The clock is ticking to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. To be clear right from the start: this goal deserves every effort that mankind can pull off. In the name of realism, this is the goal we must focus on now, given the current level of progress in reducing greenhouse gases. However, damage to marine ecosystems will not be avoided even if we reach this goal1. In fact, damage already occurs at current levels of warming, as evidenced by the bleaching of coral reefs2. This may be an inconvenient truth when our current goal is 1.5°C. Yet, it is what science is telling us3, or: it is what it is.
There are two implications of this notion. The first, highly obvious implication is that any excess warming beyond 1.5°C must be avoided to prevent further damage in the oceans, and to protect other ecosystems as well. The second implication is that we need to strongly limit and whenever possible eliminate other sources of disturbance to the oceans.
We need to ask ourselves – as NGOs and as any other responsible stakeholders – where can we find the political leverage to reach the 1.5°C goal, and to ensure rapid protection of our oceans? In this respect, it is commendable that the United Nations has found ways to advance important processes even during the pandemic.
One such process is the preparation for the UN Ocean Conference. Even if the conference itself, which was originally to be held in June 2020, has been postponed, the process has continued. For instance, a series of webinars has been arranged to give stakeholders an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment.
Another process is the Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue of the UNFCCC, which gives hope that ocean issues will be given considerable weight in relation to climate change in the COP26, as well as the perpetuation of a “Blue COP”, as the previous COP was dubbed under the Chilean presidency in December last year. The Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue – much like the preparation for the UN Ocean Conference – allows for online participation by NGOs and other stakeholders.
We must also not forget the sixth assessment cycle of the IPCC, which will undoubtedly produce new scientific evidence to further put pressure on the intergovernmental processes of the UN.
NGOs and other stakeholders must pay close attention to the UN processes and take full advantage of the participatory mechanisms. Additionally, it is vitally important to influence the agenda of the nations within the UN processes. The EU has the chance to advocate for a paradigm shift from words to action. It is highly important that all those stakeholders who want to achieve real change actively ensure that initial promising signals from the current EU Commission are translated into decisive actions in major policy programmes such as the 8th Environment Action Programme, the European Green Deal, and the sustainable Europe Strategy to implement the SDGs. These programmes need to bring about real change, and they need to carry over to the global arena.
The EU has the chance to speak up for the oceans and give them the attention they direly need in the global negotiations. By doing so, the EU can significantly contribute to the mitigation of climate change, its associated effects (such as ocean acidification), and other human impacts. A strong message from the EU to the UN processes can truly affect the future of coral reefs and other ecosystems.
1. See Acid News No. 3, 2019 https://www.airclim.org/acidnews/not-even-15%C2%B0c-good-enough)
2. Babcock et al. 2019: Severe continental-scale impacts of climate change are happening now: Extreme climate events impact marine habitat forming communities along 45% of Australia’s coast. Frontiers in Marine Science, vol. 6
3. The Special Report on the Ocean and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/)