Cutting Emissions Best Way to Save Diverse Ocean Life from Extinction, Experts Stress at Lisbon Dialogue amid Calls for Solutions Reflecting Gravity of Threat
The most important action countries can take to safeguard the diverse ecosystems, marine life and vital services offered by the world’s oceans is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, speakers stressed today in an interactive dialogue held alongside the 2022 Ocean Conference, as experts described the extreme consequences of continued inaction.
“If we do not respond to this, all of these meetings will condemn us to the trash heap of history,” said John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate of the United States, who co-chaired the dialogue with Matthew Samuda, Minister without Portfolio in Jamaica’s Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. Shipping is one sector in need of reform. “If shipping were a country, it would be the eighth largest emitter in the world,” he noted, pressing the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to adopt a revised strategy that includes a goal of zero emissions for the industry.
The risks are way too great to be brushed aside, added Mr. Samuda. Small island developing States are economically, culturally and socially connected to the ocean and even minor changes to its chemistry will have significant ripple effects on a host of species, including those small island countries commercially harness.
The remarks set the stage for a solutions-oriented dialogue on “Minimizing and addressing ocean acidification, deoxygenation and ocean warming”, moderated by Stephen Widdicombe, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Science at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Co-Chair of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network Executive Council, who stressed that 3 billion people depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.
Launching the presentations, Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director-General, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that for more than 60 years, IAEA labs in Monaco have studied ocean acidification to help countries track pollutants such as microplastics. Noting that nuclear and isotopic techniques can be used to study marine organisms, he said IAEA scientists are measuring differences in the growth of organisms — coral and shellfish, for example — to understand how to protect ecosystems and the communities that rely on them.
The ocean plays a major role in absorbing carbon dioxide, and IAEA is using nuclear techniques to measure the ability of coastal areas to sequester carbon and help countries devise smart policies. Research is being carried out in several countries and he pointed to the “Blue Carbon in Africa” programme in that context.
“The more people who help address ocean acidification, the better,” he said, and IAEA has set up a coordination centre for that purpose. The Agency is also a partner in Ocean Acidification Research for Sustainability — a programme that provides the observational and scientific evidence needed to sustainably identify, monitor, mitigate and adapt to ocean acidification. It also hosts an online bibliographic database, which captures the entire corpus of literature on ocean acidification — nearly 10,000 references.
Johan Stander, Director of Services, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) underscored the need for more data on the oceans, noting that those available at WMO show that over the past 20 years, there has been a drastic increase in ocean temperature, particularly in 2021. Much of ocean experienced at least one strong marine heat wave during that year, while sea level rise also rose to a record level in 2021, averaging 4.5 millimetres between 2013 and 2021 — more than double the rate between 1993 and 2002 — mainly due to accelerated loss of sea ice from ice melt around the poles and high mountain areas.
“This has major implications for hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers,” he said, and increases the vulnerability of small island developing States. As the hydrogen potential (pH) of oceans declines, this will significantly reduce the capacity of oceans to absorb greenhouse gases, he warned. WMO plans to launch an international collaboration to federate oceanographic research, he said, stressing that ocean action is climate action, and climate action is action for the oceans.
Next, Jessie Turner, Director of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, a voluntary association of diverse Governments and non-governmental organizations, said “we know enough to act”. She underscored the need to urgently and aggressively reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, while also drawing attention to other actions that will foster resilience among marine species and the communities that depend on them.
She called for developing an ocean acidification vulnerability assessment, which would give Governments a better sense of the economic, social and cultural vulnerabilities presented by carbon emissions. She also called for prioritizing local research for management purposes, deploying adaptation strategies across sectors at scale, integrating policies and leveraging existing frameworks. She also insisted on more funding. Less than 2 per cent of international climate adaptation funding goes to ocean and coastal adaptation projects, while only 1.6 per cent of official development assistance (ODA) goes to the ocean economy. “This does not reflect the severity of harm” presented by the stressors, she said.
Rounding out the presentations, Hans Otto-Pörtner, Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II and Head of the Integrated Ecophysiology Section, Alfred Wegener Institute, described the biogeography of species, explaining that “species are on the move”. Citing various temperature changes, he said the tropics in particular are being affected by the loss of their biodiversity. At the lowest latitudes, a biodiversity valley is forming, with species disappearing due to extinction, which indicates they can no longer live in certain areas.
The major drivers of this phenomenon are the warming trends, which cause shifts in species interaction and composition. “We want to understand why they are happening,” he said, and determine whether the oxygen deficiency developing in parts of the ocean and carbon dioxide accumulation is playing a role. “Climate change clearly causes risks to ocean biology,” he said, stressing that ecosystems have limits to what they can tolerate. Some have reached their threshold, as seen in the species loss they are experiencing. Against that backdrop, he underscored the urgent need to strengthen climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.
When the floor opened, lead discussant Inti Keith, Senior Marine Biologist and Specialist in Invasive Species, Charles Darwin Foundation, described the Galapagos Islands as a living lab of biodiversity. Yet, this iconic place off Ecuador’s coast is affected by climate change and frequent El Niño events, which have caused the death of its vast penguin and sea turtle populations. Detailing work to replenish coral reefs around the island of Darwin, she said that “if we do not do something now, we will be left with no coral reefs in the Galapagos”.
Lead discussant Loreley Picourt, Executive Director, Ocean Climate Platform, said that at the twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26), ocean and coastal ecosystems were recognized as carbon sinks. “Civil society has played critical role in securing these outcomes for the oceans and the climate,” she assured. Scaling up strong ocean-based solutions — and making them both climate smart and biodiversity positive — is paramount. She pointed to the Nationally Determined Contributions made under the Paris Agreement as a decisive tool, as well as to the space created under the Framework Convention to identify priorities — the Ocean and Climate Change dialogue — whose first meeting took place recently in Bonn.
Representatives of Government and civil society alike took the floor to advocate change, with John Silk, Minister of Natural Resources and Commerce of the Marshall Islands, speaking for the Pacific small island developing States, noting that over half the countries that rely on coral reefs are located in the Pacific region. He called for renewed commitment to Goal 14.3 — minimizing and addressing the impact of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation. He recommended incorporating acidification and climate change indicators into disaster risk reduction strategies, early warning systems, climate services and risk spreading, and pressed donors to increase access to climate financing.
Hugi Olafsson, Director General at the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources of Iceland, described ocean acidification as “a silent mass killer”, and underscored the singular importance mitigation to prevent further damage. He called for good science and robust accounting to back up any mitigation schemes, as well as for significant cuts to carbon emissions from all sources and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. “Why should we hand out money to foul our seas and cook our Earth?” he asked.
Juhani Damski, Permanent Secretary, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change of Finland, said the Baltic Sea ecosystem is affected by warming nutrient pollution and deoxygenation levels that others will eventually experience, noting that its “anoxygenic area” is the size of Denmark. Oxygen-free bottoms are also found in shallow coastal areas. There have been improvements, notably in the Gulf of Finland; however, “it is expensive to restore lost areas”. He called for tackling the sources of distress — rather than the symptoms.
Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga, Director, Intergovernmental Support and Collective Progress Division, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said attention to the ocean is integral to all goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, the legally binding guide to strengthening the response to climate change. At COP26, Governments recognized its importance and permanently anchored strengthened ocean action in the Glasgow Climate Pact.
Adao Soares Barbosa, Ambassador at Large for Climate Affairs of Timor-Leste, said least developed countries and small island developing States need financial support for mitigation and adaptation measures. To address loss and damage, he called for creating a facility under the Framework Convention at COP27 in Egypt by year-end, stressing that the doubling of climate financing, by 2025, agreed in Glasgow must be mobilized at COP27.
The Head of the Ocean Science Section, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), noted that the agency is the custodian for Sustainable Development Goal 14.31. With IAEA and others, it is working to obtain the knowledge required to identify the biological impact of chemical changes in the ocean, with the goal of developing appropriate adaptation strategies. “We can only manage what we can measure,” he said.
The speaker from Oceanium, a small United Kingdom-based company focused on sustainable seaweed farming, said seaweed can mitigate ocean acidification. She urged support for the industry, with such products replacing those produced through the use of fossil fuels “to kelp the world”.
The speaker from ZERO — Associação Sistema Terrestre Sustentável highlighted the issue of air pollution from the shipping industry. Sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions from ships is a major issue which is rarely discussed but whose cumulative effects contribute to ocean acidification and negatively impact coastal communities. By establishing Environment Controlled Areas, States can regulate the content of naval fuel and mandate new ships to comply with nitrogen oxide emission reduction standards. She commended Portugal for establishing such an area in its waters and encouraged others to do likewise.
Also speaking were senior officials from the United Republic of Tanzania, Viet Nam, Sweden, Spain and Türkiye, as well as from Save the Waves, Ocean Visions, the University of Namibe Academy of Fishery and Marine Sciences in Angola and Ocean Foundation.