Guest Article #43

Oceans and Coasts at the Frontline of Climate Change

The world's oceans play a central role in climate, akin to the Earth's lungs and circulatory system. The world cannot do without a healthy ocean generating oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide and regulating climate and temperature. Oceans already absorb over 80% of the heat added to the climate system and nearly 50% of all carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels over the past 250 years.

The oceans' ability to provide these life-sustaining services is now at risk. Rising ocean temperatures trigger broad-scale effects -from melting polar ice, rising sea levels, shifting species distribution and abundance, erratic weather patterns, increased frequency and intensity of storms, to changes in ocean currents. Moreover, additional carbon dioxide absorbed by seawater has caused a 30% increase in acidity, posing serious threats to marine ecosystems and the millions of people dependent upon them.

The more than 50% of the human population that lives in 183 coastal countries, including 44 small island nations, are at the frontline of climate change and will suffer disproportionate impacts from ocean warming, sea level rise, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification. For example, a 2009 report by the United Nations University predicts that the number of people flooded per year may reach 370 million by 2100.

Oceans and coasts have not yet figured on the agenda of the UNFCCC, where any realm other than the atmosphere has to date been regarded as a “sectoral nuisance.”

All members of the global oceans community -governments, international agencies, NGOs, science groups, and the private sector- are mobilizing to call attention to this issue. The need to craft a comprehensive program related to climate and oceans, both within and beyond the UNFCCC process, is among the key recommendations from the first Oceans Day at the Copenhagen UNFCCC COP-15 (www.oceansday.org/pdf/summary.pdf) and the Global Oceans Conference in May 2010 at UNESCO in Paris (www.globaloceans.org).

A comprehensive oceans and climate program would encompass:

Mitigation

Ensure the continuing functioning of the oceans in sustaining life on Earth by adopting stringent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, within a short timeframe, to avoid disastrous consequences on oceans and coastal communities.

Emphasize the positive contributions that oceans and coastal areas can play in the mitigation of global warming through:

1) Use of natural carbon sinks in coastal areas (e.g., mangroves, seagrass beds, kelp forests, tidal marshes) which have a greater capacity (per unit of area) than terrestrial carbon sinks in achieving long-term carbon sequestration in sediments. “Blue carbon” could be traded and handled in a similar way to green carbon (such as rainforests) and entered into emission and climate mitigation protocols.

2) Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from ships through a variety of technical and operational measures. Carbon dioxide emissions from international shipping, accounting for 2.7% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2007, are expected to grow to 18% by 2050 as a result of growth in world trade.

3) Development of ocean-based renewable energy, such as wind power, currents, tides, and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), through the use of marine spatial planning, giving appropriate priority to marine renewable energy and through funding for large-scale development and implementation.

4) Careful consideration of carbon capture and storage via injection in deep seabed geological formations.

Some geo-engineering approaches such as direct injection of carbon dioxide into the water column, and ocean fertilization, however, should be discouraged due to the potential for irreversible harm to the marine environment.

Adaptation

1) Implement adaptation measures through integrated coastal and ocean management institutions at national, regional, and local levels to achieve the preparedness, resilience, and adaptive capacities of coastal communities.

2) Encourage the application of ecosystem-based adaptation strategies to preserve, restore and increase the resilience of coastal and marine ecosystems, including through the use of marine protected areas.

3) Prepare for the legal, economic, social, and humanitarian issues associated with the displacement of coastal populations due to climate change.

Capacity development and public education

Extensive capacity development, public education and awareness programs are urgently needed to prepare national and local officials and the public in coastal regions to address climate change.

Financing

Adaptation cost estimates for coastal areas and small island States are woefully inadequate, as are the adaptation resources currently available. UNFCCC 2007 estimates the costs of adaptation in coastal zones at about $11 billion/year, using lower sea level rise predictions and not including potential impacts of increased storm intensity. With over half of the world's population living in coastal regions and likely to experience the most pronounced effects of climate change, at least half the funds made available for adaptation should target coastal and island peoples and countries.