The international community has gathered at COP26, the high level climate change talks in Glasgow, to decide on actions aimed at curbing climate change and preventing the worst. Statements have already been made by many countries on slashing methane emissions and ending deforestation by 2030. As these talks continue, and as countries begin offering more concrete details on the logistics of the promises made thus far, it is crucial that all aspects of the earth-climate system are considered holistically.
While the ocean is recognized for its climate buffering capacity, absorbing almost a third of emitted CO2 and 90% of excess heat, the latest scientific report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that we may be nearing a tipping point with the world’s oceans. As the oceans continue to buffer climate change impacts by absorbing this excess CO2 and heat, historic levels of ocean acidification, ocean warming, and deoxygenation threaten biodiversity and critical ecosystems functions. As science increasingly reveals the interconnectedness of ocean-climate processes, the ocean and its biodiversity is becoming recognized as a critical facet of climate policy.
Following a landmark decision at COP25, the Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue (Ocean Dialogue) was launched online in December 2020; countries, NGOs, and others were invited to submit comments beforehand on how the international climate process should address ocean-related mitigation and adaptation. This highly inclusive Ocean Dialogue, available to broad array of stakeholders, was a pivotal moment in ocean-climate policy, and has offered a rare glimpse into Party and non-Party perspectives on ocean-related climate mitigation and adaptation.
This momentum is continuing at COP26, with discussions of ocean policy heard since day one of the proceedings. Indeed, many world leaders have already made promises of achieving sustainable management of ocean areas by 2025, as part of a High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. As these discussions continue, it is important that the findings of the Ocean Dialogue are used to inform the decision making process.
A new paper by members of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative quantitatively evaluated the Ocean Dialogue submissions, providing a unique tool for climate negotiators, NGOs, and others to understand the priorities of the international community and of specific countries and stakeholder groups. The analysis separates Party versus non-Party submissions, to provide insight into any differences in the priorities, focal areas, and knowledge bases for these two stakeholder groups. This assessment of the Ocean Dialogue submissions highlights the salient themes that emerged from the submissions (Ecosystems and Biodiversity, Regime and Policy interactions, and Cross-Cutting Issues) and quantifies the weight of focus on individual themes (e.g. ocean biodiversity compared to blue carbon). The published quantitative dataset from the Ocean Dialogue submissions may be relevant to negotiators and used for additional research by social and political scientists interested in the ocean-climate nexus.
In total 47 submissions were provided in advance of the Ocean Dialogue from individual governments, intergovernmental organizations (e.g. the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries group), UN system entities and the IUCN, and non-party organizations. The vast majority of Parties that submitted were coastal or archipelagic States with a strong history of ocean management and policy. Notably, several major coastal Parties were absent from these submissions (e.g. the U.S.A., China, India, Brazil, and the Russian Federation).
Ocean and marine ecosystem impacts of climate change were widely acknowledged, and referenced by ninety-one percent of submissions. Submitters were concerned about changing ocean impacts, carbon sinks and blue carbon opportunities, and the need for ecosystem resilience, biodiversity management and improved understanding of normative and institutional frameworks. Ocean and ecosystem impacts were more frequently considered in submissions by non-Parties compared to Parties; this was especially true for certain categories such as impacts of species redistribution, circulation changes, deep-sea impacts, and saltwater intrusion. There was a strong call to recognize the interconnectedness of the biophysical world. Notably, more non-Party submissions referenced Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) compared to Party submissions suggesting that non-Parties may have been more focused on working across UN regimes.
Human rights issues, including food security, and good governance principles were mentioned in relation to marine management, mitigation, and adaptation measures. This included an emphasis on increased equitability and inclusiveness in processes like the Ocean Dialogue. Such equity is increasingly relevant as the international community navigates access challenges at COP26. Certain gaps were also identified during the analysis, such as the low use of the World Ocean Assessment by submitters as a resource, in contrast to documents such as the IPCC SROCC which were frequently cited. Additionally, few submissions referenced Human Rights Conventions, despite common reference to human rights, and in contrast to frequent inclusion of Climate Regime or Ocean and Biodiversity Regime Conventions. This points to a potential knowledge gap about the policy framework linking the ocean-climate-biodiversity nexus with existing international human rights policies. Finance was referenced in more than half of submissions but was considered more frequently and intensely by non-Parties than Parties.
This article highlights the need for a continued transdisciplinary international dialogue on ocean and climate change policy. It provides key data points on which negotiators and others can frame conversations about collaboration which elevates the ocean-climate-biodiversity nexus via collaborative science, finance, and policy. The results of the Ocean Dialogue are shown to represent a continued political evolution away from siloed actions on oceans, biodiversity and climate towards integrated action.
Next steps that emerged from the Ocean Dialogue process included featuring the ocean in the Global Stocktake, addressing the blue finance gaps, and increasing ocean science in and produced by developing countries. The authors join a chorus of supportive voices calling for formal acknowledgement and continuation of Ocean Dialogue processes and actions during COP26 proceedings and beyond.
The published dataset is available at: https://www.zenodo.org/record/5105817#.YYHCguOSnLB
The article is available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14693062.2021.1990004