The Environment

Integrating the Ocean Into Climate Action

June 8, 2022  • Ingrid Irigoyen &

Though the ocean covers more than two-thirds of our planet, produces half of the oxygen we breathe, and has sequestered over 40 percent of excess carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, its contributions to ameliorating the global climate crisis are regularly overlooked. The full text of the Paris Climate Accord includes the word “ocean” exactly once. 

Over the last few years and during our recent inaugural Aspen Ideas: Climate event in Miami Beach, the Aspen institute’s Energy and Environment Program (EEP) has worked to spotlight this discrepancy of policy action, and bring ocean issues more deeply into our conversations and work.  

The idea concept was central to the discussions we curated as part of the inaugural Aspen Ideas: Climate event in Miami Beach last month. Our sessions there bridged the land-sea divide and integrated ocean solutions throughout the event. We convened a panel on land and ocean forests featuring local and Indigenous solutions from Alaska native, Marina Anderson and Sea Dragon Foundation’s Pawan Patil, and Miccosukee artist and poet Rev. Houston Cypress brought his native perspective to our conversation about parks and protected areas centered on South Florida’s Everglades. 

We incorporated ocean messengers into discussions about food, agriculture, and sustainable finance. In plenary sessions, attendees heard Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Daniela Fernandez announce SOA’s acceleration of 222 ocean solutions, and a dynamic conversation between The Nature Conservancy’s CEO Jennifer Morris and chef and self-proclaimed “seafood evangelist” Barton Seaver reminded us of the power of food to motivate people to action.

We explored kelp and ocean alkalinity enhancement as carbon sequestration tools in a session on CO2 removal, and shone a spotlight on the role seaweeds can play in eliminating over 80% of methane emissions from cow burps when added to their feed. And we put the power of art, music, and design on display to produce compelling narratives of the ocean’s role in our planetary cycles via organizations like the Reefline Project, Coral Morphologic, and the work of architect Shohei Shigematsu.

We centered our shipping decarbonization work throughout the event as well. We started the week at PortMiami with a panel on partnerships to establish shore power for cruise ships calling Miami, “the cruise capital of the world.” Panelists talked about zero-emission “well to wake” solutions, meaning the entire supply chain, from fuel production to fuel use on a ship is decarbonized, and were pleased to hear strong recognition of the sector’s need to transition away from fossil fuels. We convened a panel on innovative partnerships across the maritime supply chain, showcasing leadership from major shipping customer Amazon, container carrier Maersk, and ocean renewable energy developer Ørsted, companies embarking on a series of collaborative approaches to deploy and scale zero-emission shipping fuels and technologies produced with renewable energy into the shipping marketplace. In plenary, President and CEO of ClimateWorks Foundation Helen Mountford spoke eloquently about the surge of optimism and support for shipping decarbonization that she is seeing from her leadership viewpoint. Helen and all of us at the Institute know that we can speed up the transition and get this sector aligned with the Paris Agreement. 

To help with this integral transition, Aspen SDI’s Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV) initiative brings together major customers of the shipping industry to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission shipping fuels and technologies and the establishment of green shipping corridors through pressure, procurement, and policy. Since releasing the coZEV 2040 Ambition Statement in October 2021, the effort is already bearing fruit and changing the conversation in the shipping sector around decarbonization. Specifically, the first two quarters of 2022 saw large container shipping companies such as A.P. Moller – Maersk , Ocean Network Express (ONE), and CMA CGM announce that they are investing in new vessels that will be “zero-ready” or capable of using fuels that emit negligible greenhouse gas emissions. These carriers can take this critical leap forward knowing that their customers are organizing to get behind this transition and are prepared to do their part to see adoption of new, zero-emission fuels.  

We have also seen a number of important green corridor announcements in that timeframe, including a partnership between Shanghai and Los Angeles and a new intra-Asia effort called the Silk Alliance. These partnerships are organizing actors across the shipping value chain in specific geographic locations with sufficient focus to cut through the sector’s complexity and big enough to get the transition moving at scale and generate spillover effects globally.

In addition to working to eliminate greenhouse gasses emitted through ocean activities, we are also exploring the ocean’s capacity to safely remove and store in its depths even more of our excess carbon from our atmosphere. In 2021, we convened a transdisciplinary group of experts on ocean-based carbon dioxide removal practices to determine what role the ocean can play in this arena to contribute to the capture and storage of CO2 from the atmosphere using the ocean’s natural processes. The resulting “Guidance for Ocean-Based Carbon Dioxide Removal Projects” report outlined the complications inherent in balancing the urgent need for carbon drawdown with the imperative to prevent additional damage to the ocean’s already stressed and poorly understood ecosystems. 

And we are exploring future work to continue this effort in partnership with other programs within the Aspen Institute and external organizations alike. We’re taking on issues such as growing the sustainable Blue Economy, decarbonizing additional ocean industries, and combating the scourge of ocean plastics pollution. And across these initiatives, we are exploring ways to ensure the benefits of a clean ocean energy transition are distributed equitably to allow nations and communities most in need of economic development to benefit from the growth of new industries and investment in the clean up of traditional ones.

While we all recognize the severity of the climate crisis, Aspen Ideas: Climate was an event dedicated to identifying solutions and forging the partnerships that will turn those solutions into action. The ocean, after all, is the source of all life on the planet and a font of inspiration for what the future can hold. Now, during World Ocean Month and in the run up to the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal later this month, our team will continue our commitment to integrating the ocean into every aspect of our work.

Contributors: Taylor Goelz, Beatrijs Kuijpers, Maria Ortiz Perez, Catherine Pollack, Dana Rodriguez, Clarke Williams