Drastic global emissions reductions can combat ocean acidification and build resilience across coastal communities

By Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean; Ambassador Helen Agren, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden; Ambassador Satyendra Prasad, Permanent Mission of Fiji to the UN; Ambassador Waldemar Coutts, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chile; Ms. Jessie Turner and Ms. Madison Onsager, Secretariat for the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification | October 22, 2021

National, state, tribal and municipal Governments increasingly recognize the important relationship between climate and ocean change.  The ocean has absorbed significant amounts of carbon dioxide and excess heat from fossil fuel combustion, causing the seas to become warmer, more acidified and stratified with depleted levels of oxygen. Coastal communities around the world are feeling the effects of this change, from oyster die-offs and coral reef bleaching, to marine heat waves and harmful algal blooms. These effects impact fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, and marine ecosystems, all of which are important for sustaining jobs, cultures, and indigenous ways of life, and for feeding people.

Recently, the Sixth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that these ocean changes will continue to increase in the 21st Century at rates dependent on future GHG emissions. Authors of the IPCC report have stated they are “virtually certain” that global acidification of the ocean surface has been driven by anthropogenic CO2 emissions. With the commencement this year of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and with COP26 fast approaching, now is the time to direct global attention towards the causes and effects of ocean acidification and what must be done to rectify an otherwise increasingly damaging scenario for the ocean and the planet.

Proper financing and implementing UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 Target 3: to minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels is our flagship. SDG 14.3 provides the international platform for driving awareness and ambition on addressing the challenges of ocean acidification.  However, it should be stated loud and clear, that SDG 14 is the most underfunded of the SDGs and ocean action remains in dire need of dedicated investment to release its full potential for sustainable development.

In the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science, it should also be noted that nearly 70% of all science publications on ocean acidification come from authors affiliated with North American or European countries. This demonstrates unequal distribution of ocean acidification science-funding and further underlines disparity in understanding regional climate-ocean change vulnerabilities, locally significant impacts, and effective response strategies.

Toxic Algae Bloom in Lake Erie. Image: Nasa. The general decline in ocean pH (more acidified conditions) from increasing concentrations of CO2 can exacerbate harmful algal blooms.

With increased and strategic funding for science, monitoring and policy action, SDG 14.3 can tell us what we most need to know in order to effectively respond to global and regional change. Only through streamlined global collaborative effort and coordinated investments across scientific programmes, civil society, private sector innovators and policymakers can we effectively target the science-based mitigation and coastal adaptation strategies that will sustain our coastal and ocean resources and ways of life therein.

With ever mounting urgency, it is for this reason that the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification (OA Alliance) is calling upon national, subnational, and civil society leaders to:

  1. Increase international and domestic finance for science-based ocean mitigation and adaptation strategies — including the robust implementation of UN SDG 14.3 and its associated monitoring indicator.
  2. Integrate ocean actions into climate policies at the domestic level, including through the creation of OA Actions Plans, and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and other frameworks.
  3. Ensure that Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, leadership and priorities are reflected across ocean and coastal climate change response strategies, including consideration of treaty rights, responsibilities, diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
  4. Implement aggressive climate action through carbon emissions reductions, in the knowledge that achieving ambitious emission reductions targets is the most important step in combating ocean acidification.

To further these objectives the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) has launched a program, endorsed by the UN Decade of Ocean Science, called Ocean Acidification Research for Sustainability (OARS). This program will help provide society with the observational and scientific information needed to better understand, monitor, and adapt to ocean acidification. The OA Alliance is a partner of the OARS program and will support outcomes that provide decision makers, policy leads and stakeholders with applicable knowledge that will inform OA response and build resilience at local to global scales.

Investment in SDG Target 14.3, and the related Indicator 14.3.1, will directly contribute to several of the deliverables of the UN Decade of Ocean Science; particularly Ocean Decade Outcome 2 (focusing on a resilient and healthy ocean); Ocean Decade Challenge 2 (addressing the understanding of effects of multiple stressors on ocean ecosystems); and Ocean Decade Challenge 5 (which points to the need to enhance understanding of the ocean-climate nexus and generate knowledge and solutions to mitigate, adapt and build resilience to the effects of climate change).

The OA Alliance works to promote awareness of SDG 14.3 with leaders of the public and private sectors and across international fora.  On UN World Ocean Day 2021 it hosted a high-level event showcasing members of the OA Alliance and their priorities for advancing SDG 14.3.  At the local and domestic level, OA Alliance members are creating Action Plans that include strategies for reducing carbon emissions and local land-based pollution, strengthening monitoring nearshore to better understand and predict local conditions, investing in adaptive measures in partnership with industry or seafood-dependent communities, and advancing information-sharing strategies that help policy makers at all levels.

At the heart of OA mitigation is the drive for drastic global reductions in carbon emissions. The OA Alliance is committed to engaging across UN and UNFCCC platforms in order increase ambition for dramatically reducing carbon emissions. As one of the co-authors of this paper, Special Envoy Peter Thomson, said at a recent ocean acidification event, “In the name of intergenerational justice, we must demand of our governments, corporations, cities, and of ourselves the action required to secure a net zero world economy by 2050.  SDG 14.3’s target of minimizing OA will be a key element for the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon next year. But if accelerating OA’s chief cause is anthropogenic greenhouse gases, then the UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow this November has to be our focus in what remains of 2021’s work.”

It is within this context that the OA Alliance joins the High-Level Champions Race to Resilience campaign in calling for resilience building from state and non-state actors and in affirming that the best present knowledge and science is required to inform effective policymaking. Our collective future, and especially that of the billions of people relying on ocean and coastal resources for lives and livelihoods, depends on ambitious mobilization before 2030.