Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Could Deliver 21 Percent of Needed Greenhouse Gas Reductions, Study Finds

Ocean-based solutions to climate change could provide 21 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

A study released on Monday details on how alterations to ocean industries and efforts to sequester carbon could contribute significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The study from the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy—a group of 14 heads of state and government, shows that the ocean can hold a much greater role in reducing global emissions than previously thought.

Decarbonizing shipping and ocean transport, increasing ocean-based renewable energy, restoring ecosystems like mangroves that capture carbon and shifting food consumption habits toward low-carbon food sources like seaweed are key steps toward reducing emissions output. The study said that ocean-based mitigation efforts could reduce carbon emissions by 11 billion tons per year, a figure greater than the emissions of all the coal power plants in the world.

And, like other shifts to clean energy promoted by scientists, the changes outlined in the report would create jobs and improve food security.

"The world already has the technologies it needs to put ocean-based climate solutions into motion. To stay true to the Paris Climate Agreement and hold warming at 1.5°C, we urge all states to include ocean-based climate solutions in their revised Nationally Determined Contributions next year," Peter Thomson, the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, said in a press release. Thomson referenced the agreement from the Paris Climate Conference, in which global powers said they would "pursue efforts" to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Despite the commitment, few countries have taken the necessary steps to reach such a target. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark study last year saying, in order to prevent temperatures from rising above the 1.5 degree mark, global carbon emissions would need to reach net-zero by 2050. Prior to the U.N. assembly, which opened last week, only 15 countries had adopted net-zero emissions targets. On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that 66 countries had signaled their intent to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

For decades, global governments have not heeded scientists' warnings about necessary action to address climate change. Now, in order to sufficiently slow climate change and reduce still-climbing carbon emissions, governments need to take comprehensive, transformative action to shift the rate of emissions reductions.

The report released Monday details the critical role the ocean could have in providing needed emissions reductions. Of the five areas of action it recommends, changes to four -- ocean-based renewable energy; ocean-based transport; coastal and marine ecosystems and the ocean-based food system -- could currently be implemented. Carbon storage in the seabed has "significant theoretical potential," the report said.

The study was released two days before the IPCC releases a report on the state of the world's oceans will be published. News outlet Agence France-Presse viewed a draft of the IPCC document last month, and the UN document is expected to lay bare a dire warning about the health of the oceans if emissions continue at their current rate. Fish stocks will decline, displacement will accelerate and superstorms will become more powerful, the UN draft report said.

While the ocean is both being damaged by climate change and can contribute to damage if emissions are not reduced, the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy says, efforts to harness its capacities can also serve as a powerful method of addressing climate change.

Un summit
Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno speaks at the United Nations summit on climate change September 23. Spencer Platt/Getty Images