UN report: Ocean-based climate action could deliver a fifth of emissions cuts needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C

An area of seagrass and rock on the seabed, Mediterranean sea, France: “Blue carbon” ecosystems could prevent approximately 1 gigatonne of CO2e from entering the atmosphere by 2050, says the report.

Ocean-based climate action can play a much bigger role in shrinking the world’s carbon footprint than was previously thought. It could deliver up to a fifth (21%, or 11 GtCO2e) of the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions cuts needed in 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Reductions of this magnitude are larger than annual emissions from all current coal fired power plants world-wide.

This is a key finding of a new scientific report, “The Ocean as a Solution for Climate Change: 5 Opportunities for Action”, published on 23 September at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in New York. The report, produced by the Expert Group of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy – a group of 14 heads of state and government – provides the first ever comprehensive, quantitative analysis into the role that ocean-based solutions can play in the fight against climate change.

“Our future health and prosperity are closely linked to the state of the ocean,” said Erna Solberg, co-chair of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and Prime Minister of Norway. “This report signals an exciting new pathway to a low-carbon, climate-resilient future. Coupled with land-based emissions cuts, it shows that ocean-climate action could provide a lifeline for the economies, food sources, coastal communities and sea life at the frontline of climate disruption.”

Global action to address the state of the ocean has never been more urgent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (to be released on September 25), is expected to highlight major threats to the ocean from climate change, such as declining fish stocks, rising sea levels and increasing ocean acidification. Yet today’s new report highlights solutions that would help curb climate change and contribute to the development of a sustainable ocean economy while protecting coastal communities from storms, providing jobs and improving food security. These solutions include:

  • Scaling up ocean-based renewable energy – which could save up to 5.4 gigatonnes of CO2e annually by 2050, equivalent to taking over a billion cars off the road each year.
  • Decarbonising domestic and international shipping and transport – which could cut up to 1.8 gigatonnes of CO2e annually by 2050.
  • Increasing the protection and restoration of “blue carbon” ecosystems – mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes – could prevent approximately 1 gigatonne of CO2e from entering the atmosphere by 2050.
  • Utilising low-carbon sources of protein from the ocean, such as seafood and seaweeds, to help feed future populations in a healthy and sustainable way, while easing emissions from land-based food production could support emission reductions of up to 1.24 GtCO2e each year by 2050.

In response to the report, the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy issued an urgent Call to Ocean-Based Climate Action today, to inspire political commitments, business partnerships and investments to set us on the new pathway to a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.

“In Palau, ocean and human vitality are interwoven in our history and culture: we’re testimony to how the ocean and climate are inextricably linked and connect us all,” said Tommy Remengesau, Jr., co-chair of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and President of the Republic of Palau. “Now the solutions, which the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have offered today, show how we need to work with, and not against the ocean. Doing so will protect the most vulnerable nations, like ours, from the full force of the climate crisis. This untapped potential provides hope. Humanity must seize it.”

The U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, responded to the report by saying: “The world already has the technologies it needs to put ocean-based climate solutions into motion. To stay true to the Paris Climate Agreement and hold warming at 1.5°C, we urge all states to include ocean-based climate solutions in their revised Nationally Determined Contributions next year.”

Members of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy are already coming forward with early action and new ocean-climate commitments in advance of the U.N. Ocean Conference next year:

  • Australia is investing AUD$70 million in the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), a 10-year $329 million collaboration between 45 Australian and international partners to develop innovative and sustainable offshore industries to increase Australian seafood and marine renewable energy production.
  • Fiji is committing to making their shipping sector 100% carbon-free by 2050.
  • Japan will promote demonstration projects aiming at early commercialization of marine renewable energy.
  • Kenya will incorporate blue carbon ecosystems into its nationally determined contribution, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts and WWF.
  • Mexico will declare an additional 31 fishing refuge areas bringing more than 100,000 hectares under sustainable management.
  • Namibia is committing an additional US$5 million towards ocean research and protection over 2019/2020.
  • Norway is committing to halve its emissions from domestic shipping and fishing vessels by 2030.
  • Portugal is committing to produce 10% of its electricity by floating offshore wind and wave energy by 2030.

“Fiji is leading Pacific Island States in a united and visionary response to the ocean’s untapped potential to combat global warming” said Frank Bainimarama Prime Minister of Fiji. “We are committing our whole EEZ to 100% integrated management with 30% to marine protected areas by 2030 as well as collectively committed to cutting 40% of emissions from Pacific shipping by 2030, and we’re making our shipping sector 100% carbon-free by 2050. Together, we’re moving towards managing our waters sustainably.”

The Call to Ocean-Climate Action has also spurred responses from other organisations.

  • The Getting to Zero Coalition launched today with industry partners to work towards having commercially viable zero emission vessels operating along deep sea trade routes by 2030, supported by the necessary infrastructure for scalable zero-carbon energy sources including production, distribution, storage and bunkering.
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts is launching a 3-year initiative to support countries to incorporate coastal wetlands and coral reefs into their National Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. They will work in partnership with governments, researchers and other NGOs.
  • The Chilean Salmon Aquaculture Association (SalmonChile AG) has highlighted the objective of reaching 50% carbon neutrality by 2020 and 100% by 2025 of its member company “Salmones Camanchaca”, setting an example of leadership for other companies to follow.
  • Accelerating efforts to secure sustainable food from the ocean, in support of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy’s Call to Ocean-based Climate Action, the SeaBOS Initiative, representing ten of the largest seafood companies in the world, operating in wild capture fisheries, aquaculture, and feeds, will advance strategies to enhance sustainable fisheries, and investigate mechanisms to adapt to climate change impacts on seafood production. These industry leaders have been working to refine science-based strategies for global action, aligned with the High Level Panel’s efforts to accelerate action to secure a sustainable ocean economy.
  • Ørsted and Equinor, two companies in the forefront of offshore renewable energy, have today announced the creation of a new industry-led coalition to scale up ocean-based renewable energy in support of efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement. The coalition is bringing together leading ocean industry players and will present a roadmap for action at the U.N. Ocean Conference in June 2020.

“The High Level Panel’s Call to Ocean-Based Climate Action demonstrates the value of protecting coastal wetlands as a nature-based solution, which is integral to the global effort to build resilience and protect our ocean in a changing climate. Coastal habitats are among the planet’s most biologically rich ecosystems. They protect shorelines during storms and are critical for carbon sequestration, making them an important part of mitigation and adaptation efforts for countries that have signed the Paris Agreement,” says Tom Dillon, Vice President and Head of Environment for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We support the Call to Ocean-Based Climate Action from the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and agree that the full phaseout of GHG emissions from shipping will only be possible with the introduction of zero-carbon fuels. Hence, it is our ambition to accelerate the deployment of commercially viable deep-sea zero emission vessels by 2030,” says Johannah Christensen, Managing Director, Global Maritime Forum, a partner of the Getting to Zero Coalition.

“The Global Environment Facility welcomes the leadership of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy in issuing the Call to Ocean-Based Climate Action. Our coastal communities are on the front line of climate change, but have an incredible ally in the ocean,” said Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility. “As this report shows, ocean-based climate solutions can deliver a sustainable ocean economy that both protects our oceans and supports economic livelihoods.”

“The only way we can combat climate change is by working together to take real action, and on behalf of Ørsted, and Equinor, two of the world-leading offshore wind developers, I am delighted to announce this new coalition for action for offshore renewable energy. The report reveals that ocean renewable energy, and in particular offshore wind energy, has a huge potential to help mitigate climate change, so we are looking forward to bringing industry players together, in response to the High Level Panel’s Call to Ocean-Based Action, to understand how we can take an international perspective to the challenges we will face and coordinate in our action to unlock the full potential of ocean renewable energy to prevent global overheating,” says Benj Sykes, Vice President at Orsted and leading on the Coalition for Action for offshore renewable energy.

“The ambition of SeaBOS members is to increase the production of healthy and sustainable seafood, and to improve ocean health overall. The members recognise the positive benefits that eating more sustainably produced seafood can have at lowering the global food carbon footprint, as called for by the High Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, and also note that it would have positive social and ecological impacts to have a healthier ocean. These efforts will help shine a light on the science-based solutions that industry will need to prioritise to increase sustainable seafood production, improve ocean health. Combined, those actions will assist in reducing the overall carbon footprint of protein production and food sources globally,” says Mr Shigeru Ito, Chairman SeaBOS, also CEO and President Maruha Nichiro Corporation.