New report highlights why the ocean matters in climate negotiations & suggests positive actions nations can take as the countdown to COP26 is underway

Leading UK experts shine a spotlight on the critical role the ocean plays in greatly slowing the rate of climate change but also the subsequent impacts of this and why support from nations for better inclusion of the ocean at the United Nations climate negotiations, such as COP26 in Glasgow this November, is so important.

The briefing, led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory, summarises the latest research and knowledge on the importance of the ocean, as well as offering a range of opportunities to nations in order to ensure that the ocean can be developed sustainably for the benefits it provides to people around the world.

Developed by a team of experts from leading UK marine and environmental science universities and centres and published in association with the COP26 Universities Network, the briefing also makes suggestions on how the ocean can be better incorporated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process.

The key messages are:

• The ocean has greatly slowed the rate of climate change. But at a cost: the ocean has also warmed, acidified and lost oxygen, whilst circulation patterns are changing, and sea levels are rising. The continuation of these changes not only threatens marine ecosystems, but also the future ability of the ocean to indirectly support all life on Earth.

• A healthy and biodiverse ocean provides food, wellbeing, cultural heritage, and support for the sustainable livelihoods of billions of people – as well as mitigation and adaptation options for climate change.

• Rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement will decrease impacts on the ocean and benefit its ecosystems and all of society.

• As part of the “climate system” the ocean needs to be better integrated in UNFCCC mitigation, adaptation and financial processes, including Nationally Determined Contributions, National Adaptation Plans and the Global Stocktake.

• Improved ocean governance and management is needed to scale up marine protection and sustainable management of both the high seas and coastal waters.

• Sustained, global ocean observations and projections of ocean physics, chemistry and biology are essential to inform better short and long-term policy-making for the benefit of people, nature and the economy.

• Innovative ocean finance is required to achieve a sustainable ocean economy and protect the ocean’s natural capital.

The experts also emphasise the ecological, social and economic importance of coastal seas and the open ocean. Coastal seas are often busy places and face a diverse range of pressures so, therefore, require careful and sensitive management to not only ensure protection but also help these areas meet their potential for both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Further afield but no less important, the open ocean holds about 90% of the extra heat stored on the planet from global warming and the biological activity that occurs in the upper layers accounts for about half of the primary production on Earth. Traditional sectoral and regional approaches to the High Seas needs to be replaced by an effective all-ocean system management, including an integrated observational and data infrastructure and increased financial investment.

Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, commented: “It is heartening to see this timely ocean briefing by leading UK academics on why the ocean matters in climate negotiations. The briefing hits the nail on the head when it highlights that while a healthy and biodiverse ocean is central to all life on Earth, it is too often neglected in high-level climate negotiations. The Climate-Ocean nexus is inseparable. This is a fundamental message as we prepare for the all-important UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow this November”.

Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner, Marine Biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and the Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II, commented: “This is an impressive account on the ocean under climate change in a nutshell. It touches on what the ocean does for humankind and the living planet, how it is suffering from being overburdened by human waste and human-made climate change. At the same time, with sustainable management, the ocean offers opportunities that can help strengthening its resilience, its biosphere and other services to people and their well-being”.

Lead author, Dr Carol Turley OBE of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said: “The ocean is at the front line of climate change experiencing massive changes because it is receiving much of the excess heat, CO2 and water caused by our changing climate so ambitious mitigation is essential for the ocean. Yet it also offers a wealth of adaptation options such as creation of offshore wind, protection of marine carbon stores, sustainable fisheries and creation of marine protected areas – so the ocean is going to be a busy place requiring improved ocean governance and management and the finance and observational capacity to support and monitor how it is faring if it is going to be managed sustainably for the benefit of its biodiversity and society. It seems amazing to me that the largest ecosystem on Earth, the ocean, has received such little attention during previous climate negotiations – this briefing aims to help rectify that by explaining why the ocean is important to life on Earth and by giving recommendations for actions that nations can take”.

Co-author, Torsten Thiele of the London School of Economics, said: “This year offers an opportunity to provide significant ocean finance commitments for scientifically-sound ocean-climate and biodiversity solutions ahead of COP26. Such investments into blue natural capital can make a significant contribution to addressing the climate crisis and are economically viable”.

Established in 2020, the COP26 Universities Network comprising more than 70 UK-based universities and research centres aims to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow for the UK Government, NGOs and the international community, working together to help deliver ambitious climate change outcomes.

Turley C., Racault M.-F., Roberts J. M., Sharples J., Scott B. E., Thiele T., Williams R. G. & Williamson P., 2021. Why the ocean matters in climate negotiations. COP26 Universities Network Briefing. Report.

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