Nature

Experts call for oceans to be front and centre at COP26

Open letter calls for the ‘blue carbon’ in ocean ecosystems to be included in climate policy

More than 3,000 scientists, political representatives, public figures and others have added their names to a call for the protection and restoration of ocean and coastal ecosystems to be included in climate policy. The open letter, which is led by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and supported by 66 partner NGOs, will be presented to governments around the world later in the year ahead of the COP26 climate talks.

Protecting the ‘blue carbon’ contained in thriving ocean ecosystems is a golden opportunity, the letter states. Marine stores globally contain around 49 times the amount of carbon as is in the atmosphere and more than half of biological carbon is captured by marine life.

However, it is a major risk if left unprotected, and is currently neglected in climate policy. The current annual loss of seagrass is estimated to release around 299 million tonnes of carbon every year, and for coastal wetlands that figure rises to 450 million tonnes. The UK, which has world-renowned coastal and marine habitats, has lost 90% of its seagrass meadows to pollution, dredging, bottom trawling and coastal development.

Executive Director of EJF Steve Trent, says:

The ocean gives us every second breath we take, and absorbs around a third of the CO2 we pump out. Nature-based solutions like restoration and protection of marine habitats will both help us meet global decarbonisation goals and prevent the worst impacts of global heating while also protecting the lives and livelihoods of the 3 billion people who depend on marine biodiversity around the world. Our political leaders must recognise the urgency of the climate crisis and take truly bold, transformative action to reach a global zero carbon economy.

Climate, ocean and human rights experts – including Prof. Pavel Kabat, IPCC assessment reports lead author and inaugural research director of the UN World Meteorological Organization; Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, human rights barrister; Dr Richard Unsworth, marine scientist and co-founder of Project Seagrass; and Prof. Brendan Godley, chair of marine conservation ­– have joined MEPs and MPs from around the world, including UK, Germany, Taiwan, Indonesia and others in calling for recognition of the critical importance of ocean and coastal ecosystems as a key tool in the fight against climate change.

Professor Paval Kabat, says:

The ocean is a central, vital part of our climate system, and it must be recognised and protected as such. The capture and storage of carbon by marine ecosystems is an immensely valuable service. Tackling climate change requires a holistic 'systems approach', recognising that both our marine and terrestrial ecosystems play crucial roles, as well as every part of our society.

The letter urges national leaders to:

  1. Include specific, legally binding targets to protect and restore blue carbon environments in their updated Nationally Determined Contribution implementation plans.
  2. Commit to the 30x30 ocean protection plan and designate 30% of the ocean as ecologically representative marine protected areas by 2030
  3. Agree an international moratorium on deep sea mining to protect the deep sea from irreversible, large-scale harm.

Seagrass meadows in North Wales

This restoration and protection of our marine habitats must take place alongside ambitious decarbonisation implemented across all sectors, it cannot be used as an excuse for ‘business-as-usual’ in other sectors, the letter says.

The letter, which is now open to signatures from the public, has attracted support from public figures from all parts of society, including actor Joanna Lumley, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, wildlife film maker Gordon Buchanan and others from Olympic surfers to artists, authors and youth climate and oceans activists. Sustainable businesses, such as Triodos Bank, have also added their support.

Blue carbon is in every part of the marine ecosystem, from the coasts, where mangrove forests store up to four times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests and seagrass meadows store nearly 20 gigatonnes of carbon worldwide, to the open sea, where the great whales sequester huge amounts of carbon each year.

Human rights barrister Baroness Helena Kennedy QC says:

The climate crisis is here, with lives destroyed, epic droughts, floods and typhoons, and families and whole peoples uprooted. We see it hit the poorest and most disenfranchised hardest, with women disproportionately affected. The only way we can achieve climate justice and protect human rights is by making the most of every resource we have: restoration and protection of ocean ecosystems is a key natural solution that should play a central role.

Fisherman in the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh