Protecting the Ocean as a Nature-Based Solution to Climate Change
World Ocean Day is a time for optimism. It is a day to reflect on the importance of a unique and vital ecosystem that covers 70% of the Earth's surface and supports the lives and livelihoods of over three billion people every day. World Ocean Day is also an opportunity to look ahead to collaborative global efforts to protect the ocean and our future on this blue planet.
The crucial interplay between the ocean and climate has long been established. Scientists have documented the ocean's role in regulating global weather patterns and in mitigating climate change. It absorbs 90% of the excess heat and 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities. The impacts of climate change are being felt in marine habitats, changing water temperature and oxygen levels, increasing ocean acidification, and altering other aspects of ocean chemistry.
“Climate change and biodiversity loss are fundamentally linked, and Marine Protected Areas are an opportunity to address both challenges in an integrated way.”
UNCTA: Dona Bertarelli on World Oceans Day 2021, Jun 9, 2021.
But it is only recently that we have gained a greater understanding that ocean protection is a nature-based solution that effectively counters the impacts of climate change. To stop rapid marine biodiversity loss, we must keep our oceans healthy and ensure a sustainable blue economy for an ever-growing world population. One of the most effective solutions is Marine Protected Areas which conserve and restore biodiversity. Climate change and biodiversity loss are fundamentally linked, and MPAs are an opportunity to address both challenges in an integrated way. This is something that I have long championed. Through my work as UNCTAD's Special Adviser for the Blue Economy and as the founder of a new ocean data technology portal: Global Fishing Watch Marine Manager, I am very aware of the clear interdependence between the ocean, biodiversity, climate, human health, and food security.
"Highly or fully protected MPAs can generate significant biodiversity benefits that enhance the resilience of the ecosystem against changing ocean conditions.”
UN SDGAction: Dive into blue economy with Dona Bertarelli, the fastest woman to have sailed around the world, October 1, 2020.
The benefits of MPAs, especially those that are highly or fully protected with no damaging extractive activities, are four-fold as they: 1) enhance ecosystem resilience against the impacts of climate change; 2) help people adapt to a changing marine environment; 3) help ensure food security; 4) And, help mitigate climate change via the long-term removal of greenhouse gases from the global carbon cycle.
Highly or fully protected MPAs can generate significant biodiversity benefits that enhance the resilience of the ecosystem against changing ocean conditions. These benefits include more and bigger fish, the conservation of breeding, spawning and nursery areas, and the protection of migratory pathways. In addition, protecting key coastal ecosystems, specifically mangroves, saltmarshes, and seagrass, helps coastal communities adapt to climate change. Such protection also enables carbon sequestration and storage -- increasing its contribution to climate change mitigation efforts.
“...it is extremely encouraging to see the formation of a new global partnership enthusiastic about MPAs as a tool for the international climate response … Ultimately, governments worldwide need to act fast and act now to protect even just 30% of the global ocean by 2030.”
Oceanic Global: Announcing UN World Oceans Day 2021, June 1, 2021.
There is ample potential for the application of MPAs as a nature-based solution for climate. The Southern Ocean, for example, is an area rich in biodiversity and is critical for a healthy and sustainable world. This cold body of water surrounding the Antarctic continent plays a crucial role in regulating the global food chain and ocean currents, absorbing 40% of all greenhouse gases stored by the ocean. Yet, it is largely unprotected, despite being highly impacted by climate change. There are three proposals currently under consideration by the international community to fully protect the waters of the Weddell Sea, East Antarctic, and Antarctic Peninsula from damaging industrial activity such as fishing. These protections would help build the resilience of the ecosystem against a dramatically warming and acidifying environment.
As we look ahead to the upcoming Convention of Biological Diversity meeting in Kunming, China and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland, it is extremely encouraging to see the formation of a new global partnership enthusiastic about MPAs as a tool for the international climate response. The partnership, which currently includes the US, UK, Chile, Costa Rica, and France, recognizes the need for a holistic approach to address the world's environmental problems. Ultimately, governments worldwide need to act fast and act now to protect even just 30% of the global ocean by 2030.