Making UNFCCC Blue

The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in December 2019, ended with a mixed bag of disappointments and promises. But before that, the event had to be shifted from Santiago, Chile to Madrid in Spain due to domestic security situation arising from clashes between protestors and security forces. Nearly 30,000 international delegates were expected to attend COP25 and Chile government did not want to jeopardize this important event as it had invested enormous diplomatic-political-scientific capital to ensure its success. The COP25 was the longest and ended without any consensus on many areas. UN Secretary General António Guterres tweeted disappointment; yet he was “more determined than ever to work for 2020 to be the year in which all countries commit to do what science tells us is necessary to reach carbon neutrality in 2050 and a no more than 1.5 degree temperature rise”. Amid the sounds of Scottish bagpipes, COP26 was welcomed and negotiators promised to be in Glasgow, UK in November 2020 with the hope that deliberations would “shift from negotiation to implementation”.

Perhaps the most promising feature of COP25 was the reference to oceans and seas in the draft version of the outcome text which acknowledged importance of these large water bodies as an “integral part of the Earth’s climate system’ and that it was important to ensure “integrity of ocean and coastal ecosystems in the context of climate change”. Furthermore, the Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice was requested to ‘convene at its fifty- second session (June 2020) a dialogue on the ocean and climate change to consider how to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action in this context.’

On December 7, a unique 24-hour event called Blue COP25 was held to deliberate on climate-ocean negotiations among a wider group of stakeholders such as policy makers, climate scientists, activists, artists and NGOs from across the globe. The primary purpose was to ‘promote policies, programmes and projects’ to support evidence on climate change and its impact on the oceans. The COP25 witnessed ‘over 100 events discussing the ocean and climate change, covering issues that include maritime shipping, ocean science, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, and nature-based solutions’.

There is symbiotic relationship between climate and the oceans and the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, a scientific research report published in September 2019 has observed that since the 1970’s, the oceans have ‘warmed unabated’ and that ‘global warming has led to widespread shrinking of the cryosphere’. Furthermore, ‘human communities in close connection with coastal environments, small islands, polar areas and high mountains are particularly exposed’ to changes such as sea level rise and melting of the glaciers. The report calls upon policy makers to make note of the ongoing changes and observations contained in the report. Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II notes that the report offers a “very strong scientific light onto two systems that have not necessarily been on the world stage when we’ve been talking about climate change.”

There is now a general agreement that the oceans across the globe are undergoing unprecedented observable changes such as rise in temperature which is impacting on the ocean current circulations and thermal stratification, rapid melting of the polar ice is intensifying resulting in sea-level rise, deoxigenation resulting in oceans becoming more acidic, and their ability to absorb excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions is reducing.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) provisional statement on the State of the Global Climate has a number of observations for the period January to October 2019 which corroborate above concerns. For instance, the global average temperature was about 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period; the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a record level of 407.8 parts per million in 2018 and continued to rise in 2019; in October 2019, the global mean sea level reached its highest value since the beginning of the high- precision altimetry record (January 1993); the ocean heat content continued at record or near- record levels, with the average for the year so far exceeding the previous record highs set in 2018; the ocean has on average experienced around 1.5 months of unusually warm temperatures; in the decade 2009-2018, the ocean absorbed around 22% of the annual emissions of CO 2; and the Arctic Sea Ice in September 2019 was the third lowest on record.

There are fears that the above ongoing changes would accelerate in the coming years only for worse. Furthermore, the damages will be irreversible unless urgent action is taken on global warming. It is useful to mention that Blue became part of the UNFCCC conversations for the first time in 2017 during COP23 in Fiji. The continued interest in matters oceans and seas within the broader debate and policy concerning climate change and to ‘raise awareness on the importance of including an ocean component in climate action, declaring COP 25 as the ‘Blue COP’ is noteworthy.

It is hoped that there would be continued interest in how climate change impacts on the oceans and seas and nations integrate these water bodies in the national climate action plans. Also, while leaders promote and integrate Blue Economy in their policy articulations to harness the full potential of the oceans and seas, it would be a futile effort unless they start taking measures for climate mitigation and adaptation.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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