- Protecting coastal “blue carbon” ecosystems like mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes is 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon per area than terrestrial forests, and is just one ocean-based solution that can help mitigate climate change.
- But lacking such action, an IPCC report estimated that climate-induced declines in ocean health will cost the global economy $428 billion by 2050 and $1.979 trillion by 2100.
- As world leaders meet at the upcoming Leaders Summit on Climate, Chile calls for countries to advocate for the adoption of new international objectives on biodiversity, such as protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
In 2018, Chile designated a marine protected area (MPA) around its Diego Ramirez island, offering protection to kelp forests — ecosystems that provide nurseries for young marine organisms and lock away carbon dioxide. This is in line with Chile’s leadership in marine biodiversity: with over 40% of Chile’s maritime territory protected, the country ranks 6th globally in total MPA coverage.
Protecting and restoring coastal “blue carbon” ecosystems like mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes — 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon per area than terrestrial forests — is just one ocean-based solution that can help mitigate climate change. But these ecosystems are being lost; up to 50% of some global blue carbon ecosystems have already been converted or degraded.
If located in the right places, MPAs can be used as a tool to protect these “blue carbon” ecosystems. In a year where countries are expected to submit more ambitious targets to tackle climate change, 2021 presents a critical moment to act. But in acting we need to move from seeing the ocean as a victim of climate change to a key part of the solution. Ocean-based action can not only help mitigate climate change, but it can also help communities adapt to climate impacts, spur economic growth and preserve some of the most biodiverse areas in the world.
The benefits the ocean brings to humanity — including the stabilization of the climate and trillions for the global economy and culture — are fundamental to life on earth. Putting a resource this precious at risk is reckless, yet ocean health is declining due to human activity, threatened by pollution, overfishing and habitat loss. And one of the greatest threats is climate change, which is already causing the ocean to become warmer, putting pressure on plants and animals from the base of the ocean food web to the top.
As well as the potentially devastating impact on the ocean’s ecosystems, unabated climate change could reduce the economic potential of the coral reef tourism industry by 90% by 2100, causing economic losses of up to 95% in those countries that rely heavily on coral reef tourism.
Warming seas can also affect the distribution of fish as they move to cooler waters, and the countries that suffer most will be those that have contributed the least to climate change. In West Africa, for example, research has estimated fish stocks could decline by up to 85% by 2100.
The economic stakes are incredibly high. The 2019 IPCC report The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate estimates that climate-induced declines in ocean health will cost the global economy $428 billion by 2050 and $1.979 trillion by 2100.
Yet the ocean itself can be part of the solution to climate change. Research has found ocean-based solutions can contribute 1/5 of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions (21%) needed to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals by 2050 — equal to the annual emissions of 2.5 billion cars or all the world’s coal-fired power plants. We already know which ocean-based actions could help us meet these goals — from scaling up ocean-based renewable energy to decarbonizing shipping.
That’s why in 2019 the Ocean Panel, made up of 14 heads of state and government, called on leaders to scale up and accelerate ocean action in these areas to fight climate change and help meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And in December 2020, Ocean Panel leaders released their new ocean action agenda, envisioning a 2030 where ambitious climate action has set the world on track to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and restore ocean health.
See related: Rivers can be climate change solutions, too
Members agree that pursuing a sustainable ocean economy — where effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity go hand in hand — will create a healthy ocean that can help solve the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change. And some nations are already making strides in implementing them.
For example, Chile has transformed ammonia, a by-product of the solar power industry, into an alternative, zero-emission shipping fuel — hydrogen. With around 90% of goods traded over the ocean, shipping accounts for almost 3% of GHG emissions. Decarbonizing the industry can dramatically help reduce emissions while also benefiting the health of those working on ships, demonstrating how ocean-based solutions to climate change can positively impact our people, nature and our economy.
One solution? Conserving coastal and marine ecosystems
As well as protecting and restoring “blue carbon” ecosystems, research also suggests that when MPAs are fully and highly protected from extractive and destructive activities, they can rebuild and safeguard biodiversity while boosting the productivity of fisheries in areas surrounding them through the spill over of fish. There is also mounting evidence that MPAs can prevent emissions from the disturbance of sediment carbon by bottom trawling.
As well as helping mitigate climate change, MPAs can also bring benefits for local communities and the economy, as shown in Rapa Nui Marine Park, near Easter Island — one of the world’s largest MPAs. This park now provides protection to cold water coral reefs, blue whales, hammerhead sharks and 142 species that are found nowhere else in the world.
Although industrial commercial fishing is banned inside the reserve, Islanders continue to practice traditional fishing methods, allowing them to feed themselves and continue their role as guardians of the ocean. Over five years, the Chilean government held consultations with the communities impacted by the MPA, resulting in 64% of the community voting in favor of its creation.
Although some areas of the ocean need to be fully protected from all human activity, this shows that it is possible to balance the protection of nature and the livelihoods and way of life of people, while building ecological and social resilience in the face of climate change.
Mongabay video: In this Philippine community, women guard a marine protected area:
Where to from here?
There has also been some progress towards ocean action on a global scale. COP25, otherwise known as the “Blue COP” chaired by Chile in 2019, had initial success in highlighting the importance of using ocean-based solutions to tackle climate change. It built momentum by encouraging more countries to include ocean-based solutions in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), with Chile working to protect key ecosystems by including them in its enhanced NDC, and pledging to protect at least 20 coastal wetlands by 2025.
The outgoing Chilean Presidency of COP25 and the incoming Presidency of COP26 of the United Kingdom have been working closely to keep underlining the role of the ocean as a relevant climate regulator and carbon sink.
But the next crucial step is to make finance available to implement these ocean-based solutions. As it stands, less than 1% of the total value of the ocean economy is invested in sustainable projects. This is preventing nations and communities from reaping the benefits ocean-action can bring — from climate mitigation to economic growth and food security.
Ocean solutions are also an excellent investment. Investing $2.8 trillion today in just four ocean-based solutions — offshore wind production, sustainable ocean-based food production, decarbonization of international shipping, and conservation and restoration of mangroves — would yield a net benefit of $15.5 trillion by 2050, a benefit-cost ratio of more than 5:1.
As world leaders meet at the upcoming Leaders Summit on Climate, Chile calls for countries to advocate for the adoption of new international objectives on biodiversity, such as protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030 — a target imbued by a narrative of greater ambition. Growing scientific evidence shows that this objective is needed to build resilience of ocean life and is critical to fighting climate change. If we take care of the ocean, the ocean will take care of us.
Waldemar Coutts is Director for Environment and Ocean Affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile, and Chilean Special Representative to the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.
Banner image: Green sea turtle grazing in seagrass meadow at Akumal Bay, Mexico. Photo courtesy of P. Lindgren via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
Editor’s note 4/20/21: Statistics on the degree of Chile’s marine territory that has been protected, and also regarding the vote tally for Rapa Nui Marine Park, have been updated.