Op-Ed: To Prove its Climate and Biodiversity Ambitions the EU Must Protect the Ocean’s Carbon Engineers

Home » Opinion Piece » Op-Ed: To Prove its Climate and Biodiversity Ambitions the EU Must Protect the Ocean’s Carbon Engineers

Humanity currently faces its greatest challenge. Scientists estimate that we are on the verge of breaching so many planetary boundaries that we could tip the scales towards societal collapse. The recent UN climate change COP27 conference sought to meet this challenge, but commitments fell short of ending our dependence on fossil fuels. For all of the grand talk from world leaders about stopping this impending catastrophe, we still have precious little action to show for it.

This clearly is not good enough – and time is running short. We have less than eight years to reduce our emissions by half in order to curb the pace of climate change. Emissions, however, are only part of the story – we must also protect our planet’s biodiversity. Fortunately, the ocean provides an opportunity to take action for both the climate and biodiversity.

This week, another international gathering, of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, is currently taking place opened in Montreal, Canada. Among the countries and blocs attending, the European Union is uniquely positioned to lead on action; it should champion the opportunity the ocean provides as a nature-based solution to both the climate and biodiversity challenges we face, and advocate for strong ocean restoration and protection.

Photo credit: Maridav/Adobe Stock

The ocean is the planet’s largest ‘carbon sink’, absorbing around one quarter of annual CO2 emissions. This is not simply a chemical process – it also relies on a healthy biological pump filled with trillions of carbon engineers – plankton, fish and whales – cycling energy and carbon through the ocean every day. This carbon sink relies on mangroves, seagrasses and seabeds to store the carbon away for hundreds or thousands of years. In short, a healthy ocean is one of the greatest, yet underappreciated tools we have for mitigating climate change.

However, largely due to excessive human activities, including overfishing and habitat destruction, this system is in danger of breakdown. Particularly, destructive fishing has driven the loss of marine biodiversity, weakened the biological pump, and diminished the resilience of marine life to the effects of climate change.[1] Above the surface, fishing fleets produce millions of tonnes of CO2 annually, propped up by fuel tax subsidies, while bottom-trawlers also damage carbon-rich seabeds[2], habitats and wildlife.

The EU has the capability, the influence, and the responsibility to put a stop to this mayhem. It can do this by integrating its fisheries management regime into its carbon management.

Done right, marine conservation enhances carbon sequestration, protects coasts and marine life, restores fish populations and secures fishers’ catch and income.[3] Ambitious world leaders, guided by the EU, during this month’s biodiversity summit in Montreal, should commit to strong protection of the world’s ocean by 2030, from the destruction caused by overfishing and destructive fishing activities.

This protection and respect for the ocean is not just nice-to-have. It’s a must have. To achieve this, leaders must start treating the ocean like a serious business case that will go bust without real action. We need governments, led by the EU and other political blocks, to fully protect marine ecosystems and to start managing the destructive impacts of fishing by transitioning to low-impact and low-carbon fishing. These strategies are critical to achieving both the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.

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Unbelievably, around a third of global fish populations are still being overfished, while over 90% of all seas are unprotected. Even in Europe, where plenty of legislation has been enacted, just 1% of seas are truly protected from extractions or bottom trawling.[4] This is despite a swathe of scientific evidence, the signatures of almost 200 000[5] citizens, and 400 scientists[6] and the European Court of Auditors[7] calling for action.Unless a healthy ocean is assured, its carbon engineers cannot do their job, and we will be much poorer for it.

The EU took a strong leadership position at COP27 on Loss and Damage; if EU leaders are really serious about avoiding societal collapse as a result of ecological breakdown, they need to demonstrate leadership by taking bold and comprehensive action at COP15.

The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 provides the platform for this leadership, as does its commitment to have developed an “Ocean Action Plan” by 2021. 

Due to be delivered in early 2023, this plan would not only pave the way for truly protected waters in the EU, but throughout the global ocean. It would drive a ‘just transition’ to low-carbon, low-impact fisheries, enabling the ocean’s carbon engineers to carry on their vital role, while restoring food webs, improving food security, and supporting a secure future for coastal communities around the world..

As we transition from the UN climate conference COP27 in Egypt to December’s UN Convention to the Biological Diversity COP15 in Canada and towards 2023, the EU could demonstrate true global leadership by not just talking about, but acting to fully restrict fishing from its Marine Protected Areas, and begin the transition to low impact fishing in all seas.

[1]Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate — (ipcc.ch)

[2] Marine sediments are one of the planet’s primary carbon stores and strongly influence the oceanic sink for atmospheric CO2 (Epstein et al, 2022). They act as a critical reservoir for long-term carbon storage (Atwood et al, 2020).

[3] Ocean conservation boosts climate change mitigation and adaptation: One Earth (cell.com)

[4] European Environment Agency (2020) Marine Messages II — Navigating the course towards clean, healthy and productive seas through implementation of an ecosystem-based approach.

[5] https://act.wemove.eu/campaigns/bottom-trawling

[6] As at November 2022, the signatories have risen above 400 (pdf). Contact Enric Sala for more details: https://www.enricsala.com

[7] European Court of Auditors Special Report 26/2020: Marine environment: EU protection is wide but not deep.

Dr Rashid Sumaila, University Killam Professor and Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, The University of British Columbia

Dr William Cheung, IPCC Lead Author and Professor and Director, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, The University of British Columbia