Ocean focus expected in next round of climate talks

With global climate talks freshly concluded last weekend in Katowice, Poland, some Commonwealth countries are already working towards a stronger ocean focus at next year’s negotiations in Chile.

While annual sessions of the Conference of the Parties (COP) emphasise cutting global emissions to tackle climate change, there is a growing recognition of the role played by the ocean. A special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the ocean and cryosphere – the frozen part of the world’s water – is due out September 2019, and will further spotlight ocean issues in climate debates.

“Due to the exemplary leadership of Fiji during its COP Presidency [2017-2018], the linkage between the ocean and climate change has solidified,” said Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland at a COP24 side event co-organised by the Commonwealth and Fiji. “Though there is still much work ahead of us, the ocean is at long last ‘in the room’ and should not be disregarded in future negotiations.”

Opened by Fiji’s Minister for Agriculture, Rural & Maritime Development and National Disaster Management, Inia Seruiratu, the event drew out innovative solutions to tackle ocean and climate change issues, both at international and local levels.

Taholo Kami, Special Envoy for the COP23 Presidency Secretariat, elaborated on advocacy efforts towards a more ocean-inclusive UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Working towards COP25, Fiji plans to host climate negotiators from up to 50 countries next March, to strategize on advancing the ocean agenda.

“One of the aims of the [Commonwealth] Blue Charter Action Group on ocean and climate change [chaired by Fiji] is what we do in the UNFCCC, and we’d like to see more leadership from the Commonwealth countries,” said Mr. Kami.

Speaking in support of the Blue Charter, the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna highlighted the country’s home-grown approach to ocean management known as “marae moana” or ‘sacred ocean’. The Marae Moana Act established a marine park, and a Council to oversee it, made up of traditional, religious, government leaders and members of the opposition, in consultation with grassroots communities.

“It confirms my suspicion that my people are born conservationists. Conservation is in our blood,” he said. “But while we’re trying to do our best to conserve it and manage it sustainably, the actions of others will have far-reaching impact on the ocean.”

Seychelles representative Angelique Pouponneau welcomed an ‘Ocean COP’ in 2019, and shared innovative financing solutions from her country, which champions the Blue Charter action group on marine protected areas.

This includes a ‘debt swap’ programme with the Paris Club, supported by the Nature Conservancy, whereby US$30 million of Seychelles’ foreign debt has been exchanged for commitments to ocean conservation projects. Seychelles also recently launched the world’s first sovereign ‘blue bond’, raising US$15 million from international investors, of which $3 million will be going to the Seychelles’ Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust.

“This is not just top-down – what I find most exciting is the fact that one of the first tranches of money provided by the Trust was for a voluntary fishery zone closure on Praline Island for the benefit of the marine environment and fisher folks,” she explained. “Innovative financing going to marine conservation as well as climate adaptation is definitely a win-win-win.”

At the grass-roots level, Karuna Rana, Coordinator of the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network underlined the significant impact made by young people in Mauritius. In the fight against marine pollution, young people are installing drinking water dispensers across the country, lobbying local businesses and restaurants to become plastic-free, while developing an app that locates not only water dispensers, but plastic-free establishments as well.

The panel also included presentations by Australia, Vanuatu and New Zealand as (co-)champions for Blue Charter Action Groups on coral reefs, marine plastic pollution and ocean acidification respectively. Delegates from the Pacific Islands Forum, the Nature Conservancy, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) shared notable examples of region-wide and international ocean action.

Commonwealth ocean action gains traction at COP24

“Real experiences” are what drove some Commonwealth countries to take up the banner for the ocean, stepping forward to champion action groups of like-minded members working together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing ocean problems.

When 53 countries agreed on the Commonwealth Blue Charter on ocean governance in April 2018, it inspired a new model for intergovernmental cooperation, whereby countries are invited to establish, join and drive voluntary and action-oriented alliances, based on their own shared priorities.

“This not about the Commonwealth or a high level body saying to countries, ‘Thou shall do this’, it was the countries themselves saying, ‘We get it, we want to work together with other countries to help fix it’,” said Commonwealth adviser on ocean governance Jeff Ardron.

Speaking at a side event at the UN Climate Change Conference COP24 this week, he said the Blue Charter links high level global commitments to on-the-ground implementation, a key theme at this year’s climate summit: “[Because it’s a voluntary-based initiative] only the countries who care about the issues join. So the most leading, most forward thinking, the most engaged countries in each of these topics are coming forward. This is a different model of global cooperation.”

Sri Lanka, for instance, vulnerable to disastrous tsunamis and storms, recognised the importance of coastal protection and stepped up to lead the action group on mangroves. Vanuatu, shocked at a study showing the amount of plastic polluting their coastal waters, volunteered to co-lead the action group on marine pollution with the United Kingdom. Fiji, a small island developing state in the Pacific, came forward to lead on ocean and climate change. To date, nine action groups have been set up, with varying membership.

At the event held at the COP24 UK pavilion, Deputy Director for Marine Policy at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Gemma Harper highlighted the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance co-led by the UK and Vanuatu.

“The UK, together with Vanuatu, is calling on other countries to pledge action on plastics, be this by a ban on microbeads a commitment to cutting down on single use plastic bags, or other steps to eliminate avoidable plastic waste,” she urged.

Vanuatu banned single use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers in July 2018.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter is very important to us because it commits a number of counties to the same objectives. If Vanuatu were to do this alone it wouldn’t get very far. So by having the Blue Charter, we can commit the Commonwealth – already [covering] more than half of the oceans in the world,” said Vanuatu Foreign Affairs minister Ralph Regenvanu.

Earlier in the week, at another COP24 event hosted by the Nordic Cooperation, Mr. Ardron showcased fish leather designs from Kenya – the Blue Charter champion on blue economy – and the Faroe Islands. He announced that the Commonwealth, together with the Nordic Cooperation and the Food and Agricultural Organization, will launch a ‘blue fashion’ challenge in September to promote sustainability in the second most polluting industry in the world.