Environment
Opinion Article
June 29, 2022

Fighting climate change through ocean planning?

Planning the use of the sea ocean is not a recent concept. It has begun four decades ago, first with the zoning of marine areas of the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia, and a few years later in the marine waters of China. Since then, and especially in the last 15 years, “marine spatial planning” (MSP) initiatives, as they are most known, have expanded around the planet. Currently, over 75 coastal nations and territories have ocean plans under development, from tropical to polar regions, and across ocean basins.

But why? MSP is a way of organizing the use of the sea, in space and time, identifying where maritime activities – such as fishing, maritime transport, or the production of renewable energy – should be located. It aims to minimize conflicts between uses, minimize environmental pressures, and simultaneously maximize ecological, economic, and social benefits. It is for this reason, by promoting a holistic and integrated vision on the use of the ocean, based on the three pillars of sustainability, that marine spatial planning is recognized worldwide as a fundamental instrument to achieve the Goal 14 of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: “Life Bellow Water”. MSP is also seen as an essential instrument to promote a sustainable blue economy, and to ensure the maintenance of a healthy ocean.

However, there are still several challenges that circumscribe the development of marine spatial plans. Difficulties in mobilizing local actors for participation and co-management processes, institutional and political issues that determine the (non) approval of regulations and plans, or limitations in the existence of spatial information on marine social-ecological systems (especially in developing countries), are some of the main challenges. In addition to all of these, and with great potential to exacerbate them, there is climate change.

The effects of climate change on the ocean – such as rising temperatures, acidification, or the loss of oxygen – are altering the ocean's biophysical conditions, leading to a redistribution of the goods and services that the ocean provides us with. For example, many marine species are undergoing changes in their geographic distribution, moving towards the poles or to deeper layers of the ocean. Others are “simply” disappearing (as is the case with coral reefs in Australia). There are also new patterns in the circulation of winds and currents, the intensification of storms and hurricanes, or sea level rise. Consequently, maritime activities that depend on ocean goods and services will undergo changes in their spatial and temporal distribution, along within creases or decreases in intensity. New conflicts will arise between uses, as well as between uses and the environment. A good example is the Arctic, where the loss of sea ice is enabling the expansion of human activities into previously inaccessible areas (such as commercial fishing, shipping, or seabed mining), causing new environmental pressures and new conflicts with protected species and the local human communities that depend on them.

To respond to these challenges, MSP must necessarily become more flexible and dynamic (while still continuing to provide legal certainty to investors and users of the ocean). The challenge is complex and there will never be a “one-size-fits-all” approach. But if, on the one hand, ocean planning processes are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, on the other they can play an extremely important role in creating solutions.

“Climate-smart”planning of the marine space

In an ocean under constant change, it is vital to develop MSP processes that are “climate-smart”. This is a hot topic, of high relevance in the international context, both within the scientific community and at apolitical level. Very recently, the United Nations Global Compact initiative released a report that recognizes that, in order to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement, and limit global temperature warming to 1.5°C, there is an “urgent need to ensure that marine spatial planning is climate-smart”. In addition to this report, presented in Glasgow during the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26), the UNESCO prepared a policy document within the scope of the MSP global initiative, and the World Bank produced a fact sheet under the PROBLUE program, both exclusively dedicated to the development of climate-smart marine spatial plans.

But in practice, what does this mean? A climate-smart marine spatial plan is, by definition, one that has the ability to integrate information on the impacts of climate change, that is flexible and has mechanisms to adapt to climate effects, and, above all, that supports the implementation of climate adaptation and mitigation measures and actions.

Designing and implementing measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change through ocean planning is a unique opportunity, with great potential. With regard to adaptation measures (that is, measures that promote the adjustment of natural and human systems in order to maximize benefits and reduce negative impacts), MSP starts by providing an integrated and intersectional approach, an approach that is fundamental to ensure a holistic view of the marine areas to be managed. This “global” view is a key component in the identification of adaptation measures, since only in this way is it possible to ensure that measures designed for one sector are not maladaptive to another. Ocean planning also contributes to greater resilience of marine ecosystems by reducing non-climatic human pressures (such as pollution, overfishing, or habitat loss and degradation), reducing the cumulative effects between those and climate change. It can also contribute to increasing the resilience of ecosystems through the designation of marine protected areas to conserve important species and habitats, or through the identification and protection of “climate refugia” (that is, marine areas where environmental conditions are more stable, or that change more slowly, therefore being less impacted by climate change and thus functioning as a natural refuge for marine organisms).A climate-smart marine spatial plan also contains the (immense) opportunity to contribute to greater ocean literacy, promoting the participation of local actors in the identification and implementation of solutions, alerting them to the effects of climate change, and empowering populations (in particular, local communities) and thereby increasing their social resilience.

With regard to mitigation measures (that is, measures that contribute to reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), one of the most direct contributions of MSP is the definition of new marine areas for the production of renewable energy (wind, , or waves). However, this is far from being the only approach. Through the priority allocation of spatial permits to marine activities that use eco-efficient technologies, as well as energy sources that tend towards “zero emissions” (such as new propellers based on renewable energies, or alternative fuels and propulsion systems), MSP can also contribute to minimizing the emission of greenhouse gases. Ultimately, it can even limit the access to certain areas for activities with higher emission levels. A third approach through which MSP can contribute to climate change mitigation concerns the definition of areas for carbon capture and storage. These may correspond to areas for the protection or restoration of “blue carbon” ecosystems, that is, marine and coastal ecosystems that sequester and store large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (such as salt marshes, mangroves, Kelp forests, or seagrass meadows). But they may also pertain to areas for the development of other carbon capture and storage initiatives, such as large-scale production of seaweed, iron fertilization, or chemical and electromagnetic approaches.

In order to truly develop climate-smart marine spatial plans, it is first necessary to consider and integrate climate information. It is this integration that will allow for the design of “non-myopic” plans, that is, plans that have an integrated and long-term (more “distant”) view of the use of the ocean. This can be achieved through the use of modelling and mapping tools, allowing for the identification of marine areas where the greatest spatial and temporal changes are expected, both in terms of ecosystem services or the human activities that depend on them. Risk and vulnerability analyses can also be used to identify the areas where expected changes will have the greatest consequences – whether environmental, social, economic, political, or a mix of them. The results of these analyses are then integrated into the development of spatial scenarios or “visions” for different marine areas, anticipating new conflicts and new opportunities, and thus supporting more informed decision-making processes.

Finally, climate-smart MSP must be adaptive, flexible and dynamic to deal not only with the predicted changes, but also with the uncertainty associated to the magnitude and extent of climate effects on the ocean. One of the most popular approaches is dynamic ocean management. By using near real-time information (such as satellite data), managers define marine areas whose boundaries are dynamic, changing in time and space (sometimes on a daily scale) in response to changes in ecosystems and ocean uses. Another way to promote flexibility in MSP is through “anticipatory zoning”. Here, a priori areas are designated for the development (or exclusion) of certain maritime activities in anticipation of the effects of climate change (such as closing areas in the Arctic to commercial fishing in anticipation of sea ice loss, or designating preferential zones for sand extraction in the Netherlands in anticipation of the need for coastal protection actions due to sea level rise). Other more “traditional”, but equally important approaches include adaptive management and governance, where planning decisions are continually reviewed and adapted based on the results obtained through monitoring and evaluation.

At a time when the discussion around the effects of climate change on the ocean continues to gain momentum, ensuring the development of climate-smart marine spatial plans is more relevant than ever. A climate-smart framework is crucial not only to achieve the global climate commitments made at COP26, but also to enable the development of systemic, transformative and sustainable solutions. Only this way will it be possible to ensure that ocean plans remain viable, effective, and useful under changing conditions, and, in this way, guarantee the development of a sustainable blue economy and biodiversity conservation.

Catarina Frazão Santos

Catarina Frazão Santos

Researcher at NOVA SBE Environmental Economics Knowledge Center

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