Civil unrest led the leader of Chile to back away from hosting this year’s major UN climate summit, COP25, in the capital Santiago. But the country will remain president of the COP in its new location, Madrid.
As Madrid prepares to welcome national delegations, journalists and activists from 2-13 December, the summit’s agenda will not greatly change, with the main goal being to finish the rulebook on the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“I expect that the focus on the ocean at COP25 will be maintained regardless of the change of venue,” said Rémi Parmentier, coordinator of Because the Ocean – an initiative comprising more than 30 countries, including Chile and Spain, to bring the ocean into climate change policy.
The global ocean regulates the climate by exchanging energy and water with the atmosphere. Ocean currents distribute heat from the tropics to the poles and down into the deep sea, determining rainfall patterns and surface temperatures, which in turn influence regional climates.
The ocean has absorbed about 93% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s. The increasing water temperature is dramatically changing ocean circulation and thermal stratification, increasing ice melt and exacerbating sea-level rise.
“We count on both Carolina Schmidt [Chile’s environment minister] and Teresa Ribera [Spain’s ecological transition minister] to make the Blue COP even bluer,” said Loreley Picourt, head of policy and international affairs at the Ocean & Climate Platform.
The summit will try to seize the momentum from the recent report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which warned oceans are undergoing unprecedented change and that the damage will accelerate in the coming decades unless urgent action is taken.
Oceans have remained sidelined from the key political forum on climate change, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Chile has been working to change that since its appointment as COP host, networking with countries to promote ocean action.
“It’s the best chance there has ever been to take account of the ocean in climate mitigation and adaptation,” Parmentier said.
The ocean will likely figure in the summit’s formal discussions as well as in side events, which could lead to a political declaration on the issue by countries at the end of the COP. Chile will also launch a platform dedicated to ocean solutions, to which countries will be invited to register and submit pledges.
As decided in the Paris Agreement, next year countries will have to present more ambitious revised climate pledges, also known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Chile hopes the Blue COP will encourage countries to include ocean commitments in their new NDCs.
Climate strategies could incorporate the ocean in two main ways: protecting and regenerating coastal ecosystems would sequester “blue” carbon; while tides, waves and offshore wind could be harnessed to generate blue electricity.
Marine and coastal adaptation also need deeper consideration, experts agree. Marine protected areas (MPAs) can improve the long-term conservation of ecosystems and their biodiversity, while helping mitigate climate change.
“COP summits have so far been focused on discussing ways for countries to reduce their emissions, never considering the role of the oceans. Now, for the first time, COP25 will put the issue high on the agenda so countries can adopt measures to protect the oceans,” said Liesbeth van der Meer, executive director of Oceana Chile.
A considered choice
As COP president, Chile’s choice of oceans as a key theme comes after many years of advocating for the issue and implementing good practices domestically.
The country is frequently described as a global leader in ocean protection. According to protectedplanet.net, 1.5 million square kilometres of its marine territory is covered by MPAs. While the Atlas of Marine Protection has a more conservative estimate of 943,414.
Chile has been one of the first countries to make vessel-tracking data publicly available, and has pushed for neighbouring countries to allow no port of refuge to vessels engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Together with Argentina, Chile has presented a proposal to create an MPA in Antarctica, and the country is part of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which recently released a report on the ocean’s potential to tackle climate change.
Nevertheless, Chile faces challenges. Most of its MPAs are offshore, with only 1-2% located near the coast. And experts agree the upcoming task will be to identify valuable areas and to work with, rather than negatively affect, artisanal fishing communities.
“We value the creation of MPAs, but the country has to move forward in creating new areas outside the reach of the fishing sector and closer to the shore,” said Alex Muñoz, head of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative. “Chile’s example can help other countries to create more MPAs.”
Flavia Liberona, head of Terram, a Chilean NGO, said the country’s coast is a hotspot for biodiversity and should be further protected. Setting up new MPAs there could help industries, such as energy plants and pulp mills, implement better environmental standards and protect the oceans.
Chile recently opened a new nationally determined climate contribution to consultation with civil society. The pledge is to reduce emissions 47% by 2030, instead of the initially proposed 30%. The country aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
That nationally determined contribution (NDC) also includes a set of ocean-specific measures. The country vowed to create new coastal MPAs, and for all current and future protected areas to have management plans in place by 2025, which would include actions to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Gabriela Burdiles, project director at Chilean NGO FIMA, said 10 MPAs don’t have a management plan, and in those that do, measures are not being implemented. That means the new NDC will face significant challenges, she said.
“The best way to protect the oceans is to limit the temperature to 1.5C, as set in the Paris Agreement. For Chile, reaching that goal means further climate ambition, cleaning up its energy matrix and creating more MPAs, especially in the coast,” said Estefania González, campaigner at Greenpeace Chile.