Apr 20, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The ocean finally gets its climate solutions moment

Illustration of an hourglass with water pouring through it.

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

A growing alliance of policy makers, activists, and conservationists are looking to the ocean for climate solutions, from setting aside vast stretches of open water to protecting coastal marshes and mangrove forests.

Driving the news: President Biden's top climate aides will use a virtual event Tuesday to showcase the benefits of so-called blue climate solutions.

  • John Kerry, Biden's climate envoy, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will be joined by high-ranking environmental officials from around the world.

The big picture: Jane Lubchenco, a top White House climate scientist, tells Axios the ocean is just now being seen as an increasingly important part of the climate change mitigation and adaptation portfolio.

How it works: While ocean activities cannot produce the same level of emissions cuts as, say, decarbonizing the transportation sector can, the sliver of emissions cuts above or undersea are relatively large.

  • One 2019 study found it may be possible to get as much as 21% of the carbon emissions cuts needed to meet the most ambitious Paris agreement temperature target from ocean-based solutions, Lubchenco said.
  • Such cuts would come from boosting natural absorbers of carbon emissions, like mangroves, expanding offshore wind farms, deploying floating solar arrays, and pursuing wave and tidal energy.
  • Work is also underway to assess whether carbon can be captured from the air offshore and sequestered in the seafloor. Other ocean sequestration technologies are being studied too.
  • Some want to use deep seabed mining, which is controversial for its potential to harm sea life, to obtain materials needed for clean energy technologies, such as metals like copper, cobalt, and nickel.

Driving the news: The time for decisive action to protect the sea is now, Lubchenco says. As the deputy director for climate and the environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Lubchenco will be moderating the virtual event on Tuesday.

  • She says it will show that many countries "Are coming together to demonstrate their commitment to ambitious ocean climate action."

Yes, but: There's also the ocean climate impacts side of the ledger to consider, which will be discussed at the meeting as well. A new U.N. report out Monday underscored how climate change is altering the oceans.

  • The ocean absorbs around 23% of the annual emissions of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, "and acts as a buffer against climate change."
  • When the CO2 reacts with seawater, it lowers its pH levels, and makes waters more acidic. This harms marine life.
  • The ocean absorbs more than 90% of the excess heat put into the climate from human activities. "2019 saw the highest ocean heat content on record, and this trend likely continued in 2020," the report stated.
"There's no doubt that the ocean has been a victim of climate change. What the new science is telling us, and these leaders are now incorporating into their actions, is that the ocean can also be a powerful source of solutions."
— Lubchenco

Of note: The oceans meeting will involve some of the participants in a major ocean conservation announcement coming Tuesday morning, which is the rollout of one of the largest-ever ocean conservation projects on record.

  • The effort, the result of a combination of more than a half-dozen organizations will seek to protect an ocean area (7 million square miles), which is twice the size of the continental U.S. and larger than South America.
  • "The oceans are woefully under protected. We believe there is a unique moment available to us right now when nations around the world (dozens of nations) are willing to massively increase their conservation efforts for the benefit of their communities, in the ocean space," said M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, one of the groups involved in the initiative, in an email to Axios.

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