by Jérôme Chladek
What happened at Paris in December 2015 is described by many politicians as well as commentators as historic, unprecedented and utterly surprising to even the most positive-minded participant. The Paris Agreement is the step forward our global community desperately needed to make, as stated by heads of state, activists, and commentators. The first universal accord for active mobilization of climate solutions now puts us on track towards a carbon free society.
But the COP21 in Paris was historic for a couple of other reasons as well:
- the unprecedented strong, visible and thus effective engagement of the civil society,
- the breaking up of the traditional divide of developed states vs. developing states, and
- the first attempt to directly draw the link between our changing climate and our oceans inside the draft agreement.
The advocates of this campaign—large environmental NGOs as well as major scientific research bodies—deplore that although the Earth’s oceans are an integral part of our climate system, and oceans and their coastal regions provide food, living space as well as cultural and spiritual identity to billions of people (8 of the 10 largest cities are all coastal cities; 1 billion live within 20 m of the coast), they were so far “forgotten” during all 20 climate negotiations before Paris.
Our Forgotten Oceans
Sadly, this follows a well-established trend in science and politics: We tend to look at the Earth as the land we live on, while paying too little attention to the oceans that cover three-quarters of the planet’s surface. For example, although the first national parks were installed in the US in the 19th century, it would take over 100 years before the basis for national marine parks was laid at the First World Conference on National Parks in 1962. In my opinion, the basis for this is that we humans have a “landcentric” worldview meaning that we are wired automically direct our attention to our land areas and forget our oceans.
This disregard of our oceans in global climate talks is all the more astounding considering that our oceans absorb 26% of our greenhouse gas emissions, produce half of our atmosphere’s oxygen, all while absorbing 93% of the excess heat our planet has accumulated as a result of the uncontrolled emission of heat-trapping gases. Considering that scientists cannot say if this massive heat uptake will always reliably continue, taking our oceans’ climate services for granted seems foolhardy at best.
And that’s not all: CO2 dissolved in sea water has another major effect on the marine realm: ocean acidification.
Our oceans have currently already dropped by 0.1 pH units, which (since the pH is a negative decadal logarithm, similar to the Richter scale used for earthquakes) means the acidity has so far increased by 30%! Naturally, this has consequences for marine organisms. Some species have already shown symptoms of acidity stress, the US west coast oyster cultivation is a striking example for this: since 2005, millions of dollars in profit losses were reported by this industry because of ocean acidification. Also ocean acidification adds up with other pressures we impose on marine ecosystem: overfishing, habitat destruction, and ocean warming induced by climate-forcing pollutants.
Crucially, some ecosystems seem to be more fragile than others: coral reefs are maybe the first large marine ecosystems that we are in acute danger of losing entirely. This is because not only can coral reefs die off completely when water temperature is above 28° C for prolonged periods, but also because corals need to be able to grow their calcium carbonate “houses” in order to thrive and are thus very sensitive to ocean acidification. This is such a grave threat, that just before the COP21, the International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS) published a call to action, warning that “most functioning coral reefs will disappear by mid-century without action to reduce CO2“.
This very strong language should be taken seriously. Coral reefs not only provide worldwide revenue of almost $10 billion through tourism; they are also vital for the survival of over 500 million people that are directly dependent on coral reefs—as food-web anchors or as coastal protection, as well as a crucial storm buffer for many cities and communities in the world. The east coast of Australia, for example, is dependent on the Great Barrier Reef in all of these ways.
Protecting Ecosystem Integrity
Although the oceans have finally not been included in the Paris Agreement (maybe also to shorten the text and thus to further its chances to pass), they are directly mentioned in the Preamble and indirectly in the Agreement itself under the umbrella term of ecosystem integrity, as natural carbon sink bound to be protected and enhanced as well as an human habitat to be taken into consideration when planning adaptation to climate change.
Finally, 22 UNFCCC-signatory countries signed the Because the Ocean… Declaration, which calls for an “Ocean action plan under the UNFCCC” starting from 2016. One can expect that this number will only grow. Furthermore, the fact that the term ocean has been discussed inside the negotiations and was included in the draft agreement is a significant achievement by itself, as it greatly enhanced the attention towards oceans!
Furthermore, the landcentric view not only hinders us in seeing the problems our oceans have, but maybe even more important, it hinders us in seeing the solutions our oceans offer: Many do not know that the ecosystem capturing by far the most CO2, are in fact coastal ecosystems: Mangroves, tidal marshes and sea grasses sequester carbon at rates several times higher than tropical forest! Restoring and protecting those often “forgotten” ecoystems not only will ensure we naturally sequester huge amounts of carbon, but also will thus increasing their resilience to climate change simultaneously increase the resilience of the communities living associated with these ecosystems. And this in the most cost-efficient way! Furthermore, the growing coral reefs in Palau demonstrate that coherent coral reef conservation efforts do in fact pay off.
In addition, our oceans are one giant, so far mostly untapped, super-powerhouse: Our oceans contain 300-times more energy than we humans are currently consuming. The most significant constraint to harnessing it is the accessibility of the energy (especially for high sea projects) and the lower level of technological advancement compared to the mostly mature land-based renewable energies. There are currently many prototypes for harnessing marine energy, but comparatively little industry-ready marine-energy power plants. At the COP21, many new technologies and new initiatives to further marine energy harnessing were presented and intensively discussed, adding to the growing optimism of many participants, and signaling a future in which the oceans are treated not only as a vital anchor of the global food web and as our most important climate regulating resource, but also as a source of reliable, renewable clean energy.
Not only was the COP21 a major breakthrough in agreed global collaboration: for the first time, 195 nations have formally agreed they will all play an active role in meeting the mandate of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. That breakthrough in global collaboration, together with the subtle adjustments to technical process, monitoring capabilities, and ecosystem protection, could also mean a shift from a land-centered view of the environment to a more genuinely planetary response that safeguards our oceans and ensures we all have a more resilient future.