COP28 wrapped up in Dubai this week. The climate talks were controversial from the get-go. A climate conference hosted by a petrostate with almost 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance? UN negotiations presided over by the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company? Certainly, none of this instilled trust in the COP process or confidence in its outcomes.

Even before the COP began, the BBC leaked that Sultan Al Jaber, the COP28 President in question, was planning to subvert the COP process to make oil deals behind closed doors. Al Jaber had also butted heads with Chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson, in a webinar before she arrived in Dubai, where he questioned the science behind a fossil fuel phase out.

A question mark has been hovering over the legitimacy and ambition of COP28, and two weeks later, we can edge closer to unpicking it. So, what did COP28 achieve? And more specifically for Fair Seas, what did COP28 achieve for the ocean?

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Ocean part of the COP28 deal

For the first time ever, the ocean is part of the COP28 deal. This is a strong achievement since the Paris Agreement, and a recognition of the important role that our ocean plays in the climate system. The global ocean acts as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and we will not achieve our climate goals without protecting it..

The final text agreed at COP28 noted “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including […] the ocean”. The text also invited parties “to preserve and restore oceans and coastal ecosystems and scale up, as appropriate, ocean-based mitigation action”. 

Momentum for ocean-based policy frameworks at COP28

Besides the negotiations themselves, much of the activity at COP happens at the edges of the conference. Where this activity may not be legally binding, sessions with non-state actors and civil society conversations adds weight and momentum to the COP. COPs also have thematic days focusing on different aspects of the environment, and it was on Thematic Day Number Eight that the ocean got its time under the sun. Nature, Land Use and Oceans Day at COP28 took place on Saturday 9th December, and this day focused on scaling effective solutions to protect and restore natural ecosystems, as well as how to empower local communities to play a role in this. 

COP28 Dubai Ocean Declaration

Perhaps the most concrete output from Oceans Day was the COP28 Dubai Ocean Declaration. Signed by relevant stakeholders and partners of the Ocean Pavilion at COP28, the Dubai Ocean Declaration calls world leaders to increased action to protect and restore marine ecosystems worldwide.

Specific demands include, among others:

  • Improved measurements of climate change impacts in the ocean to enhance our understanding of the ocean-climate nexus, and assist in the tracking of progress towards climate targets. 
  • Better monitoring and reporting of new and emerging ocean-based carbon dioxide removal strategies.
  • Strengthened capacity among island nations and developing countries to account for the ocean and the blue economy in their climate commitments. 

All these goals are underpinned by the call for an accelerated scientific research and technology development program.

A drop in the ocean

Where research and new technologies certainly play a role in better understanding the ocean and climate change impacts, carbon removal technology cannot be used as a substitute for drastically reducing emissions on land and at sea. Nor can it be used as a substitute for traditional, indigenous, and place-based knowledge, although, notably, COP28 recognised the importance of these knowledge systems in ongoing research activities to create a more holistic view of the ocean-climate system.

A fossil fuel phaseout was absent from the final text at COP28, with no mention of phasing out or down oil and gas. However, ocean action cannot be divorced from a fossil fuel phaseout. The burning of fossil fuels has far-reaching implications for ocean health: global temperature rise interferes with the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon, destroying habitats and killing species.

The ocean will play a central role in efforts to achieve the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement: to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C, to halve global emissions by 2030 in line with the IPCC recommendations, and to commit to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050. However, if we are to keep these goals in reach, we must raise global ambitions and implement robust policy mechanisms to address ocean habitat and coastal ecosystem loss. 

In terms of the COP processes, much more could be done to strengthen the ocean-climate nexus. For instance, countries should include ocean-related measures in their commitments (known as Nationally Determined Contributions) as well as their National Adaptation Plans. The finance sector needs to step up to see an increase in the share of climate finance for ocean-based mitigation and adaptation, and a move from subsidising activities that are harmful to coastal and marine ecosystems. Ocean-based climate solutions also need to be underpinned by a Just Transition principle, leaving no one behind and integrating environmental justice into decision-making at all levels.

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Arctic Skua chasing Kittiwake – Padraig Whooley

Amid COP disappointment, time for Ireland to lead 

The overall outcome at COP28 was far from historic and is disappointing to many. However, this should have no bearing on our national efforts to accelerate marine protection in Ireland. With a marine area nearly 10 times the size of our land mass, Ireland is geographically, environmentally, and economically well-positioned to set a shining example of what ocean action could be like. The Marine Protected Area legislation is currently being drafted in the Dáil, and an effective network of Marine Protected Areas would provide the policy foundation for nature-positive, ocean-based climate action. 

Following the climate talks, it would be a mistake for Ireland to accept this is the best we could do. The best we could do is drive forward the protection of at least 30% Irish waters by 2030 and release the Marine Protected Area legislation. This would contribute to the conservation and restoration of Ireland’s seas at a national and global level, while demonstrating to others the benefits to be reaped from effective marine protection.

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