Climate Change

Climate Emergency CoP 25: New platform linking oceans and climate launched in Madrid

The new platform aims to integrate sensible ocean-based solutions into climate targets

By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Published: Wednesday 04 December 2019

The challenge of tackling the climate emergency is helped, to an extent, by natural carbon sinks — forests, soil, and the oceans. These sinks absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, partially offsetting the huge surplus of emissions that humans add to it.

While land and forests are central to discussions on emission reduction, and are a designated ‘sector’ under most assessments of national emissions, the oceans do not get the same treatment.

This is due to a combination of factors. Only a limited part of the oceans is legally part of any given nation’s territory, making them difficult to account for. Unlike other sinks, ocean uptake of carbon dioxide has a huge negative effect — ocean acidification — which threatens species, especially sensitive ones like coral. Oceans need a different type of climate solution.

A new international initiative at the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP25) currently underway in Madrid aims to kickstart the search for such solutions. The Platform of Science-based Ocean Solutions aims “to enhance the sharing of knowledge created by various actors in the ocean and climate community to advance ocean-climate action”.

The platform builds on the momentum of an IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) earlier this year. The SROCC highlighted that “the global ocean has warmed unabated since 1970 and has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the climate system.” It has also absorbed 20-30 per cent of total human-caused carbon dioxide emissions since the 1980s, causing increasing surface acidification.

Since 1993, the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled, according to the IPCC, which has resulted in marine heatwaves doubling in frequency since 1982 and increasing in intensity (very high confidence). In a significant stride forward for the nascent field of attribution science, the report noted that “it is very likely that between 84–90 per cent of marine heatwaves that occurred between 2006 and 2015 are attributable to the anthropogenic temperature increase.”

The scheduled release of the report this year prompted the host country, Chile, to declare that COP25 would be a ‘Blue COP’. Despite the site of the conference being shifted to Madrid, Chile retains the Chair, and yesterday’s announcement partially redeemed that promise.

The rest of the promise will have to be met in the new national climate targets, which are due next year. The most specific aim of the new platform is “to encourage the incorporation of the ocean in climate strategies (Nationally Determined Contribtutions, National Adaptation Plans, Adaptation Communications, and National Policy Frameworks).”

Integrating oceans into national targets will be challenging. The most direct way to do this is by taking into account coastal ecosystems. The SROCC notes, for example, that “nearly 50 percant of coastal wetlands have been lost over the last 100 years, as a result of the combined effects of localised human pressures, sea level rise, warming and extreme climate events”.

Because of their proximity to national territory, these ecosystems are, in one sense, the easiest to integrate into national targets. This could add significantly to global ambition —  the loss of coastal vegetation (such as mangroves) is currently responsible for the release of up to around 5.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Still, doing so will be complex — India’s afforestation target is proving to be a challenge. The Forest Survey of India’s State of Forest Report started including data on carbon sequestration only recently. This year’s report references mangroves but does not provide estimates of sequestration from them.

This climate-and-ocean intersection also needs a good sounding board to weed out dangerous ideas — like ‘ocean fertilization’, which involves adding iron to the ocean surface to intensify the growth of carbon-absorbing phytoplankton, or generating carbon credits based on sinks.

The Platform of Science-based Ocean Solutions will be critical to building technical capacity on both these fronts.

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