Covering most of the planet, oceans have long been ignored within the UN climate talks – but with Fiji chairing this year’s climate negotiations, this may be starting to change. Fran Mills and Mona Hosseini write on developments at this year’s COP23 talks in Bonn.

We are sitting cross-legged on a carpeted floor, arranged in a circle next to a traditional Fijian hut made of wood and straw. The group is an assorted collection of negotiators in expensive suits, stressed-looking scientists, representatives from NGOs and us – youth delegates at this year’s climate conference. We’ve gathered to talk about the oceans and how we can protect them.

Although it seems bizarre, the situation does not seem so strange in the world of COP, the annual United Nations climate change conference that brings together people from across the world to try to negotiate our way out of crisis.

Compared to questions of finance, talking about the importance of oceans can seem juvenile. But when we advocate for oceans, we are not just talking about saving the whales and scuba diving – the oceans are vital for our climate.

They not only slow down climate change by acting as a carbon and heat sink, but also produce half of the oxygen on earth. They provide food, transport and one in six jobs in the United States. Oceans are where life began, and their role in our climate means that they remain a source of life no matter how far one lives from the shore.

Oceans are vital for regulating the global climate system. Along with the atmosphere they absorb solar energy, and redistribute heat throughout the world – the time it takes them to heat up means that global warming’s effects will be felt decades later than they would otherwise. Crucially, they can also absorb carbon dioxide, providing a sink for the greenhouse gases produced by human activity.

But despite their importance, for livelihoods, ecosystems, and our climate, they have been treated as a dumping ground all around the world. Somewhere to pump sewage, a giant garbage can for plastic enough of which is thrown into the sea each year to cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan. The decimation of fish populations by overfishing shows they’ve been treated as a hunting ground too. All the while, climate change is slowly but surely disrupting ecosystems and ocean processes through ocean acidificationwarming water, and the melting of sea ice.

Whereas other ecosystems such as forests and savannahs are located within states, the ocean, uniquely, falls mostly outside the writ of national laws. Out of sight and out of mind, oceans have often been ignored in global regulation. The UN only held its first Oceans Conference this year  after 72 years of its existence.

Shockingly, the UN’s COP climate negotiations have also sidelined the oceans, mentioning them only briefly in the Paris climate agreement’s preamble.

The UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), along with many other stakeholders, has been fighting for recognition of the oceans for years  with little to show for it. But this year things have begun to change.

negotiators, scientists and UKYCC delegates discuss oceans.
negotiators, scientists and UKYCC delegates discuss oceans at this year’s COP23.

Pacific Island, Fiji, is holding the presidency for the first time. Life in Fiji is inextricably linked to the oceans: society simultaneously relies on its healthy ecosystems for fisheries and tourism, and faces an existential threat from the rising seas.

While negotiators have been debating the intricacies of documents and treaties, many side events have featured speakers from the Pacific Islands. They have relayed intensely personal stories, of disappearing fish stocks, and towns ravaged by flooding.

Fiji is using its agenda-setting power to push for oceans to be included in United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes – fittingly, its presidency has been dubbed a ‘presidency of the oceans’.

A new partnership, currently an unlikely alliance of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Nordic countries, is the start of an effort to reduce carbon emissions, enhance adaptation and accelerate funding, demanding the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems and coasts.

This is where sitting on the floor comes in! Working closely with the Fijian delegation, our Oceans group has organized a round table discussion on what should be included in the partnership. In the style of Pacific Islander storytelling, stakeholders are invited to sit with us informally, tell their stories, and make suggestions, speaking as people rather than negotiators.

Some of the more radical ideas proposed in these discussions include a Marine Protected Area covering the entirety of the Arctic Circle, and ‘Fossil Free’ zones that would bar oil tankers from entering their waters.

Those ideas remain a long way from wider acceptance. But the new partnership is an important step  a first draft of the ‘Ocean Pathway Partnership’ agreement has already recently been released and launched.

We hope this will lead to global commitments for ocean protection, and that it will be the start of global climate negotiators giving oceans the attention they deserve.

You can also read this article on the New Internationalist.