For decades, warning signals sent by ocean ecosystems — such as increased sea surface temperature, sea-level rise and ocean acidification — have illustrated the urgent need to reduce global greenhouse emissions. As most global economic activity and ultimately man-made carbon emissions occur on land, abatement policies tend to focus on land-based reductions. Meanwhile, the ocean is traditionally viewed as a victim of climate change, rather than a source of solutions. That needs to change.

As the IPCC made clear, limiting the damaging effects of a changing climate requires policies to incorporate an entire ecosystem approach that properly accounts for contributions from the ocean, its ecosystems and economic sub-sectors.

Recent analysis shows that ocean-based solutions could reduce the emissions gap — the difference between emissions expected if current trends and policies continue and emissions consistent with limiting global temperature increase — by up to 21% if the target is keeping temperature rise by 2050 to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), or by about 25% on a 2 degree C (3.6 degrees F) pathway.

Achieving such potential will rely on significant political will and clear policy signals sent to industry, financial markets and domestic agencies over the coming years. Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) can be critical tools in sending these signals and accelerating ocean-based climate action. Additionally, including ocean-based targets, policies and measures in NDCs can help coastal and island states enhance their ambition in line with the requirements of the Paris Agreement. Such ocean-based opportunities can also help governments recover and rebuild their economies following the COVID-19 pandemic. WRI’s recent publication, Enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions: Opportunities for Ocean-Based Climate Action, aims to provide the necessary input to assist governments on that journey.

Here are four areas that offer opportunities for ocean-based climate action in NDCs:

1. Blue Carbon Coastal Ecosystems

ocean ecosystem brian yurasits.jpg
Ocean ecosystems offer massive potential for global GHG mitigation. Photo by Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Ocean ecosystems serve as the largest carbon sink in the world. Blue carbon ecosystems — namely mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses — are valuable habitats for sequestering and storing carbon. Estimates indicate that these ecosystems can sequester more than double the carbon per area than terrestrial forests. Despite this potential, only a few countries include these ecosystems in their national GHG inventories and NDC targets.

The global mitigation potential is huge. Significantly accelerating the protection and restoration of blue carbon ecosystems could potentially remove up to 0.65 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to removing roughly all of South Korea’s total  emissions.

Since 151 countries have at least one blue carbon ecosystem, including this in updated NDCs can help countries achieve the commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Options for incorporating blue carbon ecosystems in new or updated NDCs include:

  • Expanding and increasing the ambition of existing economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) targets by including blue carbon ecosystems.
  • Expanding existing sectoral GHG reduction targets to include blue carbon ecosystems.
  • Committing to specific improvements in accounting capacity to support including blue carbon in NDCs and associated national climate plans and strategies, such as additional national data collection, science and technical capacity.
  • Reforming fiscal policies to invest in and incentivize restoration and protection of blue carbon ecosystems.

2. Oceanic and Coastal Fisheries

ocean fishery noaa.jpg
Ocean and coastal fisheries are significant contributors to global emissions, yet they are often excluded in global GHG assessments. Photo by NOAA/Unsplash

Fisheries are highly energy-intensive and emissions from fishing vessel fuel use are the largest contributor to ocean and coastal fisheries-related greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2011, emissions from the global fishery industry.) increased by 28%. Despite this significant contribution to global emissions, the full carbon footprint of fisheries — including supply chain emissions such as transport, refrigerant loss and waste disposal — are often excluded from global GHG assessments.

NDCs can serve as the entry point for governments to quantify and include non-fuel related emissions from motorized and non-motorized vessels as part of their national targets.

Options for including fisheries in new or updated NDCs include:

  • Expanding and increasing the ambition of existing economy-wide GHG targets by including emissions reductions from fisheries, including aquaculture, wild capture and processing.
  • Defining energy efficiency targets to improve postharvest production, including cold storage and ice production.
  • Committing to incentivize fishing vessel and gear improvements to increase fuel efficiency while constraining catch to sustainable levels.
  • Committing to removing fuel subsidies for fishing fleets and incentivizing the transition to low-carbon or zero-emission fishing vessels.

​​3. Ocean-based Renewable Energy

offshore wind farm nicholas doherty.jpg
Ocean-based renewable energy can help significantly expand renewable energy capacity, especially for coastal and island countries. Photo by Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash

For many coastal or island countries, ocean-based renewable energy — such as offshore wind (fixed or floating), tidal, current or floating solar energy technologies — represents the most viable opportunity to significantly expand renewable energy capacity. Increasing ocean-based renewable energy by 2030 and 2050 could lead to an estimated mitigation potential of between 0.24 and 2.48 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to reducing all of United Arab Emirates emissions on the low end, and all of Russia’s emissions on the high end.

NDCs can play a critical role in supporting the acceleration of this industry by sending clear, consistent signals to the industry. They can also help to stimulate further investment, research and development for less mature technologies such as tidal, current and geothermal energy. These technologies are particularly relevant for small island developing states attempting to lower the energy costs associated with importing liquid fuel.

Options for including ocean-based renewable energy in new or updated NDCs include:

  • Expanding and increasing the ambition of existing economy-wide GHG targets by including emission reductions from scaling ocean-based renewable energy production.
  • Defining capacity and generation targets for ocean-based renewable energy (e.g. offshore wind within Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and tidal and wave energy). Such targets could be expressed as absolute quantities, a percentage increase from current levels or a share of the total energy or electricity mix.
  • Committing to developing inclusive national marine spatial planning frameworks and integrated ocean management to map ocean-based activities and area-based management tools. This will help identify opportunities for expanding offshore renewable energy that balances the needs of other ocean users and the sustainability of coastal and marine ecosystems.
  • Committing to research and development to explore opportunities to align ocean-based renewable energy with efforts to decarbonize marine transport and aquaculture and support coastal and marine ecosystems.

4. Ocean-based Transport

ocean transport sachin dogra.jpg
Reducing emissions in marine transport could lead to immense carbon dioxide mitigation. Photo by Sachin Dogra/Unsplash

Ocean transport accounts for about 2.5% of global emissions. There are significant technical and decarbonization opportunities in the marine transport sector — such as slow steaming and hydrogen-based fuels like ammonia — that serves to enhance the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Reducing both international and domestic emissions in marine transport could lead to a 2030 and 2050 estimated mitigation potential between 0.50 and 1.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide. This potential is equivalent to removing most of Indonesia’s  energy sector emissions and the United States’  transport sector emissions, respectively.

Options for including domestic ocean-based transport in new or updated NDCs include:

  • Defining a specific GHG target for domestic shipping and domestic fleets.
  • Defining a non-GHG target to phase out GHG emissions from coastal passenger transport by 2030 through technology transfer and research and development in battery- and wind-powered ferries.
  • Committing to developing cross-sectoral decarbonization plans that link strategies to transition land-based energy sources and supply chains with ports and marine fleets.
  • Committing to financing technology transfer and research and development for the transition to zero-emission passenger and freight transport.

Sharing the Carbon Removal Burden with the Ocean

Addressing the climate crises requires governments and local stakeholders to ramp up their ambition levels on national climate action policies. Making sure ocean measures synergize with existing climate strategies can become a key component of this goal. These measures are particularly necessary due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in blue economy sectors such as fishing, seafood production, tourism and marine transport.

Furthermore, about 3 billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. Many of these people live in developing countries — particularly coastal and island states — and will continue to experience the catastrophic impacts of climate change unless the global community continues to make strides toward climate mitigation. As a result, coastal and island states can particularly benefit from adopting these policies to support enhanced global ambition towards the Paris Agreement.

The solutions offered by the ocean cannot continue to be overlooked in climate policy. On the flip side, ocean-based solutions are not the whole solution. They must accompany deep cuts in land-based sources of emissions and protection of natural sinks. Limiting temperature rises and preventing the worst impacts of climate change requires using every available solution in tandem.