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COP28: Ocean wins and missed opportunities

4 minute read

Fiona Thomas, Public Affairs Manager

Fiona Thomas, Public Affairs Manager

14 Dec 2023

As negotiators, parties and lobbyists leave the Dubai desert, we digest the key wins and missed opportunities for our blue planet.

At the centre of this year’s COP was the response to the ‘Global Stocktake’ - reviewing progress on reductions to carbon emissions developed in the Paris Agreement in 2015.  

We are on track for a temperature rise of between 2.5-2.9C, overshooting the global target of 1.5C and setting in motion irreversible tipping points like sea-level rises and significant polar ice loss.

For the first time in history, the COP deal calls on all countries to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels. While this achievement is to be applauded, there remains a ‘litany of loopholes’ within the text. The deal does not provide developing nations with the climate finance needed to transition away from fossil fuels, and developed countries have not been asked to move as quickly as climate science requires.

Ahead of COP28, we urged the UK Government and COP28 negotiators to protect, restore and invest in our ocean to the same level as global terrestrial environments. The ocean could, and should, be harnessed as an ally to combat the effects of climate change, with the potential to deliver up to 35% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2050.

Ocean wins at COP28

Saturday 9 December marked COP28’s Climate, Nature and Ocean Day. Along with our ocean colleagues, we've been encouraging policymakers here in the UK, and internationally, to see our seas as a vital solution to tackling the climate crisis. We‘re pleased to see this connection being made at this level.

On the day itself, $186 million of new funding was pledged towards nature-based solutions to tackle climate change and to invest in the ocean.

We welcome the additional £640,000 funding announced by the UK Government to support the restoration of saltmarsh and seagrass habitats in England. 21 countries also formally supported the ‘Mangroves Breakthrough’, a global target to restore and protect 15 million hectares of mangroves.

Seagrass Isle Of Wight

Credit: Laura McConnell

Greater recognition of - and investment in - nature-based solutions to climate change is a win-win-win for climate, nature and our ocean.

We're pleased that the UK Government, as Chair of the Global Ocean Alliance, was one of the joint signatories to the COP28 statement on climate, nature and people.

This statement sought to align action on nature across all 20 signatory countries and ensure progress and continuity on nature agreements from COP28 until COP16, the next biodiversity conference.

Among other measures, the joint statement recognises that work to promote ocean health provides a range of benefits that will deliver action on climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainable development. The statement emphasises the value of international, regional and local cooperation, and includes key proposals to scale up finance and investments and effective representation and participation of indigenous peoples.

The announcement of the Ocean Breakthroughs at COP28 also brought a wave of ocean optimism. The Ocean Breakthroughs span marine conservation, ocean renewable energy, ocean-based transport, aquatic food and coastal tourism, emphasizing the ocean’s role as a ‘reservoir of untapped solutions and innovation’ to tackling climate change and catalysing action.

Missed opportunities

Little movement to address the implementation gap for developing countries

As part of the Paris Agreement, each country was required to create and implement a ‘nationally determined contribution’: their country’s plan to contribute to the global effort to net-zero emissions. Developed countries are required to assist developing countries with their contributions by providing money towards technological development, or helping to boost skills and capacity to help tackle climate change.

Before COP28 began, progress on this issue had been extremely slow. Developed countries had fallen short of providing the financial support and capacity-building needed for emissions reductions.

In an ocean context, this delay is having real ramifications on communities and livelihoods in climate-vulnerable countries. Fishers living in small island developing countries are exposed to the effect warming seas have on available stocks of fish. Temperature rises in the Caribbean, caused by human-induced climate change, are causing more and more coral bleaching events, coastal erosion and flooding events.

Developed countries urgently need to do more to resource the loss and damage fund to help developing countries transition away from fossil fuels.

Unproven technologies are not a silver bullet

With lobbyists outnumbering official Indigenous representatives and delegates from climate vulnerable countries, a number of loopholes remain in the final COP text for carbon capture.

Carbon capture technologies allow emissions to be trapped and buried under the ground. In an ocean context, this carbon is injected deep into geological formations under the seabed and can compromise the stability of the seabed, leak into the ocean, and cause harm to marine ecosystems and wildlife.

These technologies are widely regarded as overpromising and under-delivering, and do not mitigate the effects of carbon emissions on global temperature rises, and human and ocean health. They are simply no replacement for a move away from fossil fuels.

More than 100 countries agreed to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030.

While a move away from oil, gas and other fossil fuels is at the heart of a liveable planet, renewable energy projects do not come without risks to the ocean.

These agreements must go hand in hand with efforts to mitigate the effects of renewable energy on our seabed, with the development of proper marine spatial planning frameworks fundamental to progress in this area. These frameworks will ensure that space is made to ensure nature recovery and develop a truly sustainable blue economy.

In a domestic context, we've been leading work with Welsh and Scottish Government to develop a comprehensive marine spatial planning strategy.


Credit: Image by Feri & Tasos from Unsplash

Climate and nature protection in the UK

Now that COP28 has concluded, and UK negotiators have put in the hard yards to deliver agreements on a global stage, attention turns back to the need for the UK Government to do much more to protect climate and nature at home.

Currently, the UK is on track to miss targets to achieve 30x30 - protection of 30% of the world’s land and sea habitats by 2030. As it stands, only 8% of English seas are deemed to have robust nature protections.

On a broader scale, the policy decisions of the UK Government at home, including recent policy reversals on net-zero, do not match its ambition on a global scale. The opportunity to embed nature recovery at the heart of our economy is huge. The UK Government urgently needs to ramp up the work on nature protections to address the gap between rhetoric and action ahead of 2030 and beyond.

What happens after COP28?

The all-important 1.5C window is closing before our eyes. Despite there being progress for the ocean, a huge collective effort still needs to be made to make the ambitious long-term policy decisions the world needs to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C.

With a UK General Election expected to be called sometime in 2024, we will continue to urge all UK parties to build on progress made at COP28 and adopt the policies in our Manifesto for our Seas: our twelve-point plan for cleaner, better-protected and healthier seas.