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The ocean, the planet’s greatest ally in the fight against global warming, barely made a ripple in the UN climate deal recently crafted in Dubai.

The UAE Consensus agreement reached last Wednesday references oceans in only four paragraphs of the 10,000-word text.

A preamble paragraph on the importance of ensuring a variety of ecosystems, including the ocean, was simply cut and pasted from the past two COP agreements.

When it came to mitigation, the deal "invited" countries to preserve and restore oceans and coastal ecosystems, as appropriate. It also "noted" ocean-based adaptations can reduce climate change risks and provide other benefits.

However, on the periphery of UN climate negotiations, there’s a rising tide of support to make the ocean central to the climate crisis response. Oxygen from plankton fuels every second breath on the planet and oceans have absorbed nearly a third of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans and more than 90 per cent of the excess heat those gases create.

However, seas are superheating. Water temperatures moved into uncharted territory in 2023, leaving nearly half of the world’s oceans in the clutches of severe heat waves by late summer.

Tide is turning for oceans and climate

The pace of ocean-centric responses to the climate crisis was incremental at COP28 but the tide is turning, says William Cheung, director of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. Photo by Sylvie Li / UBC
The ocean, the planet’s greatest ally in the fight against global warming, barely made a ripple in the UN climate deal recently crafted in Dubai, but the tide is turning, say experts @UBCOceans and @Oceans_North #OceanSolutions #COP28 #ClimateCrisis

Although many pushed to raise the ocean’s profile in the climate agreement, the pace of change is slow, said William Cheung, director of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.

“Like many issues related to climate change, what’s happening at the negotiation table and on the outside are like two separate worlds,” Cheung said.

There was a flurry of activity and announcements showcasing the ocean and its array of nature-based solutions by civil conservation groups, the research community, and business and philanthropic sectors at the summit, said Cheung, a COP 28 delegate and a core author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

As negotiations began, the Dubai Ocean Declaration issued by UN agencies and partners urged the rapid scale-up of ocean science and solutions tied to financing and capacity-building for climate-vulnerable, developing nations.

Oceans are increasingly acidic and oxygen-poor. Sea levels are rising and warming waters are driving extreme droughts, floods, and storms, as well as the extensive loss of coral reefs and other marine life.

In addition to drastic emissions cuts to safeguard ocean biodiversity and climate services, the declaration highlighted the need to determine how and where the ocean is taking up carbon and how it might be changing.

Other high-level ocean events during the summit stressed finding ready-to-go, actionable ocean solutions — like decarbonizing shipping, tourism and fishing, along with restoring mangroves or marine ecosystems — that could close the emissions gap by up to 35 per cent and 1.5 C of warming by 2050.

Climate leaders also called for the final agreement to endorse five “Ocean Breakthroughs” — a series of targets on marine conservation, shipping, renewable energy, sustainable seafood, and coastal tourism.

It’s going to take an investment of US$72 billion to reach the global target of protecting 30 per cent oceans by 2030, according to the breakthrough blueprint.

Ultimately, no binding language, prescriptive measures or targeted financing for ocean protections or solutions made it into the new climate agreement.

However, COP28 can’t be considered a washout, said Susanna Fuller, a vice-president of Oceans North, a Canadian Conservation group.

“The ocean certainly wasn't invisible,” Fuller said.

It was only two years ago at COP26 in Glasgow that the ocean even made it onto the radar as a climate issue. This year there was a dedicated Ocean Pavilion, multiple high-level events and even a day dedicated to nature, lands, and oceans.

The laser focus of the summit, and rightly so, was to secure the phaseout of fossil fuels vital to the ocean’s survival, she said.

The strength of the new agreement to drive a real transition away from coal, oil and gas, is up for debate, but it’s the first time the need has even been recognized after a decades-long fight.

“At least there's now discussions on the phasing out of fossil fuels,” Fuller said.

“The biggest best thing we can do for oceans is reduce emissions, so they don’t have to work so hard to manage that excess heat.”

Other landmark advances at the summit will translate into benefits for oceans and vulnerable small island states suffering the worst of the climate crisis, said Cheung and Fuller.

The launch of the long-awaited loss and damage fund with an initial $400 million in funding to help developing countries weather the worst of the climate crisis will likely boost ocean conservation in coastal states, Cheung said.

More than 100 countries have also pledged to triple renewable energy use by 2030, a shift that is bound to include offshore wind and other marine energy solutions, Fuller noted.

The ocean may only be mentioned in passing in the UAE consensus, but it’s the focus of new keystone agreements in other arenas, Cheung noted.

The High Seas Treaty, an unprecedented agreement to protect nature in international waters, was sealed in March.

And a watershed promise by nations to protect 30 per cent of the world’s lands and waters by 2030 took place at the UN biodiversity summit hosted by Canada last December.

That 30x30 pledge, known formally as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, is also referenced in the new climate agreement for the first time, Cheung noted.

Although vague, the ocean references and increasing emphasis on protecting ecosystems and biodiversity in the climate agreement leaves the door open for more prescriptive measures in future deals, he said.

Recognition that actions on climate change, biodiversity loss and the protection of lands and waters must be intertwined is growing, particularly at the national and regional level, he added.

For example, the COP28 joint statement on Climate, Nature and People issued at the summit and endorsed by 18 countries and nearly a dozen conservation partners stressed the necessity of aligning national climate strategies and nature protection plans.

Upward of 70 per cent of countries with new or updated climate action plans filed with the UN now include one or more ocean solutions like marine conservation or renewable energy or decarbonizing marine transport, Fuller said.

What’s more, the climate-ocean nexus will play a big role at the next high-level UN ocean conference in 2025, she said.

“The narrative is changing on the oceans,” Fuller said. “I feel like those conversations are still happening in many places. They aren’t being lost.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

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