Highlights from COP27: Ocean observations – an essential pillar for the climate observing system

Over 35,000 participants with more than 100 Heads of State and Governments gathered in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for the most important marathon of negotiations with the potential to decide the future of our climate. And although the world is still considered to stand “on the brink of climate catastrophe”, some important victories were achieved for integrating ocean observations as a key part of the climate observing system. 

“The ocean plays a critical role in climate, but at the same time the processes within the ocean are changing,” said Vladimir Ryabinin, the Executive Secretary of IOC-UNESCO at the opening plenary of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice. It was made clear that our fight against climate change will not go far without sustained ocean observations – a message the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) carried to this year’s COP27. 

Statements saying the decisions agreed upon during this year’s COP were “not enough” are widespread in the media, and many participants report having mixed feelings about the outcomes of the grand meeting of the Parties. Nevertheless, a wide array of ocean-related side events and two weeks of intense negotiations did result in a number of positive outcomes regarding ocean observations.

A global goal for observations? Not yet

Possibly the biggest hope of the ocean observing community at COP27 was to get a green light for a global goal for observations, which would imply a commitment from all Parties to support the global climate observing system in a sustained way, by providing funding and capacity. This would have the potential to greatly increase recognition for the work done by ocean observers, as well as promote communication nationally between ministries and organizations involved.

The ambitious proposal of a global goal for observations was presented by Sabrina Speich, co-chair of the Physics and Climate panel sponsored by GOOS, the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) at the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) side event. Later, negotiations on systematic observations took place the 57th session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 57). 

The outcomes of the negotiations on systematic ocean observing were overall positive, but not positive enough to include a global goal for observations in the final decisions, as some of the Parties expressed their reservations. 

“Preoccupations of countries included the need to identify loss and damage from climate change, the funding needed to help developing countries meet targets, nervousness around transparency in inventories of greenhouse gas emissions, and the principles of the Convention around common but differentiated responsibilities,” says Albert Fischer, GOOS Office Director who participated in the negotiations as an observer. 

“GOOS will work to ensure this decision is reconsidered at COP28 next year, and will engage with IOC focal points to build support amongst climate negotiators to agree to a global goal for climate observations, with appropriate capacity development support,” adds Albert Fischer.

Welcoming the GCOS Implementation Plan

On the positive side, some major advancements were made in terms of recognizing the urgent need to fill in the gaps in ocean observations, and acknowledging the importance of an enhanced framework for coordination.

Parties and Organizations were called out to take action on improving the global climate observing system by implementing the recently published GCOS Implementation Plan, which recognizes the importance of sustained ocean observations. The GCOS Implementation Plan was welcomed, together with many actions related to the Global Ocean Observing System. GOOS will help focus nations on the existing gaps described in the GCOS Implementation Plan, and will guide implementation through the Ocean Observing Co-Design exemplars.

Ocean Observations for Climate Change at the Ocean Pavillion

For the first time, an ocean pavilion was organized by a consortium of ocean research institutions, NGOs, and with the support of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. While it did attract a few politicians and decision-makers, it primarily served as a gathering place for the ocean observing and ocean science communities. 

GOOS and the Partnership for Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO) co-organized a side event in the Pavilion, focused on ocean observations for climate change. The event gathered a large audience from the ocean observing community to discuss how we can move forward from local observations to a global system. One of the highlights of the event was a talk by Mayor Mike Savage, Halifax (Canada), who presented local actions on climate change, incorporating ocean information in decision making, and aims for net zero for municipal operations by 2030 – a propitious example of political will aligning for action at the local level.  

Deep blue carbon and investment in ocean observations at the Canada Pavilion

“We cannot mitigate what we cannot measure” – the words by Toste Tanhua, GOOS co-chair, reflected the lack of information on ocean carbon in the climate change context. This was the topic of the event on investing in ocean observation to meet climate targets, organized by Ocean Frontier Institute at the Canada Pavilion. The concept of deep blue carbon was introduced, and panelists agreed on the urgent need for coordinated international investment in ocean carbon observations. 

Accurate climate modeling – impossible without ocean information

The event where the ocean observing community had the most influence in reaching country climate negotiators was the Earth Information Day – a UNFCCC-organized mandated event. The event was attended by hundreds of negotiators, and featured clear messages from scientists on the need to systematically monitor the climate for the purposes of the convention. 

“Most carbon observations are land or atmosphere, but the ocean stores 80% of the Earth’s total carbon, of which over 90% is in the deep,” said Anya Waite, GOOS co-chair, emphasizing the need to integrate ocean carbon into climate observations for accurate climate modeling and improved services. The panellists also stressed the lack of observations, particularly in the deep ocean, and in developing countries where the combination of climate and local pressures on the ocean are strongest. An excellent visual representation of the session ideas was created live by illustrators Hazel Hurley and Stéphanie Heckman. 

Overall, the ocean was clearly identified as a gap in the climate conversation for the first time at this year’s COP. This is a much needed acknowledgment which will clear the way for advancing our climate observing system – one that will integrate ocean observations and deliver accurate information to help humanity in the face of climate change.

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