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COP25: Diving into the first Blue COP

There’s a new tide of global awareness rising about the critical role of our oceans in climate mitigation and adaptation.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here

This week, at COP25 in Spain, there’s a new tide of global awareness rising about the critical role of our oceans in climate mitigation and adaptation. 

Despite turbulent times in Chile, and the civil unrest that led the nation to withdraw from hosting COP25 in Santiago, the country not only continues to preside over the summit, as originally planned, but also to uphold the mantle of the first Blue COP — elevating the protection and restoration of our oceans as vital to climate progress.

If ever there were a time to risk being hyperbolic in framing the urgency of transformative climate action, it’s now.

"The point of no return is no longer over the horizon," said U.N Secretary-General António Guterres in his remarks the evening before COP25 kicked off. "It is in sight and hurtling toward us."

Here’s the problem: The initial set of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) drafted by participating countries to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement aren’t going to cut it, and those prepared to set more aggressive targets before submitting their NDCs in 2020 represent less than 10 percent of CO2 emissions globally. 

That’s why, if you’re not yet tracking the Climate Ambition Alliance, you ought to be. Launched by Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, the multi-stakeholder alliance will be center stage at COP25, leading efforts to enhance the ambition of countries’ NDCs and that of subnationals, more broadly.

This is where our oceans come in, and why Chile is pushing global leaders to protect them in order to heal the climate.
While the alliance’s scope includes strong actions on adaptation and active involvement of the private sector, its efforts aim towards a focused goal: to ensure that as many countries as possible submit NDCs that are adequate in their ambition to stabilize global temperature rise.

This is where our oceans come in, and why Chile is pushing global leaders to protect them in order to heal the climate.

First, a little background. The global ocean plays a tremendously important role in regulating Earth’s climate. Its currents distribute heat from the tropics to the poles, all the way down into the deep blue sea. This determines everything from rainfall patterns and surface temperatures to daily weather on land. 

Beyond regulation, the ocean is our greatest sink of both carbon and heat. Since the 1970s, it has absorbed up to half of humanity’s excess greenhouse gas emissions and about 93 percent of excess heat (PDF) from those emissions. This is leading to dramatic changes in ocean circulation, rising acidification and increasing ice-melt and sea-level rise.

On the other end of the spectrum, ocean-based climate action could deliver a fifth of the emissions cuts needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsus, according to a recent report (PDF) published by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, part of the World Resources Institute.

All to say: if it seems strange that ocean health and management have remained largely sidelined in COP convenings, it should — and it’s why Chile, along with other nations, are out to change this at COP25.

Here are three key things floating just under the surface of most mainstream media coverage:

  • Because the Ocean. An initiative launched at COP21 in Paris, led by 23 countries and a host of NGO partners. Over the last five years, the initiative has published two declarations and mobilized a global coalition, encouraging incorporation of oceans into the climate change policy agenda and to achieve the 14th Sustainable Development Goal: to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

  • Because the NDCs matter. Nations’ climate strategies could incorporate the ocean in two main ways: protecting and regenerating coastal ecosystems to sequester "blue" carbon; and harnessing tides, waves and offshore wind to generate carbon-free electricity. This and more will be covered at the 2020 UN Ocean Conference, being convened in Lisbon in June.

  • Because business has a role to play. The UN Global Compact created an Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business. The set of Sustainable Ocean Principles on which it’s based is well worth skimming (PDF), no matter the value chain in which you operate. Every company has a role to play in achieving ocean sustainability, starting with assessing the short- and long-term impact of your company’s activities on ocean health, and incorporating these considerations into your strategy and policies. 

"There are few domains where the risks of failure and rewards of success are more pronounced than the ocean," wrote Lise Kingo, CEO and executive director of the UN Global Compact, in June. "Companies that work to secure a healthy, productive and well-governed ocean are not only meeting their responsibilities to people and planet, but are indeed acting in their own best interest."

I’ll be diving into this week’s summit, including #Virtual Blue COP25, and continuing to report back on this vital issue and opportunity.

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