COP 21: Taking a closer look at climate’s impact on oceans

Dominique Maingot, Lawyer

The ocean absorbs nearly 30 per cent of mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions. As a carbon sink, it is this rising concentration of greenhouse gases and uptake of carbon dioxide that also leads to ocean acidification through the alteration of the ocean’s pH levels. With the focus of this year’s COP 21 on creating a new climate agreement, incorporating an ocean focus was just one of the approaches towards setting cumulative party emission targets below 2°C.

Often noted in research on ocean acidification are its slower-felt implications from climate change in comparison to those at an atmospheric level. According to data over a near 40-year period, the ocean absorbed approximately 90 per cent of the anthropogenic heat created. For temperature-sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs, significant changes in the water around them can mean the very difference between life and death. As their symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae is affected, episodes of bleaching decrease the calcification or strength of the coral, further impacting on the reef system and its wider dependents.

For Small Island States, healthy coral reefs are vital to their resilience and adaptation to climate change effects. Other ecosystem-related industries, like fishing, are also affected as indicated in the shifting migration patterns and declining populations of certain fish stocks.

COP 21 Oceans Day

Addressing the significance of the ocean, and potentially irreversible impacts due to climate change, day five of COP 21 was filled with ocean-focused events. Together with several other committees and ocean forums, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hosted an Ocean Day that built on others held over the past six years.

Essential to the Paris Agreement was the fact that many Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) set similar 2030 targets as those of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed earlier this year (SDG 14, in particular, calls on the sustainable use of oceans and marine resources).

For several of the largest contributors, ambitious targets from countries like the United States, China, Australia, Canada and the European Union, were highly anticipated for setting the Paris Agreement on track.

‘Because the Ocean’ Declaration

In acknowledgement of this equal commitment to oceans, 11 countries – including many of those listed above – came together to sign the ‘Because the Ocean’ Declaration. With regard to many of the biological and social effects relating to climate change and oceans, this Declaration calls on a more focused approach to oceans within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  

Emphasising an increasing need for scientific research in this area, the Declaration, for example, seeks to support a special Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on both oceans and climate. Following a similar approach for accountability within the Paris Agreement, a monitoring timeline for SDG 14 related activities also aims to implement the necessary procedures to achieve its goal. Additionally, accounting for the significant need for oceans’ incorporation within the UNFCCC, declaration signatories also committed to taking a proactive role in developing an ocean action plan within the existing framework.

Paris Agreement

Currently within the Paris Agreement, oceans are acknowledged in the Preamble for their importance relating to ecosystems, biodiversity, and even the notion of ‘climate justice’ and its larger association to human rights and community relationships with the environment.

As the Agreement now heads towards country ratification, domestic policies, initiatives on their climate targets and ocean-related goals will be crucial indicators for this potentially historic agreement on climate change.


Photo credit: NOAA