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Oceans and climate

Fishermen on the coast of Senegal

The world's oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the surface area of our planet. They play a key role in regulating the world's climate and they are essential for people's lives and livelihoods and, especially, for the development of poor countries.

The rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the resultant climate change are having an impact not only on the earth's land areas but also on its oceans and seas and adjacent coastal areas. Extreme weather events, such as storm tides, and the gradual changes that are taking place, such as rising sea levels and acidification of the oceans, are throwing coastal and maritime ecosystems off balance. If greenhouse gas emissions remain at their present high level, then it is estimated that, by 2050, fish populations living near the seabed are likely to shrink by twenty per cent, compared with 2010 levels.

The temperature of the oceans will continue to increase in the 21st century and beyond; it is predicted that the sharpest increase in sea surface temperature will occur in tropical and sub-tropical regions. The oceans' oxygen levels are declining, seas are becoming acidic as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and biological diversity – for example in the shape of coral reefs – as well as the oceans' productivity and fish stocks are declining.

As the oceans become warmer, thermal expansion occurs, causing a rise in sea levels. The melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps as a result of climate change further exacerbates this effect. Sea levels already rose by about 20 centimetres in the 20th century – and the rate at which they are rising is increasing every year. By the end of the 21st century, if the same high levels of greenhouse gases continue to be emitted, sea levels are expected to rise on average by more than 60 centimetres. The only way this can be combatted is if there is a massive reduction in emissions immediately.

Women harvesting seagrass

Marine and coastal ecosystems are important for climate protection

Intact ecosystems are vital for humankind, as they help to protect the earth's climate. For ecosystems to fulfil this function, we need to conserve biodiversity and use it in a strictly sustainable manner. For example, seagrass beds with a large genetic diversity are better able to withstand heat waves than beds with a more limited genetic diversity. Their genetic diversity gives them greater adaptive capacities to gradual changes, as for instance when water temperatures rise. Thus they are better able to maintain a functioning ecosystem.

In addition, seagrass beds sequester up to 83 million tonnes of carbon a year, since they cover around 600,000 square kilometres of the world's sea beds. This corresponds to the annual emissions of all cars driving on the roads of France and Italy. Thus, they serve as important carbon sinks. Coastal ecosystems like the mangrove forests in the tidal areas of tropical coastlines absorb and bind, per hectare, between three and five times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as inland forest ecosystems.

The oceans exercise an important function in regulating global temperatures. They absorb a sizeable proportion of the carbon dioxide emissions that human beings produce. Over the last 40 years they have absorbed 93 per cent of the additional heat produced by greenhouse gas emissions.

Coral reef

Adaptation to climate change

Besides playing an important role in mitigating climate change, oceans and coastal zones play an important role when it comes to adapting to the impacts of climate change. Mangrove forests, for example, help protect coastal zones from erosion and the consequences of extreme weather events, such as storm tides. Their role notwithstanding, worldwide almost half of all mangrove forests have been destroyed by humans since the middle of the 20th century. Natural corals are also under threat. Like mangrove forests, coral reefs provide effective, natural coastal protection and reduce sea erosion along coastlines by acting as natural breakwaters.

However, coral reefs are particularly sensitive to what is referred to as the "acidification" of the oceans. This "acidification" is caused by seawater taking up greater amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. As oceans become more acidic, the process of calcification through which corals' exoskeletons grow is slowed down and the reproduction of oceanic calcifying organisms is reduced. Already, we can observe the dying off of coral reefs. Currently, 67 per cent of the world's coral reefs are endangered. In fact, since 1870, 50 per cent of the world's corals have already been lost. Weakened coral reefs are less able to withstand extreme weather events such as storm surges. As a result, they are less able to protect coastal zones and the people living there from extreme weather events.

Worldwide, more than 600 million people live in low-lying coastal zones and are directly affected by these phenomena and their consequences. Sixty-two per cent of all megacities with more than eight million inhabitants are in coastal zones. Early warning systems are an effective way of reducing the harm that can be caused by extreme weather events. With the support of the scientific community, the BMZ is helping with the further development of such early warning systems in combination with coastal protection and urban development programmes. It is also helping to integrate flood control and disaster risk reduction into development planning.

Young fisherman in Senegal

International efforts to protect the oceans

The protection and the sustainable use of oceans and coastlines in times of climate change have received increased international attention in recent years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development dedicates one whole sustainability goal (SDG 14), called "Life below water", to marine conservation.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement also accords an important role to protecting the oceans. In the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, a particular focus has been placed on marine conservation, and 55 countries have described coastal zones and their ecosystems as particularly vulnerable hotspots. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which is part of the Convention on Biodiversity, provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of the biodiversity offered by marine and coastal environments. Its goals are to be revised or updated, as necessary, in 2020 during the Conference of the Parties to the Convention in Kunming, China.

However, further research needs to be done into how climate change is threatening the oceans and the implications for the future. The IPCC approved Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, published in September 2019, provides far-reaching data on the subject. Nevertheless, we cannot precisely say today what it will mean, for example, for the ecosystems concerned if certain species become extinct, and what would be the global impact of such changes. That is why we urgently need greater scientific collaboration at all levels in order to improve the quality of the information available, thereby making responses more effective.

This is where the BMZ initiative "MeerWissen – African-German Partners for Ocean Knowledge" comes in: the initiative supports partnership projects between African and German marine research institutions. The aim of the programme is to improve the information that countries can draw on to help them formulate policies for the protection and sustainable use of the oceans. Furthermore, there must be integrated approaches aimed at protecting the climate and maritime ecosystems, and at developing concepts for their sustainable use.

Wave in the Atlantic

German activities

Over two thirds of the partner countries where Germany is engaged in a range of development cooperation activities are island or coastal nations. Already, some ten per cent of the world's population lives in coastal zones which are only a few metres above sea level. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has drawn up a Ten-point Plan of Action, published in 2016, with the title "Marine Conservation and Sustainable Fisheries". The Plan sets out how the BMZ is stepping up its engagement in activities aimed at conserving marine and coastal habitats for future generations and using them in a sustainable way.

The priorities of the German activities are:

  • to establish marine conservation and coastal protection in order to preserve biological diversity and ecosystem services,
  • to make sustainable use of the oceans for food provision,
  • to reduce marine pollution, and
  • to support climate change adaptation efforts aimed at protecting people living in coastal regions.

At present, projects with a funding volume of around 335 million euros are contributing to the implementation of the 10-point plan.

Wave in the Atlantic

More marine and coastal protection areas

Compared with 2015, the BMZ intends by 2020 to massively increase the overall total of marine protected areas that it is helping to support. The BMZ will do this by supporting the designation of new protected areas, strengthening the administrations of the protected areas and improving their financial security through sustainable financing instruments.

An important aspect in all of this is ensuring the balance of interests between protection and use of protected areas. A further aim will be to safeguard the rights and needs of vulnerable groups such as women and girls, indigenous and local communities, and poor and especially vulnerable people.

The BMZ is helping to ensure effective protection through good management for at least ten per cent of marine areas worldwide by 2020. This is the goal that the international community has set for itself in both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the 2030 Agenda. Right now, only just under seven per cent of the world's marine areas are protected.

MeerWissen – African-German Partners for Ocean Knowledge

The sea and its resources are of great importance for African coastal states - for their food security as well as their economic development. However, there is increasing pressure on oceans and coasts, not least as a result of extreme weather events and the long-term consequences of climate change. And yet scientific information on which to base sound decisions on how to protect and manage the marine resources is not always available. In fact, some management decisions being taken today are based on 30-year-old data.

The BMZ initiative "MeerWissen" – the name plays on the German words for 'sea' ('Meer') and 'more' ('mehr'), which are homophones, as well the word for 'knowledge' ('Wissen') – supports partnership projects between African and German marine research institutions. The aim of the programme is to improve the information that countries can draw on to help them formulate policies for the protection and sustainable use of the oceans. Accordingly, the programme contributes to the global sustainability goal for the oceans and seas (SDG 14) and to the UN Decade for marine research for sustainable development, which starts in 2021.

MeerWissen is making a contribution by:

  • Strengthening the capacities of marine scientists and marine research institutes in Africa by supporting partnerships between them and counterpart establishments in Germany;
  • Supporting dialogue between marine scientists and policymakers on how to protect the seas around Africa, and their resources. This accelerates the transfer of scientific findings into political decision-making processes, thereby helping to ensure knowledge-based management;
  • Encouraging digital transformation and innovation through the use of the latest digital technology and media such as smartphone apps and/or on-line courses.
Logo of the BMZ initiative "MeerWissen – African-German Partners for Ocean Knowledge"
Fishermen in Grenada

Making sustainable use of the oceans, permanently ensuring food security

Worldwide, more than three billion people get an average of 20 per cent of the animal protein they need from fish. In many developing countries the percentage is considerably higher. However, 90 per cent of global fish stocks have already been overfished or exploited up to their limits. In addition, changing climatic conditions are having an effect on ocean currents and the natural habitats of numerous fish populations.

Damage to coastal ecosystems such as mangrove forests, coral reefs or seagrass beds not only affects coastal conservation but also reduces the breeding and spawning grounds for juvenile fish, for instance.

Besides its activities to protect and conserve the oceans and coastal ecosystems, the BMZ supports sustainable artisanal fisheries and aquaculture, alongside sustainable and socially responsible processing and marketing of fish. Furthermore, the BMZ is also engaged in measures to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Swarm of fish (goldband fusiliers) in Papua New Guinea
A farmer with mangrove seeds and seedlings

Save our Mangroves now!

Together with the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the BMZ has launched an initiative called "Save our Mangroves now!".

The initiative is about taking action to stop the progressive global loss of mangroves. It is working to raise awareness among political decision-makers at international and national levels for the importance of protecting mangrove forests, and to place the topic firmly on international agendas. The initiative thus supports the aim of the Global Mangrove Alliance (GMA), an international alliance of non-governmental organisations working to increase global mangrove cover by 20 per cent by the year 2030. The Alliance's work focuses on three fields of activity:

  • Raising awareness among politicians for the importance of mangrove protection and integrating the issue in international agreements;
  • Establishing international networks and promoting knowledge sharing;
  • Working to promote more effective mangrove protection in a pilot region in the western Indian Ocean (comprising Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar) by helping to disseminate "best practices", supporting local and regional actors and establishing networks between them, and integrating the protection of mangrove forests in national development plans and strategies.

The "Save our Mangroves now!" initiative has been instrumental in bringing about a mangrove partnership between the BMZ and Madagascar. With funding from the BMZ, a thousand hectares of mangrove forest have been successfully restored and around 20,000 hectares of mangroves are being sustainably managed.

Mangrove seedling in a mangrove tree nursery in Beira, Mozambique
  • Coastal villages in the Mekong delta are suffering more and more from flooding due to climate change, particularly, where the mangrove forests have disappeared.
    Viet Nam: cooperation in action

    Climate-resilient management

    The Mekong Delta is one of the regions that are most severely affected by climate change. Coastal erosion, salinisation, scarcity of freshwater and an increase in extreme weather events are threatening the livelihoods of more than 17 million people living in the Delta.

  • Mangrove forest in Bangladesh
    Bangladesh: Cooperation in action

    Supporting the management of the Sundarbans mangrove forests

    The Sundarbans are the world's largest mangrove forests, stretching across more than 10,000 square kilometres in India and Bangladesh. The 6,000 or so square miles of Sundarbans mangrove forests that can be found in Bangladesh are still relatively untouched.

Coastal villages in the Mekong delta are suffering more and more from flooding due to climate change, particularly, where the mangrove forests have disappeared.
Viet Nam: cooperation in action

Climate-resilient management: greater resilience to the impacts of climate change improves the sustainable development of the region

The Mekong Delta is one of the regions that are most severely affected by climate change. Coastal erosion, salinisation, scarcity of freshwater and an increase in extreme weather events are threatening the livelihoods of more than 17 million people living in the Delta – hence affecting almost one fifth of Viet Nam's population. The complex and sensitive ecosystem is being harmed by intensive land and water management methods, the construction of river levees as a means of flood control, and the building of ever more dams. The latter has been the case in particular along the upper course of the river – in China, Laos and Cambodia, for example.

The project specifically supports the use of innovative technologies that have been adapted to climate change. The focus lies on the management of land and water resources, since they need to be managed across provincial boundaries. The project also addresses the need for coastal conservation.

An example of the adapted use of innovative technologies is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs or "drones" as they are known – to track areas of erosion along coasts and canals and in mangrove forests. With data processing and the gathering of mass data by means of satellite making it possible to generate climate forecasts and monitor coasts and riverbanks, decisions on infrastructure investments become easier.

The project takes a comprehensive approach to coastal management and also covers the areas lying within the Mekong Delta. This integrated approach was taken from an earlier project in Viet Nam, the Integrated Coastal Management Programme. The current programme focuses on coastal areas and goes beyond province boundaries; it is currently being expanded to cover all thirteen Mekong Delta provinces. To that end, it seeks to involve all relevant state players, on the national as well as the provincial level. Together with the private sector and civil society, these state players are developing value chains and suitable technologies. The resulting solutions are to help make Viet Nam's coastal regions more resilient.

Mangrove forest in Bangladesh
Bangladesh: Cooperation in action

Supporting the management of the Sundarbans mangrove forests (SMP)

The Sundarbans are the world's largest mangrove forests, stretching across more than 10,000 square kilometres in India and Bangladesh. The 6,000 or so square miles of Sundarbans mangrove forests that can be found in Bangladesh are still relatively untouched. Because of its unique biodiversity, the area is listed as a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site and comes under the provisions of the Ramsar Convention (on Wetlands). Conservation of the Sundarbans is a question of survival for the Bangladeshi people living in this coastal region.

The mangroves act as a natural barrier against storms, the frequency of which has been increasing as a consequence of climate change. Although there are no permanent settlements in the Sundarbans, the rich fishing grounds of these mangrove forests provide a livelihood for more than 4.5 million people in Bangladesh.

However, the region is being harmed by the unsustainable use of natural resources, changes in land use and climate change. Since 2015, the SMP project has been working with the Bangladesh Forest Department in order to make the management of the Sundarbans Forest more inclusive and sustainable. For example, the project is improving the participation of women and men making a living from fishing, as well as structurally of disadvantaged groups (such as women), in local co-management structures, so that the views and needs of the local population are taken into account in any decision-making about the Sundarbans. And the introduction of environmental monitoring and digital forest patrols to prevent poaching allows conservation measures to be optimised both in terms of planning and execution.

Oceans and climate

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