18. December 2015

Young marine scientists making a difference at the Paris Climate Conference

Ocean more present than ever at the 21st conference of the parties

Marine Scientists from France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany presented ocean research at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris. Especially young scientists benefitted greatly from participating in the climate summit.

In a joint effort, scientists from Plymouth Marine Laboratory (UK), the Cluster of Excellence LabexMER (France), Scripps Institution of Oceanography (United States), the University Pierre and Marie Curie (France), the UK Ocean Acidification research programme (UKOA) and the German research network Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification (BIOACID) engaged with public and policymakers at COP 21. At their booths in both the public “Zone Générations Climat” and the UN area where the negotations are held, young scientists discussed aspects of ocean change with negotiators, stakeholders and other visitors. PhD students and postdocs from all partner institutions were invited to introduce ocean and climate science and to participate in events – a unique experience for more than 20 young researchers. It has been estimated that there were 40.000 people attending COP 21.

With its mention of the ocean and the pursuit to reduce global warming to well below 2, even 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, the agreement adopted by all 196 parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris on December 12, 2015, is appreciated by scientists present at the negotiations. But as delegates return to their daily routines, radical action is required by nations and economies to achieve the ambitious goals.

“It is heartening to see such an agreement to curb emissions by so many nations, it shows real concern about the future of the planet and their understanding that now is the time to act. With more than a dozen events, the Ocean and Climate Platform and the Oceans Day, the ocean was more visible than ever during a COP”, Dr. Carol Turley from Plymouth Marine Laboratory pointed out. “The ocean is really at the frontline of climate change, so I am delighted that the ocean is mentioned for the first time in the Paris agreement. I have noted a rapidly growing awareness among negotiators and visitors about ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation at the COPs since I first attended one in 2009.”

According to the scientists, the ocean will benefit immensely if the global warming remains below two degrees Celsius. Hans-Otto Poertner, Ecophysiologist at Alfred-Wegener Institute, Co-Chair of United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II and deputy coordinator of BIOACID explains: “The Fifth Assessment Report AR5 of the IPCC has shown that the risks of severe impacts for some organisms and ecosystems increases strongly between 1.5 and 2 degrees. For example, with some uncertainty, just about 50 per cent of the coral reefs may remain intact if the increase in global mean temperature does not surpass 1.2 degrees. But these estimates do not include other stressors such as ocean acidification.“

Ocean acidification, “the other carbon dioxide problem” was addressed repeatedly during the side events and discussions at the two stands. “It is important to keep in mind that carbon dioxide emissions do not just lead to global warming and thus rising water temperature. Carbon dioxide is also taken up and dissolved in sea water, generating profound changes in its chemistry – with carry-on effects for organisms and ecosystems”, Dr. Jean Pierre Gattuso from Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche, CNRS and University Pierre et Marie Curie explains. “We have to consider there are two sides of the coin: On the one hand, the uptake of carbon dioxide moderates climate change but, on the other hand, it affects life in the ocean– with consequences for economy and society.”

In order to keep track with changes in the ocean, a thorough observation system is needed, Dr. Phil Williamson, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and University of East Anglia, states. “Detecting and measuring the changes that evolve in the ocean helps us to manage them and to bring about mitigation actions.“

Now that the foundation is laid for a way out of fossil fuels and a massive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, climate scientists and stakeholders call for action. The interaction between ocean science and policy will continue to specify future pathways of climate change. In article 21 of the Paris agreement, the conference of the Parties “invites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways”, and the IPCC presently considers a special report on the oceans. Science will thus continue to inform the UNFCCC about the best possible climate targets and solution pathways.

Achieving ambitious objectives after the Paris agreement will much depend on maintaining the COP21 momentum in all segments of society. The efforts of marine scientists to work together at an international level and with NGOs were successful in getting the ocean visible in the climate scene. Designing and implementing efficient action for a healthy ocean for future generations requires that these efforts be pursued and amplified.

Further information:

Watch a short video about the COP21 activities.