Commentary RESEARCH

Tapping the potential of blue carbon


2024-01-25 12:00

China Daily

In December 2023, the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) concluded in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, with a landmark agreement, named The UAE Consensus, covering a wide range of topics such as the Global Stocktake, mitigation, adaptation, finance, loss and damage and international cooperation. According to The UAE Consensus, to limit global warming to 1.5 C by the end of this century requires deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43 percent by 2030 and 60 percent by 2035 relative to the 2019 level.

During COP28 climate talks, 130 countries signed the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge, and 50 large oil and gas companies signed the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter to accelerate climate action.

However, even if everyone delivered on their commitments, it would lower global energy related greenhouse gas emissions by only 4 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030, which is about one-third of the emissions gap that needs to be closed in the next six years to limit warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to the International Energy Agency.

In sharp contrast, the global average temperature has been climbing. The global average temperature for 2022 was 1.16 C above the pre-industrial baseline. According to reports, the year 2023 has been confirmed as the hottest year on record. Meanwhile, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels climbed to over 410 parts per million in 2022. In fact, the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when the global surface temperature was about 5 C warmer than it is now and the sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than it is now.

Given that global warming of over 1.1 C poses serious threats to humanity's sustainable development, it is imperative that we take strong action to cut carbon emissions in the face of 1.5 C or even higher temperature rise. However, emissions reduction alone can hardly address the current climate crisis.

We should attach greater importance to ocean-based climate solutions and tap the huge potential of oceans and ocean ecosystems as carbon sinks.

The critical role of the oceans has been under-appreciated. Covering more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface, the oceans are a major component of the climate system, storing water, heat, carbon dioxide, and moving them around the Earth, and exchanging these and other elements with the atmosphere. Storing around 84 percent of the Earth's carbon, the oceans are the planet's largest carbon reservoir. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world's oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat from human-induced warming and over 25 percent of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by human activities. As the largest carbon sink, the ocean plays a critical role in achieving the carbon neutrality goal.

The ocean provides a slew of solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and help human beings achieve the carbon neutrality goal. The solutions include conserving, restoring and managing coastal wetland blue carbon ecosystems (blue forests); shrinking the carbon footprint of marine industries such as the shipping industry to the utmost extent; enhancing offshore carbon storage capacity and strengthening the ocean's productivity to increase its carbon absorptive capacity; and steering fishery production and aquatic product consumption toward low-carbon development.

According to a report from the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy in 2019, ocean-based climate action could deliver one-fifth of the emissions cuts needed to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 C, equivalent to emissions from all the current coal-fired power plants world-wide. According to a new report commissioned by the panel in September 2023, the oceans can deliver up to 35 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 to keep warming to 1.5 C.

In addition to advancing carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals, ocean-based climate solutions will also create job opportunities and foster a number of new marine industries, providing long-lasting impetus for sustainable economic growth.

Goods and services from coastal and marine environments amount to about $2.5 trillion each year — that would put the ocean as the seventh largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

China is an important participant in the production, consumption and trade of marine products. The output of China's marine industry totaled 9.46 trillion yuan ($1.32 trillion) in 2022, accounting for 7.8 percent of the country's GDP, which remained the same as last year. China has been a world leader in aquaculture and ship manufacturing, accounting for around 58 percent of the world's total aquaculture products in 2020 and 45 percent of gross tonnage of ships in 2022 respectively. In 2021, China added 16.9 million kilowatts of offshore wind turbines, 5.5 times that of the previous year, topping the world in accumulative wind turbine installed capacity.

Looking ahead, countries should elevate the development of a sustainable blue economy to be a national strategic goal and make it an important pathway to their carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals.

To start with, a comprehensive assessment should be made of all marine technologies around the world, particularly the application of digital technologies, so as to support the sustainable growth and advance the carbon neutrality of the blue economy.

Policies and measures — such as preferential tax regimes, supporting industries, support for business startups, and talent introduction and cultivation policies — should be adopted to encourage and support the development of marine technologies, in particular digital technologies for the blue economy and carbon neutrality, in an attempt to advance large-scale industrial application of these emerging new technologies.

Second, management of the oceans should be improved by coordinating ecological, social and economic targets. A multilayer, comprehensive ocean management system that covers central and local authorities should be established from a complex ecosystem perspective that factors in social, economic and natural targets.

Third, a framework and indexes should be established to conduct a comprehensive accounting of sustainability outcomes and social and economic outcomes, and to beef up financial support for a sustainable global blue economy.

China should update its Green Industry Guidance Directory and the green financial system to assess the necessity of building a new framework for "blue finance". Financial institutions should be encouraged to roll out more diversified financial products to support the low carbon transition of the ocean economy. Government guidance funds should also play a bigger role in advancing the green transition of the blue economy.

Zhang Huiyong is director of the Secretariat of China Council for the International Cooperation on Environment and Development and a research fellow of the CCICED.Dai Minhan is an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a chair professor at Xiamen University. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.



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