from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

No Blue, No Green: Climate Change and the Fate of the Oceans

A Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground in Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is pictured in Palawan Province, west of Manila.

December 12, 2014

A Chinese fishing vessel that ran aground in Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is pictured in Palawan Province, west of Manila.
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Coauthored with Alexandra Kerr, assistant director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Extreme fluctuations in the global environment are becoming more apparent and quantifiable, forcing nations to accept that climate change is no longer a theory, but a threat. Mitigating its worst effects is no longer a choice, but a lifeline.

Over the past two weeks, delegates from 196 countries have sought to lay a foundation for a comprehensive agreement to alleviate climate change’s worst effects, which unless mitigated will imperil the world’s oceans. Gathering under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the negotiators have tried to hammer out the details of a monumental emissions control and reduction treaty. If all goes well, the world will adopt the treaty next year at the 2015 UNFCCC conference in Paris.

The past fortnight offers a glimmer of hope that humankind, confronting impending climate-related disasters, may finally be ready to mend its ways. Perhaps, as Samuel Butler observed, we will see that, “seamen, in a storm, turn pious converts, and reform.”

In particular, climate change is already beginning to harm marine ecosystems—threatening the health of the entire planet. Oceans comprise fully 70 percent of our planet—and provide some of the most vital mechanisms for mitigating climate change. Yet, the oceans are dying a slow death, thanks to massive poisoning by anthropogenic CO2 emissions, largely from land-based sources

As Earth’s largest carbon sink, the oceans remove some 30-40 percent of anthropogenic (caused by human activity) carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. But as emissions continue to rise, the oceans are being forced to absorb ever-larger quantities of CO2, generating devastating acidification. The UNFCCC enshrines as one of its objectives the promotion of sustainable management and protection of the oceans, as well as coastal and marine ecosystems (Article 4, paragraph 1(d)). Reviving the health of the world’s oceans will require a breakthrough agreement in Paris, as well as a strong “oceans” pillar in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Reversing or slowing climate change is in the national interest of every country. Over the past year, multiple reports have warned that predicted temperature increases, rising sea levels, and changing weather patterns will have dire economic and security implications. Last week, the UN Secretary-General’s report, The Road to Dignity by 2030, underscored that sustainable development depends on arresting climate change. Among other things, it calls for all future infrastructure development must ensure “planet-friendly” development moving forward.

The existential, borderless nature of the climate change challenge means that no single state or even select group of states can tackle climate change alone. It will require global collaboration with coordinated domestic efforts, and it will depend on real commitments from developing, not just developed countries states. Thus, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris agreement should apply to all countries, not just developed states. It will also be grounded in bottom-up, realistic goals, attuned to each country’s varying capacities. And it will include monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure tangible progress—and mid-course corrections when countries get off track.

Real progress in Paris is essential to saving the world’s oceans, which have borne the brunt of climate change. This May, the scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without significant curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels could rise between by up to 38.2 inches and global average temperature by 8.1°F by the end of the century. In October, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s fourth Global Outlook report cautioned that rising global temperatures will lead to increased ocean acidification, elevated sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns, and substantial loss of Arctic sea ice. Without a change in course, the outlook is bleak.

But somewhat remarkably, 2014 has also seen oceans governance rise in prominence on the international agenda, despite the press of international crises from Ukraine to Syria. In June, building on President Obama’s National Ocean Policy, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” conference, convening delegates from eighty countries to discuss innovative ways to counter acidification, end marine pollution, and ensure sustainable fisheries. This followed a “World Oceans Summit”in February, hosted by the Economist magazine, which enlisted private sector leaders in improving oceans governance through sustainable business practices.

These recent developments—and other multilateral initiatives—are documented in CFR’s new Global Governance Monitor: Oceans, relaunched last week. This comprehensive multimedia guide uses technology to track and analyze the major successes and failures in oceans governance. One of the underlying themes of the Monitor is that the fate of the planet rests in large part with the health of the world’s oceans. As the famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle reminds us, “No blue, no green.”

With competing priorities, the recent international spotlight on oceans governance could fade quickly. So what should policymakers focus on in 2015? The most important objective remains a meaningful, binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that UNFCCC parties will sign in Paris. This agreement must include concrete commitments from the world’s major emerging economies countries, including not only China but also India, Brazil, Indonesia, and others.

Beyond this ambitious goal, there is much more to be done to save the world’s oceans from their current deterioration. Drawing from the recommendations of the Oceans Global Governance Monitor and from the final report of the Global Ocean Commission (GOC), the following three steps would be a start:

  • Improve sustainable fishing practices, both on the High Seas and in countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs): Nearly half of global fish stocks have been fully exploited and roughly one-third have been overexploited due to unsustainable fishing practices and widespread illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. To this end the Global Ocean Commission has three suggestions: First, eliminate harmful fishing subsidies. Second, enact domestic policies that will reduce IUU fishing by preventing illegal catches from reaching the legal market—thereby reducing incentives for this illicit [over] fishing. Third, focus on providing more support to existing regional fisheries management organizations (RMFOs).

  • Extend Marine Protected Areas: Currently, marine protected areas only cover around 2.8 percent of the oceans globally. Increasing the number and size of reserves around the world will give the ocean and the creatures and flora a place to recover from the harmful effects of human activity. The Global Ocean Commission goes as far as to suggest that governments should agree to designate the High Seas as a “regeneration zone,” prohibiting all industrial fishing practices out with EEZs and RFMO areas. 

  • Toughen restrictions on plastics: Our reliance on plastic has increased exponentially in the past century, with a report released Wednesday suggesting that the oceans may contain around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, or 269,000 tons. Domestic policy should be implemented that enforces new, stronger restrictions on plastics production and disposal. Additionally, the Global Ocean Commission suggests that countries should restrict the production of single-use plastics, much like California did earlier this year when it passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in grocery stores.

These reforms, if agreed and implemented by UN member states, would help to restore threatened species, preserve marine biodiversity, and reduce the flood of pollution that now fouls once pristine seas. Important goals, all. But unless humanity finally takes the dramatic steps needed to stem the massive flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, both the blue and the green will fade to black.

More on:

International Organizations

Oceans and Seas

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Climate Change

Treaties and Agreements

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