Editor’s Note: Climate Week is taking place from September 23 to September 29. Check Conservation News for ongoing coverage of this global forum.
A day after the UN Climate Action Summit — which was quickly labeled a disappointment — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro delivered a combative speech at the United Nations, renewing pledges to shrink protected indigenous territories and expand mining in the world’s largest rainforest.
One day after a heady discussion in New York over the morality of protecting the Amazon — itself the subject of an upcoming Vatican conclave — it was a reminder that tackling the climate crisis will take more than just science and funding.
While the media was focused on the Amazon, the focus at Climate Week in New York on Tuesday turned to oceans — one day ahead of the release of a grim report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the state of the oceans.
Discussions on Tuesday covered how to build the resilience of coastal communities to climate impacts, ensure seafood for a growing planet and safeguard coral reefs.
Perhaps the most noteworthy was a session on leveraging the ocean itself as a solution for climate change.
On Monday, a new paper, “The Ocean as a Solution to Climate Change Five Opportunities for Action,” was published. Commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (HLP) — a group of 14 heads of state — the paper found that ocean-based solutions to climate change could provide 21 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
In a panel discussion on Tuesday, a few of the study’s co-authors laid out how.
Until recently, according to one panelist, the ocean was an afterthought in climate discussions.
“The perception in the early years of the work on climate change was that the ocean was so huge and thermally inert” — that is, unable to be affected by rising temperatures — “that it would never change,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.
“We’re finding out that the ocean is not a side event [to climate change], it’s front and center.”
So how do we turn the ocean into an “ally” in the fight to curb climate change?
The paper laid out five areas to be addressed: ocean-based renewable energy; marine shipping; marine ecosystems; fisheries; and carbon storage in the seabed — an area that the authors noted is not yet fully baked.
Some of the options — offshore wind power and reducing emissions in the shipping industry — are low-hanging fruit, comparatively.
Offshore wind power is already well-established in northern Europe — so much so, according to panelist Peter Haugan of the University of Bergen, that there is growing competition for space in the North Sea for ever-larger wind turbines.
As for shipping? “It’s actually easy to reduce carbon” in this sector, said panelist Tristan Smith of University College London. The existence of the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency for the shipping sector, is “a key advantage” in getting shipping policy changed, he said.
Comparatively more difficult — yet bringing with it numerous additional benefits — is protecting nature, in this case, coastal and marine ecosystems. Simply conserving nature is a “no-regret solution,” said Jen Howard, director of marine climate change at Conservation International, in part because of these added benefits.
Take mangroves, for example. Aside from the inordinate amounts of climate-warming carbon that mangroves store, they are extremely effective in protecting coastal communities from storm surges; they are harbors of biodiversity, fisheries, livelihoods and cultural value.
Even if we were wrong about all that carbon value, Howard said, mangroves would be worth protecting.
“I don’t know that making sure more trees are in the ground could be a bad thing,” she said. “Carbon is just the cherry on top.”
One important “blue carbon” ecosystem, though, often goes neglected — not least in part because it’s underwater and largely unseen. Seagrass habitats are “unloved,” Howard said, and only recently have researchers begun to understand the grave threats that these carbon-rich and biodiverse ecosystems face.
“Seven percent of seagrasses are lost every year,” she pointed out. “That’s huge.” Land-based pollution and rising ocean temperatures are the main culprits in seagrass loss. “Humans are causing their loss, so humans can solve it.”
Some seagrass restoration efforts are already underway, but it will be of little use unless humans stop destroying the rest.
One of the options under discussion for using the ocean as a carbon sink: bury the carbon under the sea.
“There’s technology that exists today to enable you to pull carbon out of power plants and pump it beneath the seabed,” said panelist Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institute. Fully a tenth of the world’s power plants, he said, are close enough to the coasts to make this a feasible option.
The question, of course, is what happens if the carbon leaks, but Caldeira indicated that leakage is not seen as a major issue provided the proper measures and regulations. Another matter is the environmental disruptions of oceanic carbon-burying rigs with footprints similar to that of an offshore oil rig.Better perhaps to be burying carbon instead of pulling it out.
We’re years out from doing this at scale, panelists noted. Until then, protecting nature is already working.
Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International
Cover image: Sea grasses in Timor-Leste. (© Christian Ching)