Tuesday

26th May 2020

Opinion

Oceans, seas, and fish-stocks must be focus of COP26

  • Healthy fish stocks contribute to a healthy marine environment and so the ocean's capacity to cope with climate change (Photo: Ingrid Taylar)

At December's UN Climate Conference, COP25, it seemed that the loud call for immediate action from the masses in the climate marches all over the world was not sufficiently heard in the negotiating rooms, as governments failed to deliver the level of ambition and action required to tackle the climate emergency.

However, one important but still tentative step forward was the inclusion of the ocean in the final negotiated text, recognising at last the ocean's massive role within the climate system and planet, and the far-reaching consequences for humanity if that role is further eroded.

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The last, most-recent COP was originally billed as the 'Blue COP', with a spotlight on our blue planet for the first time in the 25 years of history of the negotiations. The agreed process to come up with recommendations will now hopefully result in urgent action to help safeguard our ocean as if our lives depended on it.

Last year's Inter-government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate made it crystal clear that our governments must match their actions in the ocean to their commitments for the climate.

This was an important message sent from some of the most respected scientists in the world, and some progressive political initiatives are now surfacing and suggesting their warnings have been listened to.

In November, the EU Council adopted conclusions on oceans and seas, highlighting that climate change is a direct and existential threat and that "member states unanimously stress the need for immediate action against increasing threats on our oceans, seas, and coastal areas".

Moreover, the European Green Deal acknowledges that "lasting solutions to climate change require greater attention to nature-based solutions including healthy and resilient seas and oceans."

These are good beginnings but words are not enough.

Seas are carbon sinks

Fish and other marine life are the engines of our global ocean; a global ocean that generates every second breath we take, regulates the climate, has absorbed over 90 percent of the heat trapped by our carbon dioxide emissions, and acts as the world's largest active carbon sink by sequestering over 30 percent of the carbon from those emissions.

A healthy ocean with abundant wildlife is capable of slowing the rate of climate change substantially, but its capacity to mitigate and promote adaptation to climate change is severely hindered by continued overfishing - not allowing fish populations to replenish and rebuild themselves.

Unsustainable management of European fisheries has taken place for decades.

Last December EU fisheries ministers decided to continue overfishing several stocks in the northeast Atlantic - in spite of EU law requiring they are fished within sustainable limits as of 1st January 2020.

This decision to break EU law is not only bad for the long-term economic viability of the fishing industry, but it could have a huge ripple effect.

Healthy fish stocks contribute to a healthy marine environment and so the ocean's capacity to cope with climate change.

Fisheries management must embrace a new reality: the world is changing fast and maintaining fish stocks at higher levels and reducing the impacts of fishing on ocean habitats are mandatory requirements for a climate resilient sea.

It is clearer than ever that the resilience and health of the ocean is vital to all humankind – both as a mitigator of climate breakdown and a service provider of oxygen, fresh water, weather patterns, and food.

We need to far more ambitious action by governments to remove the threats to the ocean which are within our immediate control such as overfishing and pollution.

Improving ocean resilience is a climate action; ending overfishing is a climate action; protecting two thirds of the ocean through a high seas treaty is a climate action.

Where the fisheries ministers just failed, others will now have to lead.

One important milestone would be more ambitious national climate plans that include actions for ocean resilience at the next climate COP26 in Glasgow.

Another milestone would be for the EU's new Green Deal to start a process rolling out concrete actions and targets that will ensure all necessary efforts are made to build ocean resilience as a matter of climate urgency.

Author bio

Dr Monica Verbeek is executive director of Seas At Risk, an independent NGO of environmental associations. Professor Callum Roberts works at the department of environment and geography at the University of York.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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