Advancing Ocean Climate Action at COP27

COP27 was challenging but showed signs of life for the ocean.

In November, countries around the globe came together at the 27th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to negotiate a collective path forward towards solutions to the climate crisis facing the planet. Representatives from civil society, non-governmental organizations and the private sector gathered alongside governmental representatives to influence decisions and advance contributions toward the goals of the Paris Agreement of 2015. I was joined by Ocean Conservancy colleagues working to advance ocean-climate action.

The biggest win for this two-week event was the recommitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. While not new, this remains a critically important commitment. If we warm beyond 1.5°C, we stand to lose ocean and coastal ecosystems we depend on to sea level rise, warming temperatures, ocean acidification and other climate impacts. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, as Dr. Sarah Cooley, Ocean Conservancy’s director of climate science, emphasized when addressing a COP27 session. If the ocean warms or rises too much, critical ecosystems like coral reefs and protective wetlands won’t survive and neither will those communities whose economies, culture and livelihoods are tied to the ocean.

In order to reduce emissions, we must phase out fossil fuels—oil, coal and gas—and move towards renewable energy and less plastic and petrochemical production since these products, so dangerous as ocean pollutants, are made from oil. This is obvious, but too many countries are shying away from this critical commitment, and this year’s COP was disappointing for its lack of ambition to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels and towards a more livable future. More than 80 parties called for the phasing out of all fossil fuel subsidies (subsidies that distort the markets making fossil fuels artificially cheaper), but this provision did not make it into the final agreement. There was also no formal commitment to phaseouts of all fossil fuels, and even some countries supporting phaseouts are planning to expand fossil fuel production.

The COP27 decision notably includes a pathway for addressing losses and damages resulting from climate impacts on developing nations that did little to cause the problems, an issue that is a matter of survival for many coastal communities and island nations. Committing to establish a loss and damage financial mechanism is a first step in addressing centuries of social injustice by ensuring those most responsible pay their fair share. A just transition must also include that the benefits of climate solutions are available to all, not just to the same nations or companies that also have profited from creating the problems. We hope to see the text’s positive commitment to loss and damage, climate justice, human and Indigenous rights and a just transition play out in practice. 

COP27 has been called the “Implementation COP” recognizing the need to make good on previous big commitments and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including those made in 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow. Next year will conclude the first official Global Stocktake, an assessment of the world’s progress towards solving climate issues. COP27 is sandwiched in between and so it was a time for countries to figure out how to meet these big commitments before the first global assessment of our progress on climate issues.

The Ocean Conservancy team advanced several ocean-climate solutions at COP27 to help countries meet their goals under the Paris Agreement.

OC team at COP27

We focused on the following priorities:

The Ocean in the Climate Change Dialogue

Last year in Glasgow, we celebrated the creation of the Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue which provided an official space for the ocean in COP negotiations. The first recurring dialogue happened this summer and promoted critical ocean-climate solutions like offshore wind, protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems, ending virgin plastic production and decarbonizing shipping. Raising the profile of ocean-climate solutions through this dialogue will contribute to more robust national climate action plans and advance mitigation and adaptation target. There was widespread support from countries to improve this space for ocean-climate action, including a decision for the dialogue to be led by party co-facilitators with specific themes set for each dialogue. This thematic focus, if identified well in advance of each dialogue, can help implement ocean-climate solutions, unlock finance and ensure the ocean is included in future COPs. We were thrilled to see parties and representatives of civil society express strong support for the dialogue and ocean-climate solutions during COP27

Offshore Wind

Offshore wind is a key ocean-climate solution with the potential to provide renewable energy to millions of people and communities worldwide and play a pivotal role in the just transition to a clean ocean energy future. At COP27 we saw some potential progress as nine countries joined the Global Offshore Wind Alliance (GOWA),  committing their collective resources and political will to accelerate the deployment of offshore wind energy. Individual nations, like Vietnam, made new commitments as well. I thoroughly enjoyed moderating a panel in the Nature Zone at COP27 with representatives from the International Renewable Energy Agency and Orsted, a leader in offshore wind power production based in Denmark,  focusing on the potential of offshore wind energy and how to sustainably and equitably advance its development. Since 2010 the cost of offshore wind has decreased by almost 50%, and the total installed capacity has increased by 17 times, only 7% of wind capacity installed in 2021 was from offshore. It’s time to, responsibly, pick up the pace.

Green Shipping

International shipping emissions, responsible for roughly 3% of the world’s greenhouse gases, can be eliminated by moving toward zero-carbon shipping. At COP26 in Glasgow (2021) we saw commitments to establish green shipping corridors via the Clydebank Declaration. Green shipping corridors are maritime routes between one or more ports that enable the testing and uptake of zero-emission lifecycle fuels and technologies.  The goal of green shipping corridor implementation is to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions through an equitable sector-wide decarbonization by 2040. COP27 launched a Green Shipping Corridors Hub, that aims to create a blueprint for what a zero-emission fuel-ready port would look like by 2030. The Green Shipping Challenge presented at COP27 inspired new commitments to put the shipping sector on a pathway to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Ending Plastic Production

Plastics are made from oil, and are currently responsible for 3-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050 they could represent 20% of oil demand by 2050. This year we stressed the importance of reducing plastic production and including the plastics-production sector in discussions about how to transition away from fossil fuels. Aarthi Ananthanarayanan, our director of the Ocean Conservancy climate and plastics initiative, hosted an event focusing on how ending plastic pollution is both a climate-justice as well as a public health issue. The panel of experts at this event discussed the impact of the plastic and petrochemical industries at the community level and the amazing work local organizations are doing to stop development of facilities that pollute and damage their communities. “They are sacrificing our lives for something you use once and throw away,” Shamyra Lavigne from Rise St. James pointedly stated at the event. Her organization has stopped the development of Formosa Plastics, what would have been one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire United States.

All in all, COP27 was a combination of disappointments and hope. We had hoped for more firm commitments to meet the goals for protecting our planet and humanity. But, on the other hand, the COP gave rise to the hope that progress is accelerating. We know the ocean is a powerful source for climate change solutions; it is important we protect it so it can help protect us. It is critical that the world address the effects of climate change and work to prevent its worst impacts. Ocean Conservancy’s commitment to solutions continues, and we hope at COP28 in Dubai (2023) to see ambitious actions that adequately meet the urgency of the moment.

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