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The U.S. National Ocean Climate Action Plan Must Prioritize Local Stakeholders and Ecosystem Protection

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Last summer, the United States passed its most historic climate legislation to date – the Inflation Reduction Act – which includes both positive and negative trade-offs for the ocean and justice. And while long overdue environmental justice outcomes took center stage at the international climate negotiations conference, COP27, meaningful ocean-based actionwas limited.

On the environmental justice front, COP27 culminated with an agreement to establish a dedicated fund for “loss and damage,” which signifies that the governments of vulnerable countries will no longer have to bear the cost for harms – both economic and non-economic – that they increasingly face from climate-change related disasters (such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes).

Although loss and damage will help many coastal communities, the evolution of the COP27 decision text over the span of the two-week climate negotiations diluted ocean ambition. The text started with seven paragraphs specific to the ocean, which included financing for ocean-climate action, and encouraged multilateral development banks to do the same. But the final decision text merely structured future ocean-climate dialogues. The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan mentions oceans in two short paragraphs in Article 13, leaving ocean-climate action to national level goals such as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Under Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to submit and publish national plans every five years to show how they will meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.

The United States, still has an opportunity to bolster ocean action – and to do so in a manner that centers on justice for the communities that are most disproportionately affected by climate change and a decline in ocean health  – with the pending National Ocean Climate Action Plan, a precursor to guide the next U.S. NDC.

Creating Federal Policy to Promote Ocean Action

The current U.S. NDC aims to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent to below 2005 levels by 2030. It recognizes “the importance of natural climate solutions,” and “the role of the broader suite of ocean-based climate solutions” and contains a U.S. commitment to enhance carbon sinks and support coastal resilience projects while pursuing “blue carbon” initiatives to increase carbon sequestration in its waterways. If fulfilled, these commitments would protect blue carbon ecosystems, such as salt marshes, resulting in climate mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity benefits.

In parallel with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), finalizing the National Ocean Climate Action Plan, which the White House is developing over the next two years, and updating the NDC will demonstrate that the Biden administration is serious about taking steps to protect natural spaces for communities, the climate, and biodiversity. The National Ocean Climate Action Plan can and should focus on the disproportionate impacts on environmental justice communities and the role of nature as a climate solution.

Harnessing the Power of Blue Carbon

Measures to address blue carbon – carbon trapped in coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses – should rank among the immediate priorities as part of the new National Ocean Climate Action Plan. In that vein, climate justice must be at the forefront of any decisions involving coastal resiliency or nature-based solutions to climate change. These measures, discussed in detail below, must play a role across science, law, policy, and finance.

Blue carbon ecosystems sequester, or store, carbon at significantly higher rates than terrestrial forests, but they are also under serious threat globally, largely from avoidable human activity. Because these ecosystems sequester carbon so effectively, their destruction contributes that much more to climate change, as that sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere and natural climate adaptation solutions are lost. But if harnessed to their full potential, blue carbon ecosystems can demonstrate the power of the ocean and coastlines themselves as powerful agents in the ongoing fight against climate change, by safeguarding coastlines, communities, and biodiversity.

These ecosystems offer a potential triple benefit in the face of worsening climate change: first, they slow down storm surges near coastal communities; second, they sequester carbon at a high rate and mitigate the impact of human carbon emissions; and third, they provide critical habitats to conserve marine biodiversity. Beyond this triple benefit, the ecosystems cultivates a sustainable blue economy, which can support thriving fisheries and tourism, among other industries.

As a result, blue carbon is increasingly regarded as a climate, biodiversity, and community preparedness and response solution, and simply recognizing their value as carbon commodities would diminish the full potential these ecosystems can provide, if protected.

Supporting Biodiversity Commitments

The Ocean Climate Action Plan must align with biodiversity commitments. At the international level, minimizing climate action’s negative effects on biodiversity is included under Target Eight of the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. While the U.S. is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the international biodiversity commitments for oceans that stem from the Framework – including the “30×30 initiative” and minimizing ocean acidification’s impact on biodiversity – still apply to national issues. The 30×30 initiative aims to conserve 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030. Ocean acidification poses threats to the U.S. economy and indigenous communities, and climate impacts cannot be addressed without implementing biodiversity protections. President Biden has already committed to conserving 30×30 through the America the Beautiful initiative, but the administration should incorporate other international efforts, such as those addressing acidification and climate-biodiversity integration, to support coastal communities, blue economies, and more effectively address climate change.

To operationalize blue carbon measures with biodiversity in mind it is essential to: invest in scientific research and data collection, establish a law and policy framework enabling the adoption of blue carbon measures, and create robust, equitable financing mechanisms. The intersection of these three elements needs to center on climate justice. First, the scientific research performed should be designed collaboratively with local stakeholders using traditional ecological knowledge to best preserve ecosystem health. Second, this science should be used as a foundation for policymaking that supports blue carbon, with a special focus on avoiding mitigation-related climate injustices like “green gentrification,” displacement of local communities, or the diversion of essential resources. Finally, any financial support for blue carbon must advance climate justice.

There is a need for the distribution of coastal resilience funds from the Inflation Reduction Act. The administration should focus on nature-based adaptation solutions such as restoring wetlands and dune habitat, and protecting natural structures that mitigate the impacts of increased storms, rising seas, and flooding. These projects can provide demonstrable action and ocean-climate solutions for the public to observe in coastal communities, and would go a long way toward solidifying popular support for the IRA by providing financially stable jobs and tangible, visible benefits for taxpayers.

Restoring Damaged Wetlands

The United States should prioritize conserving and guarding existing wetlands to protect these valuable carbon sinks and prevent the release of their sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Many wetlands and blue carbon ecosystems have already been disrupted, but it is not too late and the United States can reverse some of the damage by prioritizing the restoration and expansion of damaged or destroyed wetlands. Establishing protective mechanisms aimed specifically at coastal wetlands restoration, in keeping with the America the Beautiful Initiative and international biodiversity goals, could have significant positive effects on sequestration over time.

Centering Climate Solutions Around Local Stakeholders

As with just scientific research, just policymaking and effective resiliency planning must involve local stakeholders.The growing recognition of environmental justice includes various subcategories such as climate justice and ocean justice. Beyond this emergence and gaining momentum within the United States, this year’s COP27 was the first COP to host a Climate Justice Pavilion. However, translating recognition to action that ensures actual justice requires directly addressing disproportionate impacts with policymaking.

Socially vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change. These communities often face the greatest hurdles in adapting to climate-related disasters. Both federal and state legislative reforms are increasingly integrating social vulnerability into decisions about where to allocate climate adaptation and clean energy funding. The Biden administration should work to develop waterfronts and coastlines that acknowledge the legacy of disproportionate impacts and make the intersection of land and sea truly accessible, resilient, and inclusive in both urban and rural areas. Such a policy should reinforce the Justice40 Initiative goal that “40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened,” by stating that adaptation preparedness funding is allocated accordingly.

Clear definitions, developed in partnership with underserved and coastal communities, will provide much-needed clarity and allow those communities to set expectations, create plans, and implement funding opportunities in an equitable and just manner. Though subject to much critique, California’s cap-and-trade program demonstrates the role of law and policy levers in promoting the equity and inclusion of underserved communities. It does so by defining the communities based on certain criteria (for instance, geographic, socioeconomic, public health, environmental hazard), and then requires that a portion of the funding derived from the cap-and-trade program go to projects in, or benefiting, the communities.

Any policy should also encourage comprehensive preparedness planning, rather than parcel-by-parcel planning. That type of forward-looking planning requires consideration of the socio-ecological services associated with nature-based solutions when determining how to increase access to waterfronts and coastlines, and will ensure resilience to impacts from climate change. Together, centering on local stakeholders, and prioritizing nature-based solutions in planning, will make for a National Ocean Climate Action Plan that can be put to good use for communities and the ocean, in a changing climate.

IMAGE: Seagrass is seen near the Strait of Messina off the coast of Scilla, Italy, on Aug. 26, 2022. (Photo by Alessandro Rota via Getty Images)

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