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Harnessing the power of ocean-climate solutions

25 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

From melting sea ice and thawing permafrost to coastal erosion, the devastating consequences of climate change are playing out in marine ecosystems and coastal communities across the Arctic. But as PETER WINSOR writes, the Arctic Ocean can play a key role in addressing these consequences, not only by moderating the global climate, but by providing food, livelihoods and cultural identities for many people along with options for ecosystem-based adaptation. Conserving ecosystems in an ocean affected by rapid climate change will not only safeguard Arctic biodiversity, but support the resilience of the people who depend on these ecosystems.

OUR OCEAN and coastal habitats hold vast potential to help us mitigate, adapt and build resilience to the impacts of climate change. For example, climatesmart marine protected area networks can help ensure plentiful fish stocks for current and future harvest. Measures like these—linked to ecosystem-based adaptation—can contribute to the resilience of communities and livelihoods and are a critical part of the solution for the Arctic. But the ocean also offers opportunities for carbon sequestration. In some places, coastal “blue carbon” ecosystems, such as seagrass beds, kelp forests and, to some extent, saltmarshes, can sequester as much carbon per hectare as terrestrial ecosystems, or more. In addition, like coral reefs, they can act as blue infrastructure, offering protection from storms and other impacts of climate disruption.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C, we need to use every tool at our disposal, and that means tapping into the power of the ocean. The ocean provides enormous opportunities and solutions to mitigate the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, yet few countries have even begun to capture this potential to respond to climate change in their plans—particularly in their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs.

It’s also vital that national adaptation plans include ocean-related measures. WWF’s Blueprint for a Living Planet outlines four principles for integrated ocean-climate action that we expect will guide discussions going into the crucial UN climate conference in
Glasgow in November 2021.

DRAWING ON INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE

A healthy, resilient ocean sustains people everywhere, even those who live far from shorelines. But coastal communities have an especially important role to play in designing and delivering successful conservation efforts. An inclusive, equitable and transparent approach that includes Indigenous and local knowledge is critical. Whether it’s managing marine protected areas as
part of a pan-Arctic network or providing key knowledge about managing important species, communities must lead and own conservation strategies if those strategies are to be effective. Putting people at the centre isn’t just the right thing to do—it has the power to unleash the transformative change we need.

Countries have grasped the idea that strategies like planting trees and restoring soils are part of the solution to both climate change and the wider nature crisis—but we’re nowhere close to making the most of such nature-based solutions when it comes to our ocean and coastlines. Based on systematic blue accounting assessments, seagrass meadows in Arctic coastal lagoon systems (along with salt marshes, kelp forests, mussel beds and other marine ecosystems) have incredible carbon sequestration power even in cold Arctic waters, but are threatened by surging coastal development expected in many parts of the region. With proper protection and management informed by community needs and aspirations, these ecosystems can pay their way, delivering food security, livelihoods and climate benefits.

THOUGHTFUL INVESTING

Climate finance also still falls far short of what’s needed—and only a tiny fraction of it goes to nature-positive, ocean-based solutions. We have to invest more and we have to invest smarter to get more impact from every dollar. Ocean-climate solutions provide incredible value for money: when we restore seagrass beds, for example, we’re drawing down carbon, protecting
biodiversity and coastlines, and building food security and community resilience. That’s an impressive triple-bottom-line
return.

As outlined in WWF’s Arctic Blue Economy report, the Arctic region faces specific challenges and opportunities. Fully integrating Arctic research and Indigenous knowledge in decision-making processes is a good place to start.

Investors can also do their part by carefully considering and prioritizing climate change risks when choosing where to put their money. They should consider only projects that will benefit the Arctic’s long-term sustainability and prosperity. That means prioritizing responsible investments that develop renewable resources—since these have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions and create strong and resilient Arctic economies— and backing only projects that prepare for and anticipate the impacts of climate change and minimize the carbon footprint.

Sometimes conservation entails tough choices and trade-offs. But there is no need to choose between ocean solutions and climate solutions—they are one and the same. If we want to protect and restore our ocean, we must work together urgently to tackle the climate crisis before it is too late.

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Blueprint for a Living Planet is about expanding options and opportunities to meet the objectives laid out in the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, among others. The blueprint rejects the false premise that “ocean solutions” would be created at the expense of “climate solutions,” and embraces the expanded possibilities found in fully integrated ocean-climate strategies. It asks government and business to:

  • Be more ambitious and urgently deliver stronger and sustained mitigation and adaptation actions
  • Make nature a key part of the solution
  • Put people at the centre
  • Join up the climate and ocean finance agendas

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PETER WINSOR is the director of WWF’s Arctic Programme.

Peter Winsor
Director, WWF Arctic Programme
WWF Arctic Coordinating Team