- The ocean featured in many negotiations around the climate crisis at the U.N. climate summit known as COP28, which took place in Dubai between Nov. 30 and Dec. 13.
- The final version of the global stocktake (GST), which served as the main agreement for COP28, referred to the importance of protecting and preserving the ocean and coastal ecosystems, and called for “ocean-based action.”
- However, experts say the GST does not capture the necessary urgency to curtail fossil fuel emissions and may encourage the launch of controversial and still-untested geoengineering techniques that aim to lock away carbon in the ocean.
- COP28 was also the stage for several large pledges to support the protection of marine and coastal ecosystems.
The ocean plays an oversized role in regulating Earth’s climate and reducing human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. The watery realms of our planet capture about 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions and absorb around 90% of the excess heat resulting from these emissions, protecting Earth’s inhabitants from some of the worst impacts of human-driven climate change. Yet many climate crisis discussions have overlooked the importance of the ocean and neglected to protect the life-supporting functions of marine ecosystems.
This year’s climate summit, COP28, which took place in Dubai between Nov. 30 and Dec. 13, a day longer than scheduled, was different. This time, the ocean featured more heavily in discussions than at past international climate dialogues. Attendees reported that this new focus on the ocean could help launch much-needed action to protect marine and coastal ecosystems that would, in turn, help mitigate the climate crisis. At the same time, some experts Mongabay consulted also raised concern that the final agreement cast the ocean as a carbon mitigation solution that could replace genuine action to curb carbon emissions.
In the lead-up to the climate summit, organizers of the event’s Ocean Pavilion — a dedicated space at COP28 for ocean-related events — released the COP28 Dubai Ocean Declaration, which called upon world leaders to increase knowledge of the ocean and to “adopt measures individually and collectively to enhance protection of the ocean” during the two weeks of negotiations. Representatives of nearly 130 institutions, mainly involved in research, philanthropy, conservation or business, signed the declaration.
Lisa Schindler Murray, senior manager of policy and partnerships at the international conservation NGO Rare, who attended COP28, said that while the goals of the declaration may not have been fully met at COP28, the new emphasis on ocean conservation at COP28 demonstrated “just how important nature-based solutions, including coastal and marine ecosystems, are to addressing climate change for mitigation and adaptation.”
“We want to see more action on ocean and coastal ecosystems to protect and restore and sustainably manage them, for climate mitigation, for climate adaptation, for biodiversity, for local livelihoods,” Murray told Mongabay.
The Global Stocktake: What does it mean for the ocean?
The main agreement to come out of COP28 was the first version of the global stocktake (GST), a document meant to illustrate how the world will achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit). An initial draft of the GST released Dec. 11 drew sharp criticism from parties to the negotiations for only calling for a “reduction” in the use of fossil fuels rather than a “phase out.”
The final draft of the GST, released Dec. 13, a day after COP28 was originally scheduled to end, called for a “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems … to achieve net zero by 2050,” as well as an acceleration of zero- and low-emission technologies, including “renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilization and storage … and low-carbon hydrogen production.”
Many parties of COP28 celebrated the final GST as a “historic” deal that charted a path away from fossil fuels. However, the agreement is not legally binding, and critics have noted that it is also peppered with loopholes. According to Kristian Teleki, CEO of the NGO Fauna & Flora, the final text “does not reflect the scale and pace of change needed to correct the course to climate chaos we are currently on.”
In terms of the ocean, the GST makes several references to the importance of protecting and preserving the ocean and coastal ecosystems and calls for a “strengthening of ocean-based action.” However, the text does not call for any specific commitments, nor does it set clear milestones for these actions.
Kilaparti Ramakrishna, director of the Marine Policy Center and senior adviser to the president on ocean and climate policy at the U.S.-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said that while he was “heartened” by the GST’s mentioning the importance of the ocean and coastal ecosystems, he was disappointed that the “weakening of language committing to a phase out of fossil fuels in a timely fashion presents a continued threat to Earth’s life-support system.”
“Unless we end our reliance on fossil fuels and begin removing legacy carbon from the atmosphere, the ocean cannot continue to protect us from the climate crisis,” Ramakrishna said in a statement. “The ocean can help in our search for solutions, but only if we end our assault on the ocean and the rest of the planet.”
‘We want the ocean to carry the burden for us’
The final text of the GST also calls for the pursuit of “ocean-based mitigation action,” which could include techniques that pump carbon dioxide into the ocean in an attempt to decrease carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Examples include a controversial geoengineering approach called ocean iron fertilization, which Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists are studying to see if it could help absorb and lock away human-produced carbon dioxide. There are also efforts to grow and manage seaweed in an effort to sequester carbon, as in a project called Kelp Blue, which received the Zayed Sustainability Prize at COP28.
Rashid Sumaila, a professor of ocean and fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who also attended COP28, said he was concerned by the direction of discussions about ways to manipulate the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink, especially when it came to unproven geoengineering techniques.
“We want the ocean to carry the burden for us, and I worry about that … when we just have to reduce emissions,” Sumaila told Mongabay. “So, it’s always trying to find other ways to absorb [carbon] instead of kicking the problem head on.”
Pledges for the ocean — but are they enough?
COP28 was also the stage for several large pledges regarding the ocean. For instance, on Dec. 3, the Bezos Earth Fund — a funding body set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — pledged $100 million to support Pacific islands to restore and protect their coastal ecosystems, and to strengthen community-based fisheries management and conservation.
Another key announcement was the establishment of the Coral Reef Breakthrough by the International Coral Reef Initiative and its global partners. This project will invest $12 billion to help protect at least 125,000 square kilometers (48,000 square miles) of shallow-water tropical coral reefs. That area, about four times the size of Belgium, would cover an estimated 50% of the coral reefs that remain globally.
Ed Goodall, head of intergovernmental engagement at the international NGO Whale & Dolphin Conservation, who also attended COP28, said that while these pledges were positive, more funding may ultimately be needed to fulfill their aims.
“We know that to actually restore nature, we need to be pumping in hundreds of billions on an annual basis, if that is even enough,” Goodall told Mongabay. “So, they’re nice pledges, and people are doing what they can, but that upscaling of funding needs to come from a federal level and a fundamental system change within the financial system to bring new money to the ocean.”
At the same time, Goodall said he believes that overall, the international community has made progress toward tackling the climate crisis.
“Although the results of these COPs are always disappointing, because they can always be a lot more, when you zoom out and look at where we were, even three years ago … we are incrementally getting there,” Goodall told Mongabay. “We’re never going to solve this problem within one year … because we’re talking about fundamental system change here.”
Banner image caption: Sunrise over the mangroves in Gumbanan, Australia. Image by Lewis Burnett / Ocean Image Bank.