UN CLIMATE COP 27: WHAT NEWS FOR THE OCEAN?
After the historical mandate to integrate the ocean in all areas of work under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Glasgow COP in November 2021, and the Ocean-Climate Dialogue at the UNFCCC Intersessional Meeting at Bonn in June 2022, this blog post provides a rapid assessment of the COP27 outcomes and their significance for the ocean, with particular attention to human rights and children’s human rights. We also outline our continued action on the ocean-climate-human rights nexus in 2023.
Setting the scene
This blog post explores the significance for the ocean of the outcomes of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt from 6–20 November 2022. It builds on the insights from the One Ocean Hub’s participation at COP27, against the benchmark of previous expectations by Hub researchers (here, here and here), inputs to the Ocean-Climate Dialogue on ocean-based climate action at the UNFCCC and in other international processes (here and here), and expectations for COP27 (here and here).
The COP27 negotiations were framed against the triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, a “summer of climate change disasters”, and widespread concerns about safe and adequate public participation at COP27. In addition, it was apparent prior to the commencement of the negotiations that the ocean was not a top priority for most international climate negotiators. This was illustrated by a very limited inclusion of the ocean in the World Resources Institute’s “The State of Climate Action 2022”, the lack of any reference to the ocean in the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination on climate change (in spite of important research outcomes on this matter by Hub researchers here and here), and rather limited progress at the Ocean Dialogue.
However, there are glimmers of hope for the ocean in a climate change context. The UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights has recently called for the UN General Assembly to develop international legal measures to address the permanent loss of “ocean territories and their associated ecosystems, livelihoods, culture and heritage.” In addition the new 5-year strategy of the Adaptation Fund including references to “exploring the linkages between adaptation and the oceans and marine ecosystems”. And there is growing interest in ‘blue carbon’ as a mitigation and adaptation action solution.
On the afternoon of Sunday 20 November, Parties reached agreement of a series of COP decisions known collectively as the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan. Despite the bar being set very low across the agenda items negotiated at the conference, and issues with participation by observers, (highlighted prior to COP27 by several UN Special Rapporteurs), there were some positive developments for the ocean.
Ocean-Based Climate Action
The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan’s preamble formally recognised the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which is understood to include and depend on a healthy ocean (see latest Hub research on this here). In addition to the reiteration of the importance of marine ecosystems acting as sinks for greenhouse gases (see the Hub’s ongoing research on the importance of blue carbon here), the ocean section of the Implementation Plan sought to further integration of the ocean into the climate regime by strengthening future ocean-climate dialogues held in Bonn, by welcoming
“the outcomes of and key messages from the ocean and climate change dialogue in 2022 and decides that future dialogues will, from 2023, be facilitated by two co-facilitators, selected by Parties biennially, who will be responsible for deciding the topics for and conducting the dialogue, in consultation with Parties and observers, and preparing the informal summary report to be presented in conjunction with the subsequent session of the Conference of the Parties”
This decision further formalizes the ocean-climate dialogue process. The option to select specific topics to focus on during each dialogue may avoid the issue of unduly general outcomes (as can be seen from the key messages from the dialogue this year) being presented to the Parties at subsequent COPs. In terms of future participation, it will be interesting to see which stakeholders engage in the process. For example, this year’s dialogue had participation from youth in the form of YOUNGO’s Ocean Voice Group (a very welcome development), however there was no participation from regional fisheries management organisations or regional seas conventions. Participation of sectoral organisations within the Dialogue will be important for the development of guidance on a whole matter of topics, including, for example, the need to co-produce guidelines on fisheries and climate change with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the UNFCCC.
The Implementation Plan also reiterated to UNFCCC Parties need to implement ocean-based action at the national level, by encouraging:
“Parties to consider, as appropriate, ocean-based action in their national climate goals and in the implementation of these goals, including but not limited to nationally determined contributions, long-term strategies and adaptation communications.”
This emphasizes the need for Parties to “blue” their nationally determined contributions and adaptation communications under the Paris Agreement, and can support the Hub recommendations on finding ways to implement ocean-based climate action while protecting human rights.
Loss and Damage
COP27 saw the establishment of a fund to respond to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change. This comes in the shadow of a report by UN Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights, Ian Fry, which:
- Highlighted the interlinked relationship between climate mitigation and human rights;
- Warned of not repeating the mistakes of land-based mitigation in the context of ocean-climate action;
- Expressed concern of the potential environmental and human impacts from deep-seabed exploration and mining for minerals;
- Noted that loss and damage under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement is closely related to the right to remedy and the principle of reparations.
A such, the establishment of the fund is both a historic and welcome development. However, while the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan refers to both “cultural heritage” and “lives and livelihoods” in the context of loss and damage (1/CP.27, para. 22 and 1/CMA.4, para. 44), which have clear human rights implications, the decision which establishes the fund does not. This is rather disappointing, considering the linkages between ocean-related cultural rights and livelihoods, as underscored in the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights.
However, the decision does mention non-economic loss and damage, as well as slow-onset events, which are recognised by the UNFCCC’s Cancun Adaptation Framework to include ocean acidification and sea level rise. In any case, all forms of loss and damage represent serious threats to human rights and must be treated as such. To that end, the Hub intends to respond to the call for inputs by the UNFCCC regarding views on the 2nd Glasgow Dialogue with respect to two workshops on addressing loss and damage to be held in 2023, with a view to ensuring that the ocean, ocean culture and ocean-related livelihoods are duly considered moving forward.
Finally, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan formally recognised the need to respect, promote and consider the rights of children. This provides an entry point for the further take up of the specific recommendations that were collected in a position paper co-developed by the Hub and partners in the international Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative, which aimed to mainstream children’s rights across all relevant decisions at COP 27.
With regard to more specific COP27 outcomes, CERI welcomed:
- the overarching COP27 cover decision encourages States to include children in their processes to design and implement climate policies and actions,
- references to children as part of intergenerational equity,
- the international recognition of the human right to clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and
- explicit inclusion of child-focused activities under the Action for Climate Empowerment Action Plan (such as a dedicated mapping and collation of guidance and good practices on education and empowerment of children in climate action, as well as reporting on how children’s rights are integrated and considered in the activities that will be developed in the context of Action for Climate Empowerment at all levels).
CERI, however, noted with concern lack of references to children in:
- the decision on the establishment of the loss and damage fund,
- climate finance-related decisions,
- the decision on the new Global Goal on Adaptation,
and a limited reference to engaging boys and men as strategic partners and allies in achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, in the decision on the Gender Action Plan.
As the Hub continues its collaboration with CERI in 2023, we will further shed light on the relevance and applicability of the existing international obligations on children’s human rights at the ocean-climate nexus through the ongoing consultations on General Comment No. 26 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (here, here and here). In addition, we will continue to raise attention to, and demonstrated the urgent need for due consideration for, the human rights of children in other international fora, that are relevant for the climate-ocean nexus, such as the new negotiations on a plastics treaty, the negotiations on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (see also here) and the regulation of deep-seabed mining at the International Seabed Authority.
In summary, the Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation Plan represents slow progress towards integrating the ocean into the UN climate system, and towards implementing ocean-based climate action at a national level. Nevertheless, the discussions on the sidelines of the COP demonstrated more joined-up thinking about the ocean, climate change, biodiversity an human rights – more, in fact, than we have seen at the UN Ocean Conference earlier in 2022.
While this is not reflected in COP27 outcomes, it finds some reflection in the G20 Indonesia Declaration released during the second week of COP27, where members pledged to:
- work together to advance ocean-based climate action;
- support the entry into force of the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement;
- commit to the development of a strong internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment with the ambition of completing the work by 2024 (see civil society impressions on the first negotiating session here);
- committed to agreeing an ambitious international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction; and
- acknowledged the importance of marine ecosystems in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
The participation of One Ocean Hub researchers in person and virtually at COP27 has contributed to reinforcing partnerships on knowledge co-development and transformative governance that can advance joined-up and fair action at the ocean-climate-human rights nexus. Moving forward, the Hub is capturing key insights and new research in a Special Issue in the International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, “Ocean-Based Action: The Ocean-Climate Nexus and Human Rights” due to be published in September 2023. The contributors to the Special Issue will meet on Friday 9 December to take stock of the outcomes of the COP and our own learning in that process. We welcome comments and questions that can be explored by the authors of the special issue on that occasion and as we refine the papers in the first half of 2023.
In addition, we will continue to share our research findings and innovative approaches to inclusive and integrated dialogue across scales with existing and new partners who are committed to advancing joined-up action on the ocean-climate-human rights nexus in 2023.