Commentary / Japan

Oceans finally take center stage at COP25

by Atsushi Sunami

World leaders are gathered in Madrid through Dec. 13 to negotiate global actions in combating climate change at the 25th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention (UNFCCC COP25). Negotiators have to deal with finalizing the detailed rules for implementing the Paris agreement, which entered into force in 2016, and ratified by 187 parties. Several difficult issues remain, such as how to establish mechanisms of carbon markets, a global carbon trading system that falls under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

COP25, the so-called Blue COP, also places greater significance on the central role of oceans in the climate system.

Currently, global warming is advancing toward a rise of 3 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels by the end of this century, even if each country fully implements its committed mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If this pathway continues, it is likely that we will fail to achieve the Paris agreement goal of keeping the world temperature rise well below 2 degrees, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees.

The adverse effects of climate change are observed in various parts of the world, and extreme weather events are taking place more frequently in Japan as well. Typhoon Hagibis ravaged the country in October, causing serious damage and losses in both human and economic terms.

However, what is less well known is the ways in which oceans play a vital role as a climate regulator. Oceans cover almost 75 percent of the Earth and they are responsible for absorbing more than 93 percent of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s, and 28 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted since 1750.

The oceans absorb over 1 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every single hour. Oceans serve as a buffer for global warming, and their ecosystem services and functions are starting to deteriorate beyond the tipping point. Yet the Paris agreement mentions the oceans just once in its legal text, and negotiations about climate and the oceans have historically been kept separate.

The recently published Special Report on the Ocean and Crysophere in a Changing Climate, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveals the extent of the crisis facing humanity as the ocean and its systems begin to collapse. The climate crisis is here and real. Devastating storms and droughts are increasing in intensity and frequency; tens of thousands of fires are blazing across the Amazon; and island countries are exploring the unthinkable: the resettlement of their entire populations due to the threat of rises in sea level. Over 16 million people were displaced by weather-related disasters in 2018 — more than those who fled violence and conflicts. The climate emergency is now Earth’s primary battleground.

We know what we must do to tackle this existential threat: Shift the global economy away from fossil fuels and explore creative ways to sustain a growing global population in harmony with the Earth. Our first and most fundamental task is for the whole world to become carbon neutral by 2050.

The oceans make life on Earth possible; they are part of our life support system and we cannot survive without them any more than the human body can survive without its heart. There are measures that governments can and must take with urgency and a commitment to change the status quo.

As the ocean suffers the ravages of the climate emergency, it is imperative that we give marine biodiversity the best chance of survival by building ocean resilience, removing additional anthropogenic impacts undermining ocean health, and building a bridge between ocean and climate policies.

Measures that should be taken between now and the end of 2020 include protecting the high seas in law, dedicating areas for complete protection, driving changes to tackle key stressors and taking action on climate breakdown.

The high seas — the area beyond the national jurisdiction of any state, which makes up half the planet and two-thirds of the oceans — should be protected under international law. A new treaty is being negotiated at the U.N. and member states should complete this in 2020 in line with a U.N. General Assembly resolution.

During the U.N. High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July, Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s environment minister and president of COP25, emphasized that the oceans should be better placed in climate negotiation, referring to the possibility of including more ocean-based measures in each government’s nationally determined contributions to climate action. Some island countries also argue that a permanent agenda on the oceans should be established in UNFCCC structure.

To address the climate crisis, I propose that Japan in particular immediately take the following three actions. First, it should submit more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, namely the nationally determined contributions and long-term strategies, to the UNFCCC. The current plan to submit the new targets by 2025 is too late. For instance, developed countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and New Zealand have announced a target of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Second, Japan should make an effort to promote ocean-based mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take the global lead to develop related technologies and know-how.

These measures can be implemented by achieving zero emissions from ships, doubling wind-power generation, including offshore wind power. Research and development on the carbon sequestration potential of blue carbon should also be accelerated, including from seaweed, develop the estimation methodologies for its carbon dioxide emissions/removals and start to include the estimations in the national greenhouse gas inventory and reporting to the UNFCCC.

Co-benefits of blue carbon such as disaster risk reduction and water quality improvement should also be noted. According to a report published by the World Resources Institute, “The Ocean as a Solution for Climate Change,” ocean-based mitigation measures could contribute up to 21 percent of additional reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the world to help it stay under a 1.5-degree increase in global temperature change relative to pre-industrial levels.

Third, Japan should expedite the development of adaptation plans in its coastal areas, and implement countermeasures against typhoons, storm-surge disasters, rises in sea level and so on in an integrated manner. In doing so, both landscape approach and seascape approach will be essential to seek balance between human well being and environmental sustainability. According to the IPCC, the sea level is projected to rise by up to 1.1 meters by 2100.

It is estimated that 90 percent of Japan’s sandy beaches would disappear with a 1-meter rise in sea level. Japan should build on these experiences and lessons from adaptation to climate change when assisting developing countries that are vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.

Tackling climate breakdown and holding global warming at or as close as possible to 1.5 degrees is essential if the ecosystem services of the ocean are to survive. All nations need to commit to new and more ambitious national plans in 2020 to achieve this. It is possible to build the resilience of the ocean to climate breakdown by removing the stressors within our control.

We need to take these measures now as a direct response to the IPCC report and as an investment in our collective future. We must position the ocean at the heart of our climate response. We cannot afford to ignore what the science informs us — which is non-negotiable — and we must act with an urgency as if our lives depend on it, because they do.

Atsushi Sunami is president and executive director of the Ocean Policy Research Institute at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

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