Post COP26 Analysis: Oceans Continue to be Under-Represented
by Vincent Diringer
Following the end of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), there has been no further progress made on ocean-based policy. This is not surprising, considering oceans were not on the summit’s main agenda during the two weeks of negotiations, and it was said that the oceans may be too large to govern . There was a side event based on Ocean Action that raised awareness of the issues facing ocean-reliant communities, with some pledges and financial commitments made, but no goals were set out . This is a great shame after the momentum built at COP25 and the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on oceans and the cryosphere. Considering the importance of oceans and their ecosystem services, the lack of action taken to protect them is worth discussing.
Oceans And Climate Change
Oceans cover 70% of the planet’s surface, and are responsible for a quarter of its carbon absorption, and almost three-quarters of its oxygen production [3, 4]. This does not include the importance that they have on the economies reliant on tourism or fisheries, with estimates from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) labelling global oceans’ net asset values at over $24 trillion, and providing a yearly output comparable to $2.5 trillion in GDP, making it the world’s eighth largest power . The ocean is integral to life on Earth both financially and biologically, and it is widely acknowledged that this ecosystem’s collapse would signpost the beginning of disruptions around the world [6 – 8].
So why does it seem oceans, and by proxy, big-ocean states are not included in larger discussions on climate policy or conservation? (See ClimaTalk’s article on inclusivity here). “For many, the ocean is out of sight and out of mind. It is easier to touch and count trees than fish, after all,” explains Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones in Nature ahead of COP25 in 2019 , “landmark conservation and climate-change agreements have largely ignored the ocean.” However, little came of COP25, and a similar trend emerged at COP26.
“With the exception of rising sea levels, climate change impacts on the oceans have been treated as a peripheral matter at global climate change negotiations. This marginalisation of the oceans largely continued at COP26,” states Professor Karen Scott, who sees COP27 as the next opportunity for global decision-makers to tackle the impacts climate change is having on ocean ecosystems . Yet ocean-reliant economies, like Small Island Developing States, are also on the outskirts and condemn the lack of wider action being taken on the global stage .
What Did COP26 Yield For Oceans?
Within the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact itself, there was a single reference to the oceans – acknowledging it, and other ecosystems’ importance to global environmental balance . While oceans were not a main agenda point at COP26, discussions were held in the negotiation halls, the pavilions and the Green Zone, leading to two major developments. The first was a call to conserve 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 led by the United Kingdom, and the second was the announcement of the launch of the world’s first Blue Bond by Fiji scheduled for early 2022 [2, 12].
As it currently stands, less than 8% of the world’s oceans are protected. Designating 30% of the global marine environment as protected is not necessarily a hard task – enforcement is. This is where the Law of the Sea and international cooperation on the high seas has often fallen flat, evident in the billions of dollars that are siphoned from Marine Protected Areas globally [1, 9, 13, 14].
Arguably the most interesting development, the Blue Bond being trialled by Fiji could offer some financial opportunities for island or coastal communities. Similar to the REDD+ framework, which sees forestry resource-rich nations conserve their ecosystems and reach certain targets to receive financial rewards, the Blue Bond will provide financial investment into programmes aimed at protecting Fiji’s marine environment .
Time will tell how these opportunities develop. As the aforementioned Jones and Scott both note separately, the ocean has long gone without adequate governance, both as a result of its sheer size and perceived distance from major decision-makers’ jurisdictions [6, 9]. The 2022 UN Oceans Conference in Lisbon being held between June 27 – July 1 may yield more concrete action on oceans.
For more information on these, be sure to check out ClimaTalk’s discussion on Ocean negotiations and progress during COP26 here.
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 UK Government, (2021), “COP26: Government leads on Ocean Action Day”, URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cop26-government-leads-on-ocean-action-day [Accessed November 8, 2021]
 Hauck, J., Zeising, M., Le Quéré, C., Gruber, N., Bakker, D. C., Bopp, L., … & Séférian, R. (2020). “Consistency and challenges in the ocean carbon sink estimate for the global carbon budget”. Frontiers in Marine Science 7, 852.
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 Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, (2021). “Cop26: Pacific delegates condemn ‘monumental failure’ that leaves islands in peril”. The Guardian, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/15/cop26-pacific-delegates-condemn-monumental-failure-that-leaves-islands-in-peril [Accessed December 7, 2021]
 UNFCCC, (2021). “Glasgow Climate Pact”
 Timoci Vula, (2021), “COP26: Fiji to launch Blue Bond in 2022 – PM Bainimarama”, The Fiji Times, URL: https://www.fijitimes.com/cop26-fiji-to-launch-blue-bond-in-2022-pm-bainimarama/ [Accessed November 11, 2021]
 Mansi Konar and U. Rashid Sumaila (2019). “Illicit Trade in Marine Resources Keeps Billions out of Pacific Economies Every Year”. World Resources Institute, URL: https://www.wri.org/insights/illicit-trade-marine-resources-keeps-billions-out-pacific-economies-every-year [Accessed December 7, 2021]
 A. D. Couper, Bruno Ciceri, and Hance D. Smith (2015). “Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea”, Pluto Press.