Guest Article #17

Copenhagen - An Ocean of Change

The ancient decree “All roads lead to Rome” has been understandably overtaken by the obsessive charge: “All roads lead to Copenhagen.” The 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP15) in Copenhagen is the apex around which all else in 2009 revolves. Everywhere I go I hear “We need this on the agenda at Copenhagen” or “Let's wait and see what happens at Copenhagen.” All else lays within the ecliptic shadow of the need to “Seal the Deal” on mitigation targets and adaptation measures in Copenhagen.

The focused enthusiasm and anticipation for Copenhagen is entirely appropriate. It is a prevailing wind through which all other issues – economic, social and environmental – must be navigated. Climate change will have a lasting effect on all human settlements and all natural ecosystems. Conversely, the design and efficiency of human settlements, and the integrity of natural ecosystems, will affect both the type and magnitude of climate change impacts.

The reciprocal relationship between climate change and the integrity of natural ecosystems was the focus of the World Ocean Conference (WOC), hosted by the Government of Indonesia, in Manado, North Sulawesi, this past May. There, in the epicenter of global marine biodiversity, delegates sought to remind the Copenhagen negotiators that the coastal and marine environment, occupying over 70% of the globe and 95% of the biosphere, is central to the climate change debate, not peripheral or secondary. Indeed, coasts and oceans provide ecosystem services integral to the long-term well-being of humanity.

Delegates to the WOC heard how the worlds' oceans transport vast quantities of energy across the globe and play a major role in the carbon cycle, absorbing approximately one third of anthropogenic emissions. Functioning coastal ecosystems, including mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, algal mats and coral reefs, absorb carbon, while the oceans are giant carbon pumps, taking carbon from, and releasing carbon to, the atmosphere. The health of the oceans, including the quantity, type and interaction of marine biota, will determine whether the oceans are a sink or a source of carbon to the atmosphere.

Through the Manado Declaration, governments expressed concern that marine ecosystems continue “to be threatened by land-based and sea-based pollution, alien invasive species, unsustainable use of marine and coastal resources, physical alteration, poor land-use planning, and socioeconomic pressures.” Clearly the onset of anthropogenically-induced climate change has heightened the urgency to better understand and preserve healthy, functioning and resilient coastal and oceanic ecosystems.

Governments also recognized that “healthy and productive coastal ecosystems … have a growing role in mitigating the effects of climate change on coastal communities and economies in the near term” and that “an integrated coastal and ocean management approach is a key in promoting resilience, and thus fundamental to preparing for and adapting to the effects of climate change … [emphasis added]”

Importantly, governments committed to “strive to reduce pollution of ocean, coastal and land areas and to promote sustainable management of fisheries … to enhance the health and thus the resilience of coastal and marine ecosystems.” The importance of building the resilience of coastal and marine ecosystems to the impacts of climate change cannot be overstated.

Climate change adaptation strategies that pursue integrated coastal area and river-basin management and ecosystem-based management of marine resources will reduce the vulnerability of coastal communities. These strategies need to be urgently factored into policy and investment planning by governments and donors alike.

As negotiators move from Manado to Copenhagen, they must recognize that significant and rapid investment, coupled with improved cooperative action, is urgently needed to:

  1. Better understand the role of coastal and oceanic systems in mitigating climate change;
  2. Build the resilience of coastal and oceanic ecosystems to climate change by:

    1. Improving coastal and ocean water quality;
    2. Ensuring adequate and representative protection of coastal and ocean habitats;
    3. Limiting the spread of introduced marine pests;
    4. Adopting ecosystem-based approaches to the management of coastal and marine industries, including fisheries; and

  3. Enhance the capacity of coastal communities and marine industries to adapt to climate change.

In summary, not only is the climate changing as a result of anthropogenic carbon emissions, but so too are the oceans changing. The response must be an ocean of change in the way we do business. On the road from Manado to Copenhagen and beyond, it is critical that governments focus on both the role of oceans and coasts in climate change, and the impact of climate change on oceans and coasts.

Governments must go to Copenhagen prepared to turn the tide, not just ride the waves of change.