A blueprint for a living planet: why we need to tackle climate and ocean crises together

The ocean’s health is faltering. The damage has escalated in recent decades, and continues to accelerate. For World Ocean Day, one of the most important things we can do to protect and restore our ocean is urgently tackle climate change.

By John Tanzer, WWF Global Ocean Lead

Coral bleaching, Solomon Islands. © Shutterstock / Ethan Daniels / WWF

From melting sea ice to coral reefs dying in overheating waters, the devastating consequences of climate change are already playing out in marine ecosystems and coastal communities all over the world. At the same time, our ocean and coastal habitats hold vast potential to help us mitigate and adapt to climate change. “Blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass meadows and kelp forests can sequester as much or more carbon per hectare than terrestrial ecosystems, and, like coral reefs, act as “blue infrastructure,” offering protection against storms and other impacts of climate disruption.

Yet for too long, the ocean has been largely absent from global discussions on climate change. This World Ocean Day, WWF is releasing a new Blueprint for a Living Planet. It outlines four principles for integrated ocean-climate action that we believe should guide discussions going into the crucial UN climate conference in Glasgow in November, as well as in other major international processes.

The Blueprint is fundamentally about expanding options and opportunities to meet the objectives laid out in the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, among others. It rejects the false premise that “ocean solutions” would be created at the expense of “climate solutions,” and embraces the expanded possibilities to be found in fully integrated ocean-climate strategies.

WWF Blueprint for a Living Planet

Here’s what we’re asking governments and businesses to do:

1. Raise ambition and urgently deliver stronger and sustained mitigation and adaptation actions

To meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C, we need to use every tool at our disposal. The ocean provides enormous opportunities to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at scale. Yet few countries have even begun to capture this potential in their climate change plans — particularly their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. It’s vital too that national adaptation plans include ocean-related measures.

At the same time as building ocean considerations into climate action, we need to bring climate into ambitious actions to restore the health of our ocean — from stopping overfishing and destructive fishing practices to ecosystem-based marine spatial planning and climate-smart marine protected area networks.

2. Make nature a key part of the solution

Countries have grasped the idea that planting trees and restoring soils are part of the solution to both climate change and the wider nature crisis — but we’re nowhere close to making the most of these nature-based solutions when it comes to the ocean. Based on systematic blue accounting assessments, mangroves, seagrass meadows, salt marshes, kelp forests, mussel beds and other marine ecosystems have incredible carbon sequestration power, but have been under siege over the past 50 years. With proper protection and management informed by community needs and aspirations, these ecosystems can pay their way — delivering food security, livelihoods and climate benefits.

3. Put people at the centre

A healthy, resilient ocean sustains people whether we live close to the shoreline or far removed. But coastal communities have an especially important role to play in the design and delivery of successful conservation efforts. An inclusive, equitable and transparent approach that includes local, indigenous and traditional knowledge is critical. Whether it’s restoring mangroves, managing marine protected areas or rebuilding the resilience of coral reefs, communities have to lead and own conservation strategies if those strategies are going to be effective. Putting people at the centre isn’t just the right thing to do — it has the power to unleash the transformative change needed.

4. Join up the climate and ocean finance agendas

Climate finance still falls far short of what’s needed — and only a tiny fraction of that goes to nature-positive ocean-based solutions. We have to invest more, and we have to invest smarter, getting more impact from every dollar. And ocean-climate solutions provide incredible value for money: when we restore mangroves, for example, we’re drawing down carbon, protecting biodiversity, coastlines and building food security and jobs. That’s an impressive triple-bottom-line return.

Fisherman in dugout canoe, Papua New Guinea. © Jürgen Freund / WWF

At WWF, we’re putting these principles into practice in our own work. We know we need to raise ambition, which is why WWF and partners are pushing for COP26 to provide confidence and clarity on a global path to achieving the transition to a zero-emission and climate-resilient future.

Ambition must also address threats like overfishing that further undermine the resilience of the ocean and its potential to provide solutions. Our response to the issues of plastic pollution and deep seabed mining includes pushing for systemic changes and shifting to a circular economy (also crucial to tackling climate change, of course).

Making nature part of the solution really is second nature to us. One example is our Coral Reef Rescue Initiative, which aims to build the resilience of the coral reefs that are best placed to survive in a warming ocean. Resilient reefs can support resilient communities.

We’re also putting people at the centre by accelerating coastal community-led conservation, with the aim of ensuring coastal communities around the world have the skills, capacity and legal rights they need to effectively manage the natural resources, such as fisheries, they depend upon.

And our Blue Futures initiative aims to see at least US$25 billion channeled into the sustainable blue economy, and to more effectively join up the climate and ocean finance agendas.

Sometimes conservation involves tough choices and trade-offs. But there’s no need to choose between ocean solutions and climate solutions: they are one and the same.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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