A blog by Fanny Royanez, LINK’S Marine Policy and Engagement Officer
To mark the COP26 Presidency Theme ‘Adaptation, loss and damage’, Fanny highlights how COP26 is unique opportunity for governments across the UK to champion the importance of ocean recovery to help tackle the climate crisis.
We live on Planet Ocean. Over 70% of the planetary surface, 97% of all water and 99% of the habitable space on our planet is ocean. Around half the oxygen we breathe, any maybe more, comes from oceanic phytoplankton, and marine habitats and ecosystems have a greater capacity to capture and store carbon than terrestrial ecosystems.
In recent years, the Scottish Government worked to establish Scotland as an environmental leader on the world stage, including through its Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction targets. With Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow 2021 (COP26), the global spotlight will be on Scotland. COP 26 has four main goals:
- Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
- Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
- Mobilise finance
- Work together to deliver net-zero
As COP26 could be the world’s last best chance to address the intertwined climate and nature emergencies, now is a unique opportunity for all governments across the UK to champion the importance of ocean recovery to help tackle the climate crisis.
Ocean Recovery: A vital Step to Secure Net-Zero and Protect Communities and Natural Habitats
The ocean is central in regulating the Earth’s climate. It has absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat caused by climate change and captures about 40% of human carbon emissions. Yet, it is under pressure like never before, with many wildlife populations and habitats in a spiral of decline.
Scotland’s coast and seas are among the most productive in the world. They support an estimated 39,200 species of plants and animals, including valuable inshore and offshore fisheries and internationally important populations of basking sharks, seals, seabirds, whales and dolphins. They are also home to “blue carbon” habitats such as seagrass meadows, kelp forests, shellfish beds and maerl beds, which absorb and store atmospheric carbon dioxide or are a vital pathway to long-term storage.
To reach the COP26 goals of securing global net-zero by mid-century, and adapting to protect communities and natural habitats, our governments must act to restore marine ecosystems to health. Recent scientific research highlights that conservation of current environmental conditions is not enough and that ecosystem recovery should be placed at the core of political decision-making (Jones et al., 2020; Baskett & Barnett, 2015). Protecting and enhancing blue carbon habitats would not only support the ocean’s capacity to mitigate climate change impacts but also benefit coastal communities, for example by enriching fish and shellfish breeding grounds creating a “spillover” effect and by providing more opportunities for low impact tourism. A well-managed MPA network and wider seas measures such as climate smart fishing and ecosystem-based marine planning that protect and recover blue carbon habitats are precious tools to help address the climate and nature emergencies.
With an MPA network covering 38% of its seas, Scotland is among the leading countries in the world by area of designation. However, most of the network awaits legal measures to be put in place to properly protect the MPAs from the most damaging industrial activities such as heavy bottom-towed fishing gear. The few protection measures that are in place in a handful of MPAs will not restore marine ecosystems at the scale we urgently need to address the climate and nature crises. In the MPA Guide, Grorud-Colver et al. (2021) indicate that only high levels of protection can protect and enhance the marine environment. Protecting and restoring blue carbon habitats is essential to boost the ocean’s latent capacity to capture and store carbon, maximising its contribution to achieving the net-zero targets we desperately need.
In our Ocean Recovery Plan, Scottish Environment LINK call for nature recovery targets for land and sea in law; for at least 30% of our seas to be highly protected by 2030 and for a third of which, so at least 10% of our seas, to be fully protected through the transformation of the MPA network. Ensuring at least 30% of our seas are highly and fully protected, is essential for Scotland, and all maritime countries, to meet net-zero and biodiversity targets. The Scottish Government/Scottish Green agreement to have at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas, where no fishing, aquaculture or development occur, is a welcome game-changer that must be implemented to lead the way within the UK and Europe.
Mobilising Finance to Deliver Ocean Recovery
COP26 is a crucial opportunity for our governments to mobilise finance to restore marine ecosystems and address the climate and nature emergencies. As our plan highlights, developing innovative finance models and scaling up investment to support ocean recovery and a just transition of activities operating in and around the sea are urgently needed to help reach net-zero and protect communities and natural habitats.
Scottish Environment LINK calls for the Scottish Government to provide and incentivise investment in ocean recovery and sustainability to match the scale of the nature and climate emergencies. Scotland has a real opportunity to lead by example at COP 26, by committing to invest in proactive ocean restoration, including of blue carbon habitats such as seagrass and native oyster beds, and to support other nature-based solutions vital to help reverse the climate and ocean emergencies.
Working Together to Deliver Ocean Recovery
Industries operating in and around the marine environment play a key role in tackling the climate and nature crises. Transformational change in how we manage human activities at and around the sea is vital to drive ocean recovery at scale. Reducing anthropogenic pressures on the marine environment is crucial to ensure our seas continue to provide benefits for biodiversity, food and climate regulation.
Scottish Environment LINK’s Ocean Recovery plan advocates for a just transition to nature and climate positive, spatially managed fisheries, with policies and legislation introduced where necessary. The Scottish Government published a Future Fisheries Management strategy last year, including intention to protect vulnerable spawning and juvenile fishing grounds, and the recent Scottish Government/Scottish Greens agreement included a welcome policy to cap and reduce inshore fisheries effort and deliver the remaining fisheries management measures for Scotland’s MPA network by 2024. Following exit from the European Union, the Fisheries Act 2020 must also be seized as an opportunity to help transform fisheries management. It includes legal objectives on climate change, sustainability and the ecosystem, requirements to publish a Joint Fisheries Statement and Fisheries Management Plans, and provisions for the distribution of allocated quota and maintaining or restoring fish stocks. All UK Fisheries Administrations, including the Scottish Government, aim to publish the Joint Fisheries Statement by the end of 2022. With roll-out of the Future Fisheries Management strategy and development of the JFS currently in progress, now is a pivotal moment to ensure that the industry contributes to net zero through the development of climate-smart fisheries.
Both the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (2019) [1,2] show, with rigorous scientific underpinning, that we are running out of time. We only have a decade to change our ways to limit climate temperature increase below 1.5 degrees and halt and then reverse the loss of nature on land and at sea. If the COP26 Parties are to deliver the Paris Agreement, now is the time for the ocean’s health and its vital contribution to climate change regulation and mitigation to be at the core of all considerations.
COP26 could be the world’s last best chance to tackle the climate emergency and reverse the damage caused by people to nature. This decade, Scotland must lead on the world stage, setting ambitious targets and actions to deliver the recovery our ocean so urgently needs.
 IPBES (2019), Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.5517154 Available on https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5517154
 IPCC (2019), Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Available on https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/
 Jones et al., (2020) Area Requirements to Safeguard Earth’s Marine Species, One Earth 2, 188–196 February 21, 2020 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.01.010
 Baskett, M.L. & Barnett, L.A.K. (2015). The ecological and evolutionary consequences of marine reserves. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst., 46, 49-73. DOI Available on https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12247
 https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/science.abf0861 High levels of protection here refers to
- “Fully Protected Areas” = no extractive or destructive activities are allowed
- “Highly Protected Areas” = only light extractive activities with low total impact are allowed.
 Stephenson, S. and Johnson, A.F. (2021) Shifting gears: achieving climate smart fisheries. Published by WWF, RSPB and Marine Conservation Society. Available on https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-08/Pact_Media_WWF_Climate_Smart_Fisheries_Report_2021_Aug_16_V2.pdf
This blog is part of the LINK Thinks CoP26 series. Click here to read the series of blogs by LINK staff, members, Honorary Fellows and invited guests who highlight the COP26 presidency programme with a nature-climate twist.