and diplomacy even as the U.S. administration is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. California, for example, made the ocean a main focus when it hosted the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018, and Washington has been a key leader of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification.

a chunk of ice falling into the ocean
© Drew Spacht

Commitments from leadership coalitions

Leadership coalitions could make political commitments that set a global example for ocean-climate stewardship. These initiatives could focus on particular regions or could focus on particular issues, such as reducing emissions from shipping, incorporating blue carbon ecosystems in NDCs, or supporting the goal to highly protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. Given that action across all levels of government is necessary to address the ocean and climate crises, coalitions may involve not only countries but also state or city leaders.

Events to raise the visibility of ocean impacts and solutions

Strong representation of ocean events—among the array of events during the COP—would raise awareness of the ocean-climate connection. Despite the recent shift to Madrid, many events that will discuss ocean-related climate impacts and solutions are still going forward. Countries could organize events with ministerial participation, to ensure attention at the highest political levels. Likewise, state and city leaders could showcase their success and set a global example.

Every set of actors in the COP—including individual governments, the COP presidency, leadership coalitions, nongovernmental actors, and the parties to the UNFCCC as a group—has a role to play to ensure that COP25 and future COPs are “blue.”

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