Reflections on the Ocean at the Climate Intersessional Conference 2022

Mitchell Lennan

Ahead of the UN Ocean Conference (27 June to 1 July 2022), this blog post reflects on key points expressed at the Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue, held on 9 June 2022 during the 56th meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn (6–16 June 2022). Ahead of the detailed summary report to be produced by the SBSTA Chair, this blog post reflects on the conspicuous absence of human rights during the discussion, and suggests priorities moving forward.

Photo: Elisa morgera


SBSTA’s first informal ocean and climate change dialogue (2–3 December 2020) considered strengthening understanding of and action on ocean and climate change mitigation and adaptation. The dialogue report highlighted the absence of the ocean from the policy discussion on climate change, but noted ‘the interest of Governments in strengthening understanding of and action on ocean and climate change adaptation and mitigation’. Then after a call during a COP26 Presidency Event in June 2021 ‘for a strong political signal from COP26 on the ocean’ and continued advocacy (including by Hub researchers) in the run up to and during the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, the resulting ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ for the first time integrated officially the ocean in all areas of work under the UNFCCC. Initial analysis of the Pact is available in the form of two blog posts here and from a human-rights focus here, as well as a peer-reviewed and open access publication here. To that end, the Glasgow Climate Pact invited:

“the SBSTA Chair to hold an annual dialogue, starting at the fifty-sixth session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (June 2022), to strengthen ocean-based action and to prepare an informal summary report thereon and make it available to the Conference of the Parties at its subsequent session” (1/CP.26, para. 61).

The purpose of the Dialogue was to bring together UNFCCC Parties and non-State stakeholders with the aim to pinpoint priorities for ocean-based action to be discussed at the UN Ocean Conference, the next Climate Conference (COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2022), the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP in December 2022), and future COPs. Submissions for the Dialogue were welcomed by the SBSTA chair until 25 March 2022. The One Ocean Hub submitted recommendations, which offered inputs on:

  1. Strengthening the nexus between the ocean, climate change, biodiversity and human rights;
  • Directing climate finance to ocean-based solutions, prioritiziting transdisciplinary ocean research for transformative climate mitigation and adaptation through the UNFCCC financial mechanisms;
  • Fostering a human-rights based approach for nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation and mitigation;

4. Protecting children’s human rights at the climate-ocean nexus.

Ahead of the Dialogue, the UNFCCC provided a summary of the 45 submissions, and explicitly recognised the points in the Hub’s submission on:

  • ‘the need to scale-up capacity building and financing for developing countries and to further the inclusion of traditional knowledge and environmental practices of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) in scientific understanding.’ (para. 24);
  • ‘the need to recognise the rights and contributions of indigenous communities through increased participation in UNFCCC processes and the empowerment of indigenous communities, and the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in decision making.’ (para. 24).
  • ‘the need for further dialogue and analysis on market and non-market based approaches, specifically within the context of the UNFCCC and Article 6’ (para. 36);
  • ‘the importance of ending overfishing and fishing subsidies, avoiding ocean habitat destruction, protecting biodiversity, and reducing emissions from fishing vessels’ (para. 41);
  • technology transfer and capacity development ‘as priority concerns to support ocean-based action in developing coastal states through knowledge sharing, transfer of political and scientific expertise, and technical and financial assistance’ (para. 54)
  • ‘to scale-up research and the understanding of the impacts of climate change on the ocean, submissions highlight the need to incorporate indigenous knowledge into existing UNFCCC processes. The dialogue should “support meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples and local communities in co-designing and co-delivering ocean-based adaptation and mitigation strategies”’ (para. 68)

Considering the above points as a start off, the rest of the blog highlights key messages discussed over the introductory and two substantive panels during the dialogue relative to key research messages from the Hub. A full description of the Dialogue is available here.

Opening Session

The Dialogue opened with a high-level introductory panel with contributions from Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK minister for Pacific and Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary on the human-induced damage to the ocean on climate change, and a reflection on the advocacy by several Parties and non-Party stakeholders on the need to include the ocean in UNFCCC processes. Points raised included strengthening ocean-based action through integration of ocean climate mitigation and adaptation measures in Parties’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement (see also here and here). However, there was no mention of the importance of human rights: a key Hub-identified research output is the to integrate the human rights-ocean-climate-nexus into NDCs. Moreover, despite mention of emissions reductions and ecosystem restoration in marine environments to mitigate and adapt to climate change (particularly with regards to strengthening ocean-dependent communities’ resilience to climate change) human rights did not get a mention. During COP26, the Hub presented, at an event organized by the CBD and other Rio Conventions, on the importance of ocean ecosystem restoration, adaptation and human rights.

UN Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, stressed the importance of blue carbon ecosystems in climate mitigation and adaptation, and the need for these ecosystems to be included in Parties’ greenhouse gas inventories – the importance of integrating lessons learned from land-based carbon markets, and the need to avoid repeating the same shortcoming from a human rights perspective. This was a point raised by David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment in a series of tweets during COP26, and reflected in the Hub’s submitted recommendations to the SBSTA (see here and here). See also recent work on blue carbon in Namibia here.

During COP26, there were concerns voiced by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association that youth participation was poor and a significant barrier to climate justice. Access to negotiations by observes at COP26 was notably poor. And the new 10-year Glasgow work programme on Action for Climate Empowerment did not reflect human rights standards of public participation, and only ‘encourage[s] Parties to promote public participat[ion] in addressing climate change and its effects’ (Glasgow Work Programme, Annex, para. 22). On that basis, we identified that more research is required on understanding the relationship between children’s human rights, and youth involvement in climate justice movements, and a healthy ocean. This research is urgently needed as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is in the process of developing a General Comment that will focus on children’s rights to a healthy environment, with special attention being paid to the impacts of climate change. Against this background, it was a positive step to see the UNFCCC’s Youth Constituency YOUNGO’s Ocean Voice group actively participating in the Dialogue and calling or the inclusion and equitable representation of youth in the UNFCCC decision-making process at all levels.

  1. Strengthening and integrating national ocean-climate action under the Paris Agreement

The panel was opened by statements from a mix of six Parties and non-Party stakeholders (from Fiji, USA, Technology Executive Committee (TEC), FAO, Pew Charitable Trusts and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)). This panel was guided by the following questions:

  1. What are the good practices by both Parties and Non-Party stakeholders for strengthening ocean-climate action at national level, including in NDCs? What are the challenges?
  2. How could Parties’ overcome challenges and strengthen ocean and climate action at country level to enable sustainable livelihoods, including through NDCs and NAPs ?
  3. What further information is needed in your country to implement ocean-climate action?
  4. What can be accomplished next at national and international level to enable stronger ocean-climate action?

Several points were raised that relate directly to Hub research outputs and themes.

Blue carbon was again mentioned, and was the topic on everyone’s lips during the dialogue. Fiji raised the point that Fewer than 20% of parties with blue carbon ecosystems have discussed role of carbon sinks in their NDCs. There is a marked need to in increase the scope of NDCs to address ocean-related adaptation and mitigation activities. i.e., declaring parts of coastal State’s exclusive economic zone as a Marine Protected Area. Fiji reiterated the marked need for UNFCCC to encourage States to include the potential of the ocean in providing climate solutions. However, the human rights dimension of this went unmentioned. PEW mentioned that at present the Trust does not have any projects on blue carbon finance, which reflects the trend of a tiny percentage of UNFCCC climate finance going to ocean-related projects.

TEC raised the important point on strengthening ocean and coastal adaptation through the integration of technology and nature-based solutions. Supporting this, FAO indicated that fisheries and aquaculture are attached to important social and cultural values and practices which go back thousands of years. FAO also noted that 80% of updated NDCs with an adaptation component contained an fisheries and aquaculture aspect, however, the latest NDC synthesis report highlights that only 1/3rd of NDCs with an adaptation component treat fisheries as an adaptation priority (see here). Moreover, FAO stressed that climate adaptation is context and place-specific, and effective fisheries management is the best way to deal with climate change impacts, i.e., healthy fisheries are in themselves a climate adaptation measure and can be considered a nature-based solution. To combat waste in global fisheries, the fisheries sector would benefit greatly from integrating circular economy principles in to national and international fisheries regulation. In other fora, FAO, the Hub and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have been focusing on advancing a holistic understanding of the human rights of small-scale fishers, with key messages being very relevant also for the role of small-scale fisheries in climate change action and technology transfer (see Ntona and Morgera, 2018).

On both these points, an intervention by the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance on the importance of coastal ecosystems in climate action, and the importance of integrating other multilateral environmental agreements (such as the Convention on Biological Diversity) when implementing these measures through inter-institutional cooperation. The Ramsar Secretariat made the point that coordination of international and national strategies is required to ensure effective climate action through ecosystem restoration. This is particularly important for two reasons. First, Hub research has shown the benefits of including the role of community-led ecosystem restoration in contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation, as well as the protection of several human rights. Second, the Hub’s call for participation of children and youth in the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. Unfortunately, the points made at the Dialogue on an integrated approach did not go so far as to include human rights standards for ocean-dependent communities when ecosystem restoration is being undertaken by States.

Human rights were not completely absent from this panel discussion. The Gambia called for the protection of coastal and marine resources, suggesting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports be better unpacked for the African continent – asking: what can be the role of oceans to aid the continent in adaptation to mitigation and climate change to uphold human rights? This links to Hub research on transformative governance, which highlights that systematic reviews of scientific literature, such as IPCC reports, are based on a fraction of material published. The limitation of these reviews, therefore is concerning as the human impacts on the ocean and changes in environment are often felt at local scales and in specific ecosystems. This means careful observation and analysis at a local, community-led level is necessary for appropriate context in developing managerial, legal and policy responses to uphold human rights.

  • Enabling ocean-climate solutions and optimising institutional connections

The second panel consists of representatives from Belize, the Global Environment Facility, the UNFCCC Nairobi Work Programme (NWP) on Climate Adaptation Expert Group on Oceans, the Standing Committee on Finance, UN-Oceans and the Deutsche Bank).

On Adaptation, a lack of knowledge was identified by the NWP Expert Group on Oceans. The NWP highlighted that National Adaptation Plan (NAP) technical guidelines jointly produced with the Green Climate Fund and Least-Developed Countries Expert Group at the UNFCCC on coastal adaptation and nature based solutions for the implementation of NAPs. Strangely, the guidelines nor the intervention mentioning them refer to human rights. However, it should be noted that the FAO have produced specific NAP guidelines on Addressing Fisheries and Aquaculture in NAPs, and these do make reference to the fact that ‘climate change adaptation should empower local stakeholders to allow for meaningful participation of the poor and vulnerable, and safeguard their human rights ‘by applying a poverty lens to climate change adaptation in fisheries and aquaculture’ (see here). To this end, a welcome development would be involvement of regional fisheries management organisations or arrangements actively participating in future ocean and climate dialogues to perhaps develop meaningful standards or guidelines on climate adaptation in international fisheries. This could follow the approach of the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries (see here) which had a legitimate and inclusive development process, involving stakeholders and human rights groups, and contains guidance on securing the rights of small-scale fishers in the context of climate change. This would be another example of inter-institutional cooperation to achieve a legitimate aim.

On climate finance, apart from an identified gap financing for ocean-based action, the representative from Deutsche Bank indicated that only 1/5th of climate finance is funded by the private sector, warning that goals and targets on climate finance and their objectives will not be met. Banks and other financial institutions are aware of this, and so Deutsche Bank – developing a climate future bank to support venture philanthropy. This could support ocean-based projects, though again, this intervention made no mention of the importance of human rights in this context. This is interesting as dedicated events were held on upholding human rights in climate finance projects, for example. Moreover, a point was made on the term ‘blue economy’ raised by the Global Environment Facility who undertake joint action on sustainable blue economy. There was concern raised that applying (certain, flawed) economic principles conceived in the terrestrial environment and applying them to novel marine approaches may have several pitfalls alike the blue carbon example mentioned above. Priority targets and modalities for climate-ocean finance, based on human rights, have been underscored in the Hub’s poster for the Bonn Climate Meeting, notably with regard to the need to consider ocean-climate knowledge co-development with indigenous and local knowledge holders and researchers, through fair partnerships, as a transformative approach to bottom-up climate action (see also here and here).  

Moving forward

The importance of a human rights-centred approach was only mentioned during the concluding remarks by Fiji on behalf of the Association of Small Island States, and stressing that all Parties must include indigenous peoples and local communities in discussions on ocean-based action on climate change.

While the Dialogue’s inception can be considered a success in that the topics of discussion are important to strengthen ocean-based action for climate mitigation by States, much remains to be done to raise awareness and take action on integrating human rights at the ocean-climate nexus internationally and at the national level. It can be expected that the new mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights will speed up this process (see here).

The Hub hopes to advance this conservation at multiple levels, including together with partners in preparation for COP27, and through a special issue to be published in the International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law to advance legal research on the ocean-climate nexus before decisions on ocean-based action are taken at the UNFCCC. The issue argues that priorities for additional research should be identified on the basis of the interdependencies of human rights, the climate and the ocean across scales in several international processes and fora. To that end, the special issue seeks to expand understanding on the ocean-climate nexus and its relationship with human rights. The editors welcome collaborative efforts and are accepting abstracts until 1 August 2022, more details are available here.