By Alice Watts, Coastal Partnerships Network Learning & Development Manager
The Thames Estuary Partnership (TEP) was delighted to be granted official observer access to COP26, which meant that we were able to attend various sessions over the two weeks.
COP operates on a ratchet mechanism, so COP26 was about enhancing the Paris Agreement so it can become more effective. Going forwards, instead of the previous 5-year cycles, countries will now come back yearly to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and increase their commitments in tackling climate change.
Putting the contentions around whether COP26 was a success aside, this COP was significant as it was the first time the ocean has been meaningfully included in the COP climate conversation. As those of us who work in the water, coastal, and ocean sector know - climate action is ocean action. This COP finally featured the ocean much closer to the top of the climate agenda, recognising the need for substantive, actionable, and immediate solutions.
Nations have been submitting their pledges to commit to protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030, as part of the UK’s Global Ocean Alliance 30 by 30 initiative. Protecting and restoring marine habitats that provide climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience benefits is central to tackling climate impacts. Currently, only 3% of the ocean is highly or fully protected, so sustained action and access to finance is needed to reach the 30 by 30 target. Refreshingly, though, the argument around the value and importance of Nature-based Solutions no longer needs to be won.
Finance, and how to effectively mobilise and direct the funds needed, was a key topic at this COP. Ocean-climate action in particular needs investment, highlighted by the fact that only 2% of the Green Climate Fund has been allocated to ocean related projects. SDG 14 – Life Below Water – is the least funded of all SDGs, with only 0.01% of SDG funding from development finance going to support this sustainable development goal.
If countries are given support to integrate Nature-based Solutions with development, 37% of cost-effective mitigation can be coming from Nature-based Solutions by 2030. There is, however, currently a financing gap of 700 billion per year. To address this, COP26 focused on the importance of blended finance and mobilising public-private partnerships at scale.
There was emphasis upon exploring debt swaps, blue bonds, and other innovative financial mechanisms, including more flexible and inclusive microfinance and parametric insurance to build resilience.
Notable examples of innovative projects include Belize’s debt for nature swap. This forms part of The Nature Conservancy’s Blue Bonds for Ocean Conservation program and has secured Belize $180 million to help protect 30% of its ocean territory. The governments of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica also announced the creation of an interconnected MPA, covering over 500,000 square kilometres.
UK government’s Blue Planet Fund has pledged £500 million to help developing countries protect and sustainably manage their marine resources, and £2million of this is going to the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA). Over the course of COP, multiple organisations became ORRAA partners and pledged money to this international, multi-sector collaboration to coordinate response to ocean-derived risks. This will also finance the next Ocean Resilience Innovation Challenge Fund.
Carbon trading has been another notable topic, with discussions to decide upon the rules governing a global carbon market (the creation of which was articulated in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement). Regulation is needed to, amongst other things, make certain that purchasing a carbon credit ensures a tonne of carbon, that would have otherwise ended up in the atmosphere, is prevented from doing so.
Protecting coastal ecosystems that store carbon is an important part of our climate solution, alongside other developments and adjustments in the blue economy - such as sustainably expanding offshore renewables and taking larger steps to decarbonise shipping. If the shipping industry was a country, it would be the eighth largest emitter in the world.
People are living with climate change today in a way they weren’t in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed. There is now a recognition of the urgency to act. The science of climate change was very present and not in question, which was not the case at previous COP events. Many officials reflected that this is the first COP that wasn’t about convincing, but about solutions - and that is a positive and overdue step.