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IMA > News  > Increasing Ambition for Climate Change: Integrating Ocean-Climate Action

Increasing Ambition for Climate Change: Integrating Ocean-Climate Action

Prepared by: Ruqayyah Thompson (Research Officer), Institute of Marine Affairs

This month, while countries are preparing to conclude the first-ever global stocktake at the twenty-eight session of the Conference of Parties (COP 28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the outlook appears daunting with the window for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement quickly closing. The main goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5°C. While records do not imply that the world has exceeded the 1.5°C target, we are getting closer.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2023 states that the current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) will make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C, and strongly increase the challenge of limiting warming to 2°C. With the current policies, global warming is estimated to be limited to 3°C, while delivering on all unconditional and conditional NDCs pledges by 2030 lowers the estimate to 2.5°C. This is well above the 1.5°C target required for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as Trinidad and Tobago to develop and adapt to climate change.

North Manzanilla System, Trinidad

NDCs are plans developed by each country to reduce national emissions and to build resilience to adapt to the impacts of climate change. NDCs are submitted every five years and countries are encouraged to increase ambition with every cycle of NDC submission. Unconditional NDCs are what countries implement based on their own resource capacity, while conditional NDCs often require international financial and technical support. However, even if both unconditional and conditional NDCs were fully implemented, the emission gap in 2030 remains high for both the 2°C and 1.5°C goals. Closing the emissions gap requires accelerated mitigation action to bring about deep annual emissions reductions, for which a delay would increase future reliance on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), according to the UNEP.

Activities which remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it underground or in the ocean, are referred to as CDR. It is estimated that the ocean stores approximately 40% of all CO2 produced by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution, greatly increasing its acidity. In addition, an estimated 90% of excess heat is stored in the oceans, and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the upper ocean has warmed by 0.11°C per decade, over the past 40 years. The ocean is an undervalued ally against climate change but is also a key to increasing climate ambition especially for SIDS.

A review of Commonwealth Ocean countries NDCs found that more than 75% of Commonwealth SIDS have led the mainstreaming of ocean-based actions and commitments in their NDCs. Trinidad and Tobago’s NDCs however, aim to achieve a conditional reduction in overall emissions from its power generation, transportation and industrial sectors of 15% by 2030. Additionally, the country aims to unconditionally reduce its public transportation emissions by 30% by 2030. It is also noted that robust policy measures for forest, land use and natural resource management are underway, but is not included as part of the country’s NDCs. Therefore, ocean-climate action is not explicitly included in the country’s NDCs and this represents a missed opportunity, since Trinidad and Tobago has 15 times more sea than land under its jurisdiction.

Opportunities for Trinidad and Tobago to increase its climate ambition and integrate ocean-climate action lie in restoring and conserving critical coastal vegetation including mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses, which are all carbon sinks. These ecosystems sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests and are therefore recognised for their role in climate change mitigation. The Institute of Marine Affairs has undertaken preliminary assessment of the carbon stored in mangrove forests and is continuing assessments to gather robust data to inform appropriate blue carbon policy measures. In addition, critical ocean and coastal habitats and ecosystems must be rehabilitated and protected to increase resilience to climate impacts, especially as increasing frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes are expected. These ecosystems not only serve as an important buffer for coastal communities directly reducing the energy of waves and winds, but also provide livelihood opportunities and other numerous co-benefits.

Beyond national commitments, ocean-climate integration is slowly progressing in the context of global collective action and the Paris Agreement. The first Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue to consider how to strengthen mitigation and adaptation actions was mandated by UNFCCC’s COP 25. It was held in December 2020 and subsequently, an annual dialogue was started in 2022. Meanwhile, researchers and climate advisors advocate for specific ocean-climate solutions such as setting “ocean acidification avoidance targets” and the inclusion of information on the status of ocean carbon sinks in global assessments to be included within the world’s primary framework for addressing climate change.

Small islands but large ocean states must continue to capitalise on the momentum for integrating ocean-climate action and must ensure that the global community does not lose sight of the critical 1.5°C target. SIDS must also continue to look to their ocean space for opportunities to increase ambition in the next cycle of NDCs.