Waterloo Professor in Biology reflects on the lack of reference to nature at COP28 

December 9th was the thematic day at COP28 for Nature, Land Use and Ocean. Many of the conversations and capacity building in the side events, pavilions and final plenary were focused on nature-based solutions for climate change, conservation, preservation and recovery of biodiversity in critical marine and terrestrial habitats. The conversations ranged from, the need to engage with indigenous communities in small island states, to establishing marine protected areas (and how to finance these), to technologies to track and retrieve fishing gear that contribute to microplastics, and the need for sustainable fishing and shipping practices.  

However, the conversations in the adjacent blue zone pavilions were not reflected in government statements and during negotiations. In fact, nature was mentioned rarely, and only in the context of deforestation and the impacts of sea level rise.  Even in the Majlis held on December 10th by the COP Presidency (to address the lack of consensus on Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement), this is how nature was contextualized. 

Underwater with corral near surface of ocean

Coral reef, Red Sea, Jordan; Source: Kirsten Müller

The Ocean, and I use the word as a singular, as the Pacific, Arctic, Atlantic, Southern etc., are all an interconnected ocean.  By using the term ‘The Ocean’ the community that advocates for and studies, sends a clear message to governments, agencies and people around the world, that no matter what body of water you stand in, it is the same ocean. Hence, human activities globally or in one area can greatly affect the biogeochemistry, salinity/density, marine life etc. (e.g. freshwater runoff from ice melt in the polar seas can affect circulation of oxygen rich water to the deep sea) in another. 

The Ocean is also the primary driver of climate on our planet and forms what is referred to as the Ocean-Climate Nexus. The Ocean has been proposed by many at this meeting to be a nature-based solution to climate change (silver bullet solutions noted in RINGOs final speech) with the potential to reduce CO2 in our atmosphere by up to 35% (I could not find in the scientific literature where this number has come from). However, these estimates appear to be dependent on the increase and preservation of biodiversity along coastal shorelines primarily within habitats that have been considerably reduced by human activities and ocean warming. These include coral reefs, mangroves, kelp forests, intertidal rocky seaweed communities and seagrass beds all which occupy limited distributions along global coastlines (e.g. kelp forests occur in cold waters with rocky substrates, mangroves only some tropical and subtropical regions). Interestingly, there was little discussion about the mitigation potential of the open ocean, where ~50% of the air we breathe is produced by small photosynthesizing algae (picocyanobacteria). Given that 71% of our planet is ocean, the area occupied by open ocean is far greater than the area of coastlines.  

Mangrove ecosystem

Mangroves, Vietnam; Source: Kirsten Müller

Kelp forest at low tide near Vancouver Island

Kelp, (Nereocystis luetkeana-italics), forest at low tide, Vancouver island; Souce: Kirsten Müller

It still remains to be seen as to how much of a role that some of these coastal ecosystem communities, such as seagrass and seaweeds, can play in carbon mitigation – generally some of these communities upon decomposition are recycled into near shore biogeochemical cycles and not lost to the deep sea where they can be sequestered for thousands if not millions of years. In comparison, open ocean phytoplankton that are not incorporated into the food web are eventually deposited to deep sea sediments.  We, as scientists and myself as a phycologist, have a role to play in understanding not just the ecology of these communities but also how they contribute to an actual role in carbon sequestration.  We do, however, have the ability to make an impact on our coastlines and preserve these critical habitats which provide numerous documented benefits (including health of adjacent communities, available high quality food protein etc.).  “We have been at War with nature” and “We will not achieve our goals without nature”, noted the UN Secretary-General Special Envoy for the Ocean - Peter Thomson (at the COP28 Presidential event: “Powering Ocean Breakthroughs through Sustainable Ocean Planning”). Thomson expressed considerable concern that the amazing Ocean Pavilion was way at the end of the large venue and made a pointed comment to the organizers at COP29 in Azerbaijan that nature should be at the centre of all that we do at COPs.  

Kirsten Muller at COP28 Ocean Pavilion

Kirsten Müller attending COP28 in Dubai visited the Ocean Pavilion

You might ask: What can we do here at the University of Waterloo? The nearest ocean is many hundreds of kilometers away. Should we leave our counterparts on the coast to explore education in marine science?  If the future is in the Blue Economy (nexus of business, industry, science) and with our innovative and entrepreneurial environment at UW, we can bring these fields together to develop more than just quick solutions. I teach the only course in my department that is solely focused on marine science and this fourth-year course has an enrollment of an overwhelming 154 students for winter 2024, clearly there is a demand for knowledge on earth’s largest ecosystem.  

Coastal communities are on the front line of the climate crisis, but more needs to be done to educate more broadly about the critical importance that the ocean plays in carbon mitigation and our climate (as noted by Francesca Santora, UNESCO Blue Schools, Ocean Pavilion, Ocean-Climate Nexus: educating the next generations of leaders). Even here in Waterloo we are affected by El Niño events in the Pacific Ocean and yet marine focused teaching at UW is limited. Our future also lies with the ocean as Blue Finance and the Blue Economy will play a major role in the creation of jobs. Dr. Rick Spinrad, Oceanographer and Administrator of NOAA, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans & Atmosphere, noted that addressing climate change is an ethical imperative but also an opportunity to create sustainable jobs particularly in a new blue economy (based on sustainability and not extraction). 

Seagrass community at low tide, Vancouver Island

Seagrass community at low tide, Vancouver Island; Source: Kirsten Müller

We are now in year three of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development with the catchy vision statement: “The science we need for the ocean we want”.  The ten goals of this decade aim to reverse the decline in ocean health and create sustainable development (oceandecade.org).  However, it is important to keep in mind that we can’t engineer or bioengineer our way out of the impacts of climate change and that currently there are only limited, unscalable and unproven technologies to address the issue of ocean warming and acidification (remember the ocean is 71% of this planet).   

Solutions need to be bigger and faster, something that I am not sure happened at COP28.