Ocean observation and research: The way forward to ensure a climate-resilient future

Covering 71% of the globe, the ocean provides essential services for maintaining life on Earth – 2.6 billion people depend on its resources, directly or indirectly – and plays a major role in the regulation of our global climate system. However, a warmer atmosphere, pollution from land, overfishing, and unsustainable coastal development are threatening its resilience. As the COP21 seeks to redefine and strengthen the climate regime, the participation of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) consists in integrating ocean perspectives into negotiations.

This argument was at the heart of two Blue Zone side-events that took place on 2 December 2015 at COP21: “One Ocean, One Climate, One UN: Working together for a healthy and resilient ocean”, organized by UN-Oceans and coordinated by IOC, followed by an “ocean session” organized by the Government of Peru on the occasion of Resilience Day.

A transformative adaptation agenda with innovative measures is vital to accelerate action on key issues related to the ocean. One after the other, these two events reviewed the concrete actions undertaken by the UN System and civil society stakeholders to raise the issue of the ocean as a solution for climate change. Through its Executive Secretary Vladimir Ryabinin, present at both occasions, IOC based its proposals around its own activities and successes to highlight the importance of scientific research to foster action beyond COP21.

Sustained and global ocean observation and research are absolutely necessary to understand the impact of changing climate (as opposed to natural variability), to assess regional vulnerability, and to monitor the efficacy of adaptation and mitigation efforts, such as the implementation of coastal zone management, marine spatial planning, and multi-hazard early warning systems. Preparedness against climate-related ocean hazards – tsunamis, storm surges, harmful algal blooms, among others – along with capacity development activities are required to make communities more resilient.

Scientific measurements, be they for policy or science, have to be carried out on both global and regional scales to better comprehend the natural processes between the two levels, and to find solutions to the impacts coastal communities already have to face, especially in vulnerable developing countries and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Developing a blue economy, including sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism, is essential to ocean resilience.

“The aim of COP21 is to take a legally binding decision to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to make sure ocean issues are put on the agenda of the future climate regime, including ocean observation, which is the only way to improve our knowledge. We need to understand how ecosystems are affected by loss of biodiversity and climate change, and how to help them survive. This is why we need a whole set of observation systems, because in turn they shape decision-making processes,” explained Vladimir Ryabinin, stressing the role of IOC in international scientific cooperation and coordination through its Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON), Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS), and International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) programme.

Ségolène Royal, French Minister of Ecology, also addressed her recommendations: “Ocean resilience can only be achieved through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from maritime transport, the preservation of the marine environment through protected marine areas, and the adoption by the UN of a standard on overfishing restrictions and the protection of biodiversity in deep sea,” before confirming that an IPCC Special Report on the ocean will be developed.

Other experts who participated in these events further underlined concerns about marine ecosystem conservation, coastal risk management, adaptation of commercial shipping, financing mechanisms, and the need to build a strong science base to support effective policies.

An ambitious COP21 agreement that includes the ocean would complement the adoption of the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals by the UN General Assembly on 25-27 September 2015. This universal agenda, to be implemented by 2030, included for the first time a stand-alone goal for the world’s ocean: Goal 14 commits Member States to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” and “strengthen their resilience”.