As leaders converge in Dubai for COP28 to strategize on building resilience and reducing emissions to tackle the climate crisis, the ocean stands out as an indispensable ally that can no longer be overlooked. But in many parts of the world, including East Africa, the incredible potential for marine conservation to turn the tide on climate change is hindered by a severe lack of resources.
The case for ocean conservation
The upcoming COP28 presents a platform for global leadership to recalibrate our strategic approach to accelerate climate action by building a solid case for ocean conservation.
The ocean contributes about US$1.5 trillion to the global economy and provides livelihoods for 10–12% of the world’s population.
But there’s another reason to protect our blue planet. The ocean is a carbon-absorbing powerhouse. It harbors tremendous capacity to sequester carbon and regulate the climate. Since the end of the pre-industrial era, our ocean has absorbed a staggering 29% of the world’s carbon emissions. It holds about 42 times more carbon than the atmosphere.
As a nature-based solution to the climate crisis, marine conservation offers the world an excellent opportunity to leapfrog the most pressing challenge of our time by harnessing the enormous carbon sequestration capacity of the ocean. With suitable investments, the sea can potentially deliver a third of the world’s energy needs in a climate-compatible manner. Therefore, global climate action must deliberately elevate marine conservation as a natural solution to climate change by allocating more resources to this critical ecosystem.
Africa’s marine ecosystems are in trouble
Human activities pose an existential threat to the health of marine ecosystems around the world, and Africa is certainly no exception.
Along the Kenyan coastline for instance, the busy ports of Mombasa and Lamu disrupt the migratory routes of marine species, destroying critical foraging and breeding grounds of sea life. Marine megafauna, including sea turtles and marine mammals, are impacted by oil discharges and underwater noise pollution and die from ship strikes. In addition to threats posed by fishing activities, increasing plastic pollution alters seawater chemistry by making it more acidic, diminishing its carbon-absorbing capacity.
In-shore waters host about 90% of East Africa’s marine biodiversity, including coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests. These habitats provide food security for coastal communities and act as a natural buffer against storms and floods. Unfortunately, we’re losing critical beaches to the ever-increasing infrastructural development along our coast. Protecting waters closer to the land is vital for human livelihoods and marine life.
That’s not to underestimate the role of offshore protected areas. Humpback whales utilize the warmer offshore waters of East Africa for calving and need vast seascapes to thrive. The carbon capture capacity of whales is astonishing; one great whale sequesters around 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide on average while a tree absorbs only around 0.02 tonnes of carbon annually.
Sadly, many countries, especially those on the African continent, do not have the resources available to effectively protect offshore marine areas. Many such areas remain threatened by overfishing and mining and oil exploration, so conserving these marine ecosystems by gazetting them right now must be a priority for governments. The development of protected areas on the open ocean would also align with the global target to protect 30% of the planet by 2030.
Limited capacity to carry out marine research and disseminate information are significant obstacles to effective ocean management in the Global South. When research is done, as was the case earlier this year when Kenya conducted its first marine megafauna aerial survey in nearly three decades, it is critical that governments invest in the implementation of recommendations from that research. Policymakers and managers of ocean resources must be trained and equipped to develop national marine spatial plans to provide robust guidelines for permissible ocean activities.
The ocean can be a game changer
Our ocean’s colossal potential to mitigate climate change has remained relatively untapped. However, with a suitable strategic investment, marine ecosystem conservation and restoration in Africa and around the world can form the pivotal centerpiece to anchor global climate action.
Recent initiatives, like the Great Blue Wall, offer examples of how partnerships can be developed to advance ocean conservation in the East African region. COP28 in Dubai presents a key opportunity for governments, private sector partners, and multilateral institutions to come together and renew a more informed charge, guided by science, to build a strong case for ocean conservation to save our planet. The time to make that deliberate decision to protect the ocean is now.
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