COP26: reflections on human rights at the ocean-climate nexus

After COP25 in Madrid in 2019 was labelled the “Blue COP”, expectations were high for COP26 to embed the ocean into future climate-related action at all levels. Scientific evidence has been mounting on how the health of the ocean is significantly impacted by climate change, which also multiplies the impacts of other threats (over-exploitation and pollution). On the other hand, the ocean absorbs over a quarter of global carbon dioxide. Accordingly, the expression “ocean-climate nexus” refers both to the negative impacts of climate change on the ocean’s health, as well as the role of the ocean in global climate regulation. The lack of integrated approaches to this nexus impedes effective protection of the marine environment and leaves out a crucial area of international cooperation and national action for climate mitigation and adaptation. The motto “ocean action is climate action” was thus often repeated on the side-lines of COP26.

The human rights implications of ocean acidification

As the ocean is already negatively impacted in so many ways by climate change, general progress at COP26 on climate change mitigation is crucial for the ocean and ocean-dependent human rights. The Glasgow Climate Pact made an explicit reference to the need for “limiting global warming to 1.5°C, which requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, including global carbon dioxide by 45% by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.”

The explicit reference to carbon dioxide is very important to curb ocean acidification, which arises from excess CO2 emissions dissolving in sea water. Since 1980, the ocean has absorbed between 20–30% of COreleased into the atmosphere resulting in further acidification. While ocean acidification and climate change are distinct issues, they share a common cause in CO2 emissions. As a result, the fight against ocean acidification can benefit from climate change mitigation efforts.

Ocean acidification has numerous impacts on marine ecosystems, including limiting the ability of species to form shells and skeletons. This is particularly problematic for coral reef species, who are unable to form their calcified shell structure which supports rich biodiversity on the reef. The effects of ocean acidification will increase and persist in marine ecosystems for hundreds of years if COemissions continue unabated beyond the agreed 1.5oC temperature goal under the Paris Agreement. Since plankton and coral reefs – key species in marine food chains – are especially vulnerable to ocean acidification, this has a considerable impact on human rights, and particularly on children’s rights. The long-term potential for the ocean to act as a source of food and therefore aid the attainment of the child’s right to health under Article 23(2)(c) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is clearly threatened by ocean acidification. If marine food chains suffer the loss of key species due to ocean acidification, fish species which are valuable for their nutrition content may decline or disappear.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has warned States that a failure to mobilize the maximum available resources to prevent foreseeable harm to human rights caused by climate change constitutes a breach of their obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil all human rights for all. Since climate change and ocean acidification arise from common causes and both pose significant threats to human rights, it can also be argued that States have an obligation to prevent further ocean acidification that can cause foreseeable negative impacts on human rights and need to mobilize maximum available resources to that end. In addition, States’ international obligation to cooperate with one another on climate change matters is also relevant in the context of ocean acidification, including sharing information, transferring technology and building capacity to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of ocean acidification.

Following from the warning by the CESCR, in addressing ocean acidification, we argue that it is imperative that States establish and implement non-discriminatory and non-retrogressive policies and laws. These must include additional measures to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable, such as communities that have a close relationship with corals and marine living resources that are affected by ocean acidification and on which these communities depend for their material needs and cultural life. In addition, we argue that States should support CO2 emission reductions and the creation of marine protected areasthat prevent unjustified, foreseeable infringements of human rights, including those of Indigenous peoples, small-scale fishers, women, children, persons living in poverty, persons with disabilities, older persons, migrants, displaced people, and other potentially at-risk communities, and environmental human rights defenders.

The Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment. 8 December 2021. Full article.

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