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Climate and the Oceans: NDC synthesis report suggests greater work to be done to mainstream marine issues into climate adaptation

Mitchell Lennan

PhD Researcher in International Law of the Sea – University of Strathclyde and One Ocean Hub, University of Strathclyde, UK

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This blog post will focus on the extent to which the ocean and marine ecosystems have been mentioned in the NDCs in an adaptation context.

COP 26 is due to take place in November in Glasgow. Photo: Peppy Sparrow

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) is due to take place in November 2021 at the Scottish Events Campus on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland. This follows the postponement of the COP from 2020 to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In advance of COP 26, Parties to the Paris Agreement are required to prepare, communicate and maintain successive Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), a set of national targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as steps taken to address climate impacts. Collectively, it is hoped these NDCs will help achieve the Paris Agreement’s target of no more than a 2°C increase in global average temperature. All Parties were requested to submit updated NDCs during 2020. This blog post will focus on the extent to which the ocean and marine ecosystems have been mentioned in the NDCs in an adaptation context.


To assess the Parties’ progress and increased ambition of their NDCs, an initial synthesis report of 48 new or updated NDCs communicated by 75 Parties to the Paris Agreement has been published by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat on 26 February 2021. A full version of the synthesis report will be published shortly before COP 26.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development has summarised the synthesis report in an earlier blog post, which can be read here. This highlights that the total greenhouse gas emission reductions in the NDCs “fall short of what is required”, contain sector-specific mitigation measures with quantitative targets, and have an increased focus on adaptation.

Considering the importance of the ocean for regulating our global climate as the planet’s greatest carbon sink, for example, a recent study suggested that seabed disturbance by trawling could release as much carbon as the aviation industry. The importance of the ocean in climate adaptation has been less explored. This blog post will explore the finding of the synthesis report that there was an increased focus on climate adaptation by Parties.  Including the extent to which the ocean and marine ecosystems have been mentioned in the report in an adaptation context.


In addition to rapid emission reductions, adaptation to climate change must be pursued by governments and international organisations to improve our capacity to cope with actual and potential climate impacts. This involves responding to climate change by assessing impacts, vulnerability and risk, designing, planning and implementing adaptation measures and monitoring and evaluating of adaptation to improve adaptive capacity. In comparison to climate mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas output), adaptation is significantly more challenging to identify, track and quantify.

Over time, the international climate legal framework under the UNFCCC has developed arrangements for Parties to facilitate adaptation. Including national adaptation plans, and institutions including the Least Developed Countries Expert Group. More recently in 2015 Article 7 of the Paris Agreement established a long-term, globally explicit adaptation goal. This goal has helped broaden the framing around adaptation, shifting it away from being viewed as a purely least developed country issue, to a challenge the international community has an interest in tackling. Countries can submit an adaptation component as part of their NDC, and arguably, any issue mentioned in the Preamble to the Paris Agreement can encompass a climate adaptation dimension, including important issues such as oceans and human rights.

Compared to earlier NDCs, adaptation generally plays a greater role, with Parties focusing on adaptation planning through the development of national adaptation plans. According to the synthesis report, there were several promising developments, including time-bound quantitative targets for adaptation, indicator frameworks, as well as linking adaptation efforts with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 14 on ocean ecosystems. Adapting coastal ecosystems were included by some Parties as an adaptation action which has several co-benefits in mitigation. Particularly planting, conserving and restoring mangroves and seagrass beds. These act as a carbon sink, provide coastal protection, and habitat for juvenile fish species which promotes food security. Parties identified climate changes requiring adaptation to include temperature increases and sea-level rise, as well as climate impacts such as ocean acidification and coral bleaching. Vulnerabilities by some Parties were mentioned, including their reliance on climate-sensitive sectors such as fishing, having complex and vulnerable ecosystems, and status as a small-island developing State.

Food security was understandably an important component of the NDCs of several Parties. The synthesis report indicates that Parties’ NDCs prioritised “measures for adapting food production systems and ensuring food security” (para. 147) and included adaptation efforts in fisheries. Measures for enhancing the adaptive capacity and sustainability of fisheries systems “involve diversification, habitat protection and financial instruments.” Additionally, health was identified as a climate adaptation priority which links to research by Hub PhD Researcher Graham Hamley on state obligations towards marine biodiversity under the right to health.

On top of that, some Parties adaptation components “outlined efforts to adapt ocean ecosystems to promote sustainable development while safeguarding oceans” (para. 150). Measures included investing in the ocean and the “blue economy” as well as protecting marine and coastal ecosystems (with a focus on mangroves and coral reefs). Contingency measures in the form of financial instruments “such as insurance against extreme events, and establishing a minimum income for fishers” (para. 157) were included by some Parties. That said, only 33% of adaptation components referred to the ocean, and only 39% referred to fisheries as a specific adaptation priority area or sector. This indicates there is still greater work to be done to mainstream marine issues into climate adaptation.


The developments in the NDC synthesis report are promising, and some Parties are acutely aware of the importance of the ocean and marine ecosystems in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Others have not yet put ocean or fisheries issues as a priority. However, considering the focus of the climate regime on national-level action, how do UNFCCC Parties start incorporating their climate obligations into activities far from shore beyond national jurisdiction? Thinking specifically of high seas fisheries management through regional fisheries bodies, there is a wealth of evidence that fish stocks are moving in response to changing oceanic conditions (i.e. warming and acidification) from their historical locations. This causes jurisdictional issues and complications for the management and conservation of fish stocks as they move across traditionally static boundaries. It is evident international fisheries management needs to “adapt” to this problem. Where and how does climate adaptation (understood to have a national focus) fit into international fisheries management? Research on the ocean/climate nexus has primarily focused on mitigation, but there is an apparent need for focus on climate adaptation vis-à-vis thelaw of the sea. Strengthening regional cooperation on climate adaptation is requested of Paris Agreement Parties by way of Article 7(7). Does this apply to States’ participation in regional fisheries bodies? Should it? Evidence has shown that regional fisheries bodies pay significant attention to climate COP Decisions, though conservation and management measures comprising of adaptive action are lagging.

Mitchell’s PhD research thus looks at the extent to which the international legal framework obliges climate-adaptive fisheries management on the high seas. You can follow Mitchell on Twitter and LinkedIn.


Provided no further delay is incurred because of the pandemic, the COP 26 negotiations in November will address multiple issues, some of which have carried over from COP 25 in Madrid. These include funding for loss and damage, timeframes for Parties’ NDCs, and importantly “nature-based solutions” and how these can be integrated into the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It will be very interesting to see if any of the ocean/climate developments at COP 26 in Glasgow involve consideration of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction.

In addition to the negotiations, the One Ocean Hub, along with the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance (SCELG), is planning several substantive contributions to the important discussions on the intersections of climate change, oceans and human rights events around COP 26 in Glasgow to be announced soon. Mitchell and other Hub researchers will also participate in an ocean and climate governance panel discussion for the Climate Law and Governance Day conference organised by the University of Cambridge on 5 November.

Mitchell Lennan is a PhD Researcher in International Law of the Sea – University of Strathclyde