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Ocean Currents

Celebrating Five Years of the Paris Agreement—and Looking Ahead

The ocean and climate change have come a long way in the five years since the Paris Agreement

Sunset Eiffle Tower. Paris. France
© Storyblocks

My whole life I’ve wanted to protect the wildlife and wonder of our planet. Climate change was always on the edge of that personal mission until about five years ago when I started working at an Earth and planetary science magazine. My immersion in our Earth systems pushed climate change to the front of my mind. I realized everything that’s happening on the surface of our planet, including within the ocean, was related to climate change. Coincidentally, at the same time as I was paying more and more attention to the climate crisis, countries around the world also announced their intent to tackle the crisis together by creating the Paris Agreement. This past weekend, on December 12th, was the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement is a groundbreaking international pact to address the climate crisis. Under the Agreement, countries submit national emissions reductions goals—which are supposed to be increasingly ambitious—every five years. Under President Obama’s administration, the U.S. was a major champion of the Paris Agreement and played a central role in its creation.

Although the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement under the Trump administration, we’re now poised to start rebuilding U.S. international climate leadership. The incoming Biden-Harris administration has stated that rejoining the Agreement is a “Day 1” priority.

When it was created in 2015, the Paris Agreement didn’t include ocean issues in a meaningful way. Ocean people focused on the ocean; climate people focused on the climate. This was to the detriment of both movements, because the ocean and climate are inextricably linked: Our ocean moderates our climate, and climate change, particularly carbon pollution, drastically affects marine life and ocean functions. The ocean is also a major source of climate solutions—from offshore wind energy to coastal ecosystems that store carbon—and has a large role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Thankfully, recognition of how intertwined the ocean and our climate are has come a long way since the beginning of the Paris Agreement. Last year, we saw countries officially include ocean issues in the outcome of the U.N. climate summit, and we continue to see progress in the context of the Paris Agreement and across international forums.

In a year full of so many unforeseen, disastrous and frankly sometimes ridiculous challenges, countries still prioritized the ocean at the international level and that managed to bring me a glimmer of hope. Here are some of Ocean Conservancy’s ocean and climate change 2020 highlights to celebrate on this fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement:

  • Following last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP 25, this year the U.N. climate framework held its first ever dialogue on the ocean. Ocean Conservancy organized the preparatory meeting for countries and participated in the dialogue itself. The dialogue provided an opportunity for representatives from countries all over the world to discuss opportunities for ocean-based climate solutions and to lay out their priorities for next year’s U.N. climate conference, COP 26, in order to continue incorporating ocean issues within the Paris Agreement and countries’ national climate plans.
  • One of Ocean Conservancy’s Roger Arliner Young fellows, Olivia Lopez, is scouring the numerous climate plans countries submitted to the U.N. to see which ones include the ocean and how. If you’re interested in diving in and reading about them yourselves, you can find the analysis of the first submissions here, which we will continue to update as further climate plans are submitted. It’s heartening to see countries including ocean-based solutions, from building climate-ready fisheries to protecting coastal ecosystems that store carbon.
  • To highlight and build on this progress, we at Ocean Conservancy are also organizing an Ocean-Climate Ambition Summit to kick off the new year in January. Hosted by countries and co-organized by a range of non-governmental organizations (NGO) partners, the summit will celebrate success—but it will also focus on the way forward. This Ocean-Climate Ambition Summit is a chance for countries and nonprofit partners to build on past success and plan for how to achieve even more at next year’s COP 26.

As with everything, there are also some roadblocks and obstacles in our path. This year, one major obstacle to ocean-climate progress arose in the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The international shipping industry—which currently emits roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas pollution as the sixth largest country emitter—does not explicitly fall under the Paris Agreement. Instead, the IMO is tasked with oversight of international shipping emissions, and this year it let us down by actually backtracking on commitments that member countries made and allowing the shipping industry to continue polluting like it does today. In the new year, countries must ensure that climate ambition is a cornerstone across international forums, including the IMO.

As we look ahead towards the new year, it’s still bright with opportunity. We will continue demanding that the IMO take stronger action on greenhouse gas pollution from international shipping. And we will continue to push ahead in the context of the Paris Agreement to make sure that countries adequately incorporate the ocean into the international climate conversation and into their individual climate plans.

As the U.S. and other countries around the world recover and rebuild from the Covid-19 pandemic, there will be many more points of opportunity to create a sustainable blue-green recovery. And we will be there bringing the blue. So much has changed in the past five years because of climate change but the world of climate change policy has changed too. I remain hopeful that at the Paris Agreement’s 10-year anniversary we will only see more successes for our ocean, planet and all of us who call it home.

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