Turning the Tide: The Crucial Role of Oceans in Fighting Climate Change

The world’s oceans need to be more prominent in the climate change discussion. Photo: Silas Baisch
The world’s oceans need to be more prominent in the climate change discussion. Photo: Silas Baisch

By Audrey Tan, Francesco Ricciardi

Sustainable marine projects and innovative financing like blue bonds are part of growing global efforts to look beyond land-based solutions – and consider the ocean economy – to address climate change.

Oceans cover over 70% of Earth’s surface. Yet, discussions on how countries should be tackling climate change have focused on the pursuit of land-based solutions, or the “green economy” rather than those found in the ocean, or the “blue economy”.

Building renewable energy plants, protecting or restoring forests are important, but the sustainable use of ocean resources for development, improved livelihoods, and job creation is also critical.

 The world’s oceans play a critical role in regulating the climate. They put the brakes on how fast the world is warming by absorbing vast amounts of heat and planet-warming carbon dioxide, and also make the higher latitudes more liveable by transferring heat from the tropics to the poles.

Yet, the health of the oceans - and the benefits they offer to humans - are coming under threat from pollution, overfishing and climate change. The symptoms are clear. The surface temperature of the world’s oceans hit its highest-ever level in August 2023, with global average daily sea surface temperatures reaching 20.96 degrees Celsius, breaking the 2016 record of 20.95 degrees Celsius, according to the Copernicus climate modelling service.

 Actions we take to preserve and nurture our oceans will have a direct impact on their ability to shield us and the life on our planet.

Oceans also present a wealth of untapped resources for cutting emissions, dealing with climate impacts and delivering co-benefits to communities and biodiversity. There is still much of the blue realm that humanity has yet to discover, but current knowledge of oceanic ecosystems already indicates they have immense value to societies.

The deep sea keeps carbon out of the atmosphere, mangroves protect communities from coastal disasters, and marine genetic resources paved the way for medical innovations – like fluorescent proteins in jellyfish that can help detect cancer.

There are signs that awareness about the role of the oceans in tackling climate change is increasing. More countries are including references to the ocean in the commitments they made under the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to a November 2022 analysis by the World Resources Institute. Fifty-one nations include at least one ocean-based target, policy or measure, compared with 31 in the first round of submissions, their analysis found.

There is an annual funding gap of $459 billion that needs to be filled before countries can fully access opportunities in sustainable coastal infrastructure, wastewater treatment, sustainable tourism and food production, according to a 2021 ADB report.

The world’s oceans play a critical role in regulating the climate.

There have been suggestions on how this could be filled, through blended finance - the combination of public and private capital - to reduce the risk of such investments. But other innovative financial tools could also help.

The rise of carbon markets, for example, could inject new funds for ocean conservation through the sale of carbon credits from the protection of coastal or marine habitats like mangroves. Blue bonds and insurance schemes are also being developed to improve the resilience of coastal habitats. For example, healthy coral reefs can reduce wave energy and act as a first line of defense for communities in the event of a coastal disaster.

Parametric insurance schemes that pay out for reef restoration after a hurricane have been rolled out to protect the Mesoamerican reef, and similar schemes are being developed for Asia and the Pacific. In 2018, Seychelles issued the world’s first sovereign blue bond – a financial instrument specifically designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects. Since then, other blue bond initiatives have emerged.

As government coffers are limited, the private sector has to be brought into the discussions. That requires a pipeline of projects that not only meet environmental targets but are also profit-making. Such projects, however, are few and far between.

While estimates put the ocean’s contribution to the global economy at $2.5 trillion annually, many of these sectors - including shipping and fishing - would not traditionally be considered sustainable. Reporting frameworks, such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, will prompt companies and financial institutions to look into the nature-related risks and opportunities, helping to shed light on the business costs of status quo, and the opportunities that could arise from protecting marine biodiversity.

For example,  the total clean-up cost of plastic pollution in seven major rivers in Southeast Asia is estimated to be $297 million, while the annual economic benefit per square kilometer of healthy coral reef in Southeast Asia–heavily impacted by plastic pollution–ranges from $23,100 to $270,000.

Coupled with the adoption of the Global Biodiversity Framework which seeks to reduce harmful incentives – such as fossil fuel subsidies or support for fisheries that overharvest –- by at least $500 billion per year, these developments could help channel funding away from destructive uses of the ocean.

Lastly, research is ongoing about how greater synergies in the ocean can be harnessed. The oceans tend to be valued in pieces rather than as a whole. Marine biodiversity, shipping, deep sea mining, and fisheries are all governed by different entities within countries and internationally, making it difficult to optimize resource use across different sectors.

On land, infrastructure projects can be co-located to harness such synergies. One such idea in the marine space looks at the possibility of aquaculture, reef conservation and ocean-based renewable energy production at one site. This allows the renewable energy to power aquaculture facilities and spur the regeneration of coral reefs, which can in turn be used as an ecotourism draw.

Globally, awareness of the links between nature loss and climate change is growing.  It is time to bring the oceans into the discussion - for the sake of both people and planet.