Oceans around the world are beset by marine heatwaves, pollution, coral bleaching, mass die-offs and overfishing. Along the West Coast, kelp, which captures a lot of carbon dioxide, is dying off. In other areas, like the Gulf of Mexico, there has been an alarming growth of low-oxygen dead zones and more frequent toxic red tides.
Many of those problems are either directly or indirectly linked with climate change, and the first-ever U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan released today recognizes that the planet can’t have a carbon-neutral future without healthy oceans—and that the oceans won’t be healthy unless the climate is stabilized.
“In developing the Ocean Action Plan, we recognize that the ocean, land, and atmosphere are inherently interconnected,” the plan’s introduction concludes.
Oceans cover about 70 percent of Earth’s surface. They generate 50 percent of the atmosphere’s oxygen, capture more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases and absorb between 25 and 30 percent of human-caused carbon emissions, so their role in stabilizing the climate is critical.
“This Ocean Climate Action Plan is the first comprehensive approach that the U.S. has taken to leveraging the power of the ocean in the fight against climate change,” said Jean Flemma, director of Ocean Defense Initiative. The plan could inspire a ripple of powerful climate actions that could reduce emissions, she added.
“Still, a plan is only as strong as its implementation. We look forward to working with the Biden Administration to ensure strong ocean climate action policies are adopted across federal agencies and help the communities that need it most.”
Parts of the plan, like expansion of marine protected areas, could be implemented with executive actions, while others could be subject to legislative action or review. It also directs other agencies to focus funding from federal climate legislation toward some of the plan’s targets, like studying the potential for carbon sequestration in depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
Critically for conservation advocates, the plan calls for establishing new strictly protected marine sanctuaries, and for connecting all of the conservation zones in a network to make them more resilient to warming oceans. And it promotes public engagement, tribal consultation and use of Indigenous knowledge to advance climate-resilient marine protected areas.
In a letter announcing the plan, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Arati Prabhakar wrote, “This plan should not be viewed as an exhaustive list of ocean activities, but rather a plan focused specifically on ocean climate action.”
They promoted the new plan as a chance to advance the Biden Administration’s ocean-climate priorities, like “advancing climate solutions, promoting environmental justice and ensuring sustainable coastal communities and ocean economies.”
The Ocean Action Plan was released as part of a broader conservation push for American lands and waters announced today, including a proposal to designate marine sanctuaries in U.S. waters around the Pacific Remote Islands. If completed, the White House said it would meet the Biden Administration’s goal of conserving at least 30 percent of ocean waters under American jurisdiction by 2030.
The plan sets three overall goals: creating a carbon-neutral future; accelerating nature-based solutions that protect and support coastal and ocean ecosystems that capture and store greenhouse gases; and enhancing community resilience to ocean changes.
Despite all the signs that oceans are in an ecological crisis, the plan first mentions objectives like increasing offshore wind and marine energy, including energy from tides and waves.
Producing more renewable ocean-based energy could cut greenhouse gas emissions, but also puts pressure on some of the very marine resources that the administration wants to protect, so pursuing those plans will require a delicate balancing act.
The White House Ocean Policy Committee also included decarbonization of ocean shipping and marine carbon dioxide and storage technologies as significant steps toward carbon neutrality. Finally, the plan mentions the climate benefits of “blue carbon,” which is the CO2 sequestration resulting from conserving and restoring coastal and marine habitats.
The European Union launched a similar plan last month, but with a stronger focus on protecting and restoring marine ecosystems, with a strong emphasis on eliminating bottom-fishing, which indiscriminately captures both wanted and unwanted species and disturbs ocean-bottom sediments that are natural carbon sinks.
The U.S. plan was shaped by a committee including representatives from nearly every part of the executive branch, including military and intelligence, NASA, the State Department and the Department of Agriculture.
In its first meeting in 2021, the committee targeted three strategic priorities: maximizing ocean environmental, economic, and social benefits; developing ocean-based mitigation for climate change; and identifying a strategic direction for ocean science and technology.
Renewable energy production is definitely a place to start. The plan estimates that ocean energy could produce more than half the country’s needed electrical power generation if fully harnessed. That includes well-proven offshore wind turbines, as well as turbines driven by waves, tides or ocean currents. A few tide-powered projects are providing electricity at a small scale, but research suggests there is huge power potential in those sources.
Even if only a small portion is captured, it would make significant contributions to the nation’s energy needs. In the short term, “marine energy could serve U.S. coastal communities and provide local, clean power to rural and remote island communities, which often rely on expensive shipments of fossil fuels.”
The plan also directs various agencies to study how feasible it would be to capture greenhouse gas emissions from coastal industrial sites and store them in seabed formations, including “depleted oil and gas reservoirs.”
One part of the plan certain to draw sharp scrutiny calls for studying ways the ocean could take carbon out of the atmosphere by fertilizing ocean areas with minerals to promote the growth of organisms that capture CO2 through photosynthesis. Stimulating plankton growth at a scale that would benefit the climate could disrupt natural cycles that are critical for fish, birds and marine mammals.
The plan covers ocean areas under United States jurisdiction, but was released just a week after 195 countries agreed in principle on a high seas treaty that aims to establish similar science-based environmental management for oceans outside national zones.
In those zones, there are similar concerns about possible ocean geoengineering projects, said marine scientist Rebecca Helm, a marine scientist at Georgetown University’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability.
“You’ve probably seen those geoengineering proposals, like, we’re gonna solve climate change by pumping all the deep sea water up to the surface,” she said, adding that such proposals or plans need to be evaluated by strict scientific criteria for protecting ecosystems, she said.
Ocean projects may be well-meaning, but haven’t been subjected to adequate environmental review, she added.
“There is this company that is collecting plastic on the high seas,” she said. “So they’ve got these two giant ships and this big fishing net and they’re sort of cleaning up plastic.”
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In that case, she said she knew of two environmental impact assessments, one that completely missed the surface ecosystem, and a second that threw up some “huge red flags,” she said. With better rules in place, those conflicting results would have been public, and reviewed by scientific and technology panels.
Good ocean management rules, whether in the high seas or in national waters, also empower affected parties to raise meaningful concerns, from the very beginning of the process, especially communities that have long been excluded from rule and decision making.
The Ocean Climate Action Plan marks a new way to think about ocean management and to avoid past mistakes like the annihilation of whales and degradation of mangrove forests and coral reefs, said Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It harnesses the power of the ocean to fight climate change and enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems to climate stresses,” she said.
But Goldfuss urged a go-slow approach when it comes to manipulating ocean chemistry to try to remove unwanted carbon from the climate system, saying that “a cautious approach is warranted to prevent repeating ocean and community health stewardship mistakes of the past.”