In order to be an ocean leader, Canada needs to be an energy leader first
“Coastal protection through dramatic energy transformation.”
Written by Emily De Sousa
Home to the world’s largest coastline that borders on three oceans and supports a $6 billion-dollar fishing industry, Canada is without a doubt, an oceans country.
For decades, the oceans have supported Canadians by ways of fishing, tourism, trade, and transportation. All of this is in addition to the climatic stability that the oceans provide by absorbing 25% of the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere and capturing over 90% of the additional heat produced from fossil fuel emissions.
The oceans have provided access to food and water, recreation, well-being and cultural opportunities for Canadians, all while shouldering the brunt of the impacts from global warming. But the oceans cannot bear this burden any longer.
Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on the state of the world’s oceans.
Spoiler alert: it’s bad. It’s very, very bad. Our oceans are hotter, less oxygenated, and more acidic than ever before. This is threatening seafood supplies, increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and accelerating sea level rise.
The report also indirectly exposes that Canada’s efforts to protect our oceans have been wildly insufficient.
On the surface, it may look like Canada is doing a lot to protect our oceans. In 2016, the government launched a $1.5 billion (£900 million) “Ocean Protections Plan” which focusses on making improvements to marine traffic safety and oil spill responses. Earlier this year, the development of a “Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste” was announced. The plan hopes to ban all single use plastic by 2021 in order to address marine pollution. And shortly after the IPCC report was released, Justin Trudeau announced plans to protect 25% of Canada’s oceans from harmful activities such as deep sea mining and bottom trawling, through the designation of marine protected areas.
Unfortunately, while these types of conservation measures can increase resilience to climate impacts, they are inherently limited and do not actually address the fundamental causes of dramatic ocean changes. The IPCC describes the main drivers of ocean changes as warming, acidification, and deoxygenation – all of which are the direct result of greenhouse gas emissions.
Unfortunately, greenhouse gasses do not pay much attention to the arbitrary boundaries created by marine protected areas and taking away people’s plastic straws will not stop CO2 from entering the ocean. The ocean will continue to absorb these harmful emissions so long as we continue to produce them. So, if we want to save the oceans, we need to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
The message of the IPCC report could not be clearer: unless we make steep emission reductions, the oceans will not survive. And if the oceans don’t survive, the future isn’t too bright for humanity either.
If emissions remain high, sea level rise will continue to increase, resulting in coastal regions experiencing extreme flooding events annually. These will be further intensified by an increase in the average intensity and magnitude or storm surges and precipitation rates.
The frequency of marine heat waves has already doubled since the 1980’s, forcing fish populations to migrate and leaving local fishing industries unable to keep up. Canada has already felt the effects of marine heat waves when fisheries in British Columbia were forced to shut down in 2013 and 2014 due to unusually hot waters.
Unless we curb emissions, the maximum amount of fish that we can remove from the oceans will be cut by around 25%, which will have devastating implications for global food security, as well as the 77,000 Canadians who depend on fisheries to support their livelihoods.
There is a considerable amount of evidence that many of these ocean changes and their resulting impacts on ecosystems, fisheries, and coastal communities, can be avoided with a substantial reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The difference between continuing on our current rate of emissions and transitioning to a cleaner energy system is striking. Under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, our oceans continue to change, piling on more extreme and frequent impacts every single year. Whereas a rapid decarbonization of our energy systems would hopefully begin to stabilize our oceans again after only 30 years.
Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, stated shortly after the report was released that, “Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will limit impacts on ocean ecosystems that provide us with food, support our health and shape our cultures”.
The best way to protect the oceans is to accelerate our transition to cleaner energy sources and make drastic reductions to our emissions.
While this will not be an easy feat – it will require a dramatic transformation of our economies – the good news is that the oceans can play a significant role in our energy transition and be part of the solution to save them. The Ocean Solutions Report, also published last week, by the High-level Panel on Building a Sustainable Ocean Economy revealed that by leveraging the ocean for climate solutions, such as developing offshore wind power, decarbonizing marine shipping, and restoring blue-carbon ecosystems, we could achieve up to 21% of the emissions reductions required to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set in the Paris Agreement in 2016.
Pairing these ocean-based climate solutions with land-based energy transitions would dramatically decrease our greenhouse gas emissions and put us back on a path to stable, healthy, and resilient oceans.
Alongside the fact that Canadians depend so heavily on the ocean’s resources for a variety of different services, the oceans are the lungs of this planet. If we don’t take serious steps to reduce the amount of emissions that they’re absorbing, all of our other conservation efforts will be meaningless.
If Canada is serious about protecting our oceans, then we first need to get serious about transforming our energy systems.