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The ocean can no longer be a climate victim

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Over the past several decades as the world has come to understand the threat of climate change, the ocean has been portrayed primarily as a victim. Alarm bells about warming, acidification, sea-level rise, coral bleaching, species migration and other symptoms have dominated headlines. But this narrative misses the greater point. The ocean is also one of the most powerful tools we have to help head off the worst consequences of global climate change. 

The ocean contains 96 percent of the water on Earth and serves as the foundation for and ultimate source of all life on the planet as well as the primary regulator of our global climate system. As Congress and the Biden administration consider their next round of investment on climate change and infrastructure, they must keep the ocean and its potential contributions squarely in their sights. 

Earlier this week, a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that estimates of the capacity of the ocean’s “biological pump,” a natural conveyor belt of organisms that pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere down into the depths, could be off by a significant margin. This would make the global target of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius even more difficult to achieve than previously thought. 

The consequences of this revised estimate could be significant. The ocean absorbs between a quarter and a third of annual global carbon dioxide emissions — approximately equivalent to the total output of the European Union. According to a 2020 report from the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, ocean systems and technologies, including marine renewable energy production, can further provide up to one-fifth of the carbon reductions necessary to meet that 1.5 degree target by 2050. 

The ocean’s potential as a climate solution is only now beginning to emerge, and with the addition of one of the High-Level Panel’s co-chairs and former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco to President Biden’s climate team, the administration is in a prime position to act. Four areas of opportunity exist in the immediate term for Congress and the administration to boost federal engagement in ocean-based climate action. 

First, we must institute policies to accelerate the transition to zero-carbon maritime transportation, including affiliated shoreside infrastructure. Over 90 percent of global trade moves by ship, and the maritime transportation industry as a whole emits approximately 2.9 percent of global greenhouse gasses — roughly equivalent to the total annual contribution of Germany or Japan. Deploying scalable, zero-emission shipping fuels and jumpstarting the process of electrifying coastal fleets such as Washington State’s ferry system, the largest in the nation, are critical initial steps to reduce this footprint. And cutting emissions at port facilities, as called for in Biden’s Healthy Ports program, will provide the double benefit of reducing carbon while producing cleaner air for port-adjacent communities that are often lower-income neighborhoods. 

Second, healthy coastal habitats are efficient carbon sinks and provide myriad additional benefits to coastal regions, including protection from storm surges, erosion control and providing critical habitat for commercially and recreationally important species. A bipartisan coalition of legislators led by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Don Young (R- Ark.) have called for a $10 billion investment in coastal restoration projects that would begin to capitalize on this potential. 

Furthermore, early efforts exploring the potential of cultivating kelp to remove and ultimately store carbon in the deep ocean seabed are showing great promise. Some engineered solutions are emerging as well, including negative emission production of hydrogen from seawater that can in turn be used as fuel. Government investment to help measure the efficacy and better understanding the ecological implications of these projects will spur private industry to further develop promising negative emission methodologies.

Third, we already know that most seafood already has a smaller carbon footprint than other meat products, but we can still do better. As in the maritime transportation industry, electrification of fishing fleets is an obvious starting point, but creative solutions abound. Emerging research is also showing that some species of kelp, when added to cattle feed, can eliminate over 80 percent of methane produced by cows. Development of sustainable aquaculture, regulated with strong environmental safeguards, can further reduce emissions while also putting a dent in our massive seafood trade deficit.

Fourth, expanding development of offshore wind and continuing to research other methods of ocean-based renewable energy can help drive our pivot to a renewable energy future. Offshore wind in particular has proven successful across Europe, in China and around the world, but has been slow to develop in the U.S. Crafting a thoughtful process of engagement with the fishing industry and other ocean users must be part of the solution moving forward to gain buy-in and clear hurdles if the Biden administration is to achieve its ambitious target of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity installed in U.S. waters by 2030.

Finally, in order to preserve the ocean’s biomass that allows it to function properly as our planet’s climate control system, we should continue to support the global goal of protecting 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. While the U.S. has nearly achieved this target in our waters, the vast majority of our fully protected marine reserves are in the remote Pacific. True conservation value will stem from safeguarding a diversity of marine ecosystems, including areas of the high seas, particularly those in close proximity to our Exclusive Economic Zone, such as the Sargasso Sea. After all, the biological pump, like all of our ocean ecosystems, only works efficiently if there is enough biomass in the ocean to keep it going.

As the urgency of addressing the existential threat of global climate change rises to prominence in policymaking, we face an all hands on deck situation. It’s time that we recognize the power of the ocean to help shape our climate future — after all, it has forever been our planet’s single greatest asset.

Michael Conathan is a senior ocean policy fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program and a former Republican staff member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Tags carbon emissions Carbon sequestration climate crisis Don Young Joe Biden net-zero carbon Ocean ocean acidification ocean conservancy sea-level rise Suzanne Bonamici

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