How protecting our oceans will help us fight climate change

Healthy marine ecosystems and climate stability have always been closely interlinked. One affects the other, and we are seeing this play out on a planetary scale. Climate change is partly the result of the extended mismanagement of oceans, but the inverse is true as well. If we have concrete measures in place to preserve, restore and sustainably manage ocean ecosystems, nature becomes a powerful ally that breathes life into climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience efforts.

Average ocean surface temperatures broke several records in July, with no signs of slowing down. We must seize the opportunity to embrace nature-based solutions, or NBS – especially Blue NBS, which are focused on oceans, marine and coastal habitats – and make them the centerpiece of national and global climate strategies. NBS offer effective opportunities to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action for countries as they enhance their Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, in accordance with the Paris Agreement’s global stocktaking process, and as more and more countries commit to net zero emission targets.

While many nations have made significant progress towards their NDCs, the results of the first ever Global Stocktake at Cop28 are expected to confirm that the world is not on course to meet its targets. As negotiations continue under the Glasgow-Sharm El Sheikh Work Programme on the global goal on adaptation for 2022-2023, it is critical to keep in mind the role that ecosystems including blue carbon ecosystems and NBS play in the achievement of adaptation outcomes.

The Eastern Mangroves of Abu Dhabi. Most have been planted as part of previous and continuing conservation measures and play a crucial role in carbon capture. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
The Eastern Mangroves of Abu Dhabi. Most have been planted as part of previous and continuing conservation measures and play a crucial role in carbon capture. Khushnum Bhandari / The National 

In fact, we insist on NBS to help us combat climate change. Nature is an essential tool that we should leverage more, and we must insist on the protection and restoration of nature to ensure its effectiveness and increase its capacity to function at scale.

NBS can cost-effectively provide more than a third of the climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2°C, achieving nature’s mitigation potential of 10-12 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Thus, Cop28 is of particular significance in getting the world back on track to the Paris Agreement and integrating a nature-positive approach into the forefront of global campaigns, policies and updated NDCs.

The UAE is home to more than 150 square kilometres of mangroves that store 3.3 million tonnes of carbon. The vast majority of these mangroves have been intentionally planted as part of previous and ongoing conservation measures to strengthen natural ecosystems and implement NBS. Millions more will be planted as part of the nationwide plan to plant 100 million mangroves by 2030.

Along with saltmarshes, sea grasses and other associated habitats, these mangrove forests act as cost-effective natural coastal defences against rising sea levels and coastal inundation – providing essential ecosystem services beyond the vital climate mitigation benefits they offer. About 80 per cent of the global fish population depends on healthy mangrove ecosystems – the fish populations in the UAE are no different.

It’s worth noting that blue carbon ecosystems can sequester up to 10 times more carbon dioxide than boreal, temperate or tropical forests. Furthermore, the benefits of mangrove restoration to industries such as fisheries, forestry and recreation are up to 10 times the cost.

There will be no resilient, net-zero future without halting and restoring nature loss.

National-level case studies play a pivotal role in advancing global dialogues on climate change mitigation and biodiversity loss. Not only do they provide valuable insights into local challenges and solutions but also serve as practical examples of how global policy outcomes can be successfully implemented at a national and local level.

There will be no resilient, net-zero future without halting and restoring nature loss

The NBS project is an important example of a local initiative to address climate change and biodiversity loss. It brings together government, subnational entities, the private sector and non-state organisations to work collectively towards a common goal – it needs to be championed globally. Through the NBS project, we are contributing to the national net zero target, undertaking a science-based approach that aims to assess the UAE’s natural capital including blue carbon, with a focus on the coastal lagoons in the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Umm Al Quwain.

The project’s activities and outcomes are strongly related to the ongoing global dialogue on climate adaptation that covers targets, monitoring and evaluation, key indicators as well as means of implementation. It also supports the UAE’s recently updated Second NDC to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 as well as the strategic initiative to reach net zero by 2050, and the global 30 x 30 goal – that is, to protect 30 per cent of critical ecosystems and species on land and seas by 2030.

Cop28 will be a momentous occasion to urgently mobilise greater investments, resources and expertise into the field of NBS. Nature-positive solutions – such as diversifying diets, fishing with sustainable ecosystem management and deploying precision agriculture technologies – present $10.1 trillion in business opportunities and could create 395 million jobs by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum.

For the food and agriculture sector alone, it is a $4.5 trillion opportunity, according to analysis commissioned by the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions. More than ever this represents an opportunity in the UAE where small and medium enterprises employ more than 80 per cent of the labour force in the private sector and make up more than 60 per cent of the gross domestic product. Investments in NBS are prudent for the long-term success of business in the UAE and the vital economic sectors that rely on a thriving marine environment.

Annual investments in nature need to triple by 2030 and rise four-fold by 2050 in order to tackle the climate, biodiversity and land-degradation crises, according to the UN Environment Programme. We need to fill this gap – and now we have the tools with which to do it and to reap the benefits of speedy, local and large-scale action. Non-state actors including cities, regions, businesses, investors and others can and must also partake in driving accelerated momentum for nature and climate, alongside nation states.

I invite non-state actors to do their part and to elevate their ambitions and actions by joining global UN campaigns such as the Race to Resilience, as well as the Race to Zero campaign and UN Global Compact. Non-state actors and local businesses in the UAE can also access resources on credible decarbonisation and sustainability through the UAE Alliance for Climate Action that supports entities in all stages of their decarbonisation journey.

As the host of Cop28, all eyes will be on the UAE to deliver realistic, impactful and ambitious goals to reduce emissions and keep global warming within limits. And Cop28 will be the first opportunity to respond to the UN’s Global Stocktake of progress on the Paris Agreement. We must use this opportunity to strengthen the continued legacy of the nation as an important voice for climate and nature action.

A version of this article is part of a wider series to raise awareness about the powerful benefits of Nature-based Solutions in the Year of Sustainability and Cop28. The series features prominent voices of leaders who are advancing the UAE’s flagship NBS project as a key pathway to restore natural ecosystems and enhance climate resiliency.