A recent roundtable at The Economist The Asia-Pacific World Ocean Summit debriefed on COP26 and the ocean – looking at how the conference addressed ocean conservation and industries. Although conference documents and statements frequently mention the ocean, Martin Koehring, head of the Global Ocean Initiative and moderator of the panel, said it’s hard to say whether those promises will be implemented.
This tension was clearly illustrated when panelists discussed ocean industries and aquaculture – and their lack of representation on the COP’s Oceans Day of Action. Nellie de Goguel of the World Ocean Initiative noted that other COP conversations dominated the news cycle that day. Many ocean-related developments have been buried under a tidal wave of other commitments. According to The Economist briefings editor Oliver Morton, the silence around aquaculture tends to follow the broader discourse on climate change, i.e. “all about suffering and negative consequences”.
Morton told delegates that expanding global aquaculture capacity could help the oceans provide six times more sustainable food than today, but that achievement has not become a central theme in our collective climate conversation. “There is a huge opportunity to harness the ocean as a carbon sink,” he says, but it hasn’t been given much airtime. In Morton’s view, the conversation is still about ocean risks – its ability to remediate or adapt has not been incorporated.
Koehring largely agreed, saying that “for forests, the conversation is more about their ability and how [planting forests] has a positive impact… It is surprising that the ocean narrative has not evolved so much in this direction. Koerhing then pivoted, asking if the existing narrative could be changed: if the ocean could be seen as a source of solutions to climate change.
“Reversing narratives is like reversing supertankers,” Morton said. “It’s not something you take lightly.” He observed that many ocean-focused climate solutions are seen as peripheral: they are nice to have, but they are not essential in the fight against climate change. He noted that the global food conversation has been dominated by plant-based meat substitutes instead of sustainable aquaculture. Aquaculture presents a real opportunity and is a “place where people could think more deeply about [food and climate impacts].” The challenge was to integrate these views into popular discourse.
Morton told listeners that the ocean — and the industries that come with it — need to be integrated into other climate discussions. This could have a longer term impact on climate policy and ensure that climate opportunities such as blue carbon and sustainable aquaculture are fully integrated into work packages. To illustrate, he referenced a quote often associated with former US Secretary of State Colin Powell: “There is no limit to what you can do as long as other people get credit for it. He argued that focusing exclusively on the climate potential of the ocean is self-limiting and self-defeating. It must be integrated into global efforts to decarbonize and combat climate change.
As the discussion continued, Morton noted that “COPs are incredibly focused on shows, it’s hard for adaptation to get the consideration it deserves.” This focus on emissions rather than adaptation has inadvertently discounted the climate-remediation potential of the oceans, rendering them passive in the broader climate debate.
The Economist The World Ocean Summit took place from December 6 to 10.