Time For Action

With the world now perilously close to a climate change tipping point, the COP27 summit in Egypt has a much needed sense of urgency — not least amongst those pushing for greater efforts in the shipping sector and improved support for oceanology

With the world now perilously close to a climate change tipping point, the COP27 summit in Egypt has a much needed sense of urgency — not least amongst those pushing for greater efforts in the shipping sector and improved support for oceanology.  

When COP26 concluded in Glasgow last November, hopes were high that a series of concerted efforts were finally being made by world leaders to tackle climate change.  

However, a year on, and those expectations have been washed away by deep, widespread and authoritative criticism of the lack of action that has been put in place since then. 

The United Nations itself has been propelled to publish a report that states, sternly and categorically, that while net-zero transformations are currently underway in many industrial sectors, a great deal more work has to start happening — now and at a much faster pace.  

Pressure is therefore building for COP27— which gathers in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt this month — to succeed in establishing a clear, bold and unequivocal action plan.  

“We’ve seen a lot of commitments, pledges and positions, which is really great, but we now need to turn that into actions and solutions, and have a true shift into delivery,” argues Katharine Palmer, shipping lead for the UN High level Climate Champions team and former co-chair of the IMarEST Technical Leadership Board, in last month’s The Lloyd’s List Podcast. 

“COP27 needs to be about progress and implementation — and that’s what the shipping sector has to show when we get there,” she adds. “We’ve got to be showing progress.”  

It’s a view shared emphatically by Simon Stiell, executive secretary of UN Climate Change. 

“COP27 is the moment where we can regain momentum on climate change, make the pivot from negotiations to implementation and get moving on the massive transformation that must take place throughout all sectors to address the climate emergency,” he says. 

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(Credit: Shutterstock) 

Ocean views 

To discuss and agree on a climate solution pathway, COP27 brings together leading politicians, industrialists and scientists from all around the world— including Professor Ed Hill CBE, chief executive of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, a research organisation that has secured accreditation to the COP process as a non-governmental observer. 

“Quite a number of ambitions were set out at COP26 and there has been a lot of commentary on whether it has really materialised or not, with some observers, depressingly, concluding that very little progress has actually been made,” he explains. 

“In the fight against climate change, the ocean is our biggest friend — but there continues to be a general lack of recognition of how the ocean can help in mitigating it. 

“We believe that the ocean absorbs around 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The estimates range from an absorption rate of two billion tonnes a year, based on observations, to three billion tonnes a year, based on models of the ocean. It’s a big difference, which is still not yet reconciled, so we need to improve our observations of surface carbon in the ocean dramatically in order to nail down what it really is. 

“And that matters because there are now some indications that the ocean may be becoming less efficient in its ability to absorb carbon dioxide. We can’t therefore bank on it being able to continue absorbing carbon dioxide at its current rate — and we need to get a handle on that data quickly because it sets the context for all emissions reductions calculations. 

“There are even concerns that in some places the ocean may have stopped being a net sink of carbon and is now a net source of carbon. The ocean itself could be starting to turn against us in the battle against climate change.”

1. Ed Hill

Professor Ed Hill CBE, chief executive of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (Credit: NOC)

Sustainable funding  

Hill is urging for greater cooperation between shipping and science at COP27.  

“Together we’re trying to build a much more integrated global ocean carbon observing system,” he says. “Some of this is being done by scientific observations via instrumentations aboard autonomous platforms, and some of it is being done by commercial ships equipped with instrumentation to measure surface CO2, which is a vital contribution to the database.  

“Unfortunately, the global ocean observing system — which covers temperature changes and sea level rises — is not very resilient in terms of funding. It’s supported by a series of short-term research projects which have no guarantee of being sustained. Some research measurements are made by national meteorological services and those are much more sustainable, but many of the really important measurements — including those for carbon uptake and other biogeochemical properties of the ocean which are vital in the story — are only maintained by short-term funding. So, it’s a major priority to get that onto a much more sustainable footing. And to recognise that an important global climate observing infrastructure needs to be supported in the long term rather than just a series of short-term projects that are maintained by active groups of enthusiastic scientists — which is, of course, marvellous, but it must all now be done on a much more sustainable basis. 

Bearing the load 

“The shipping industry has very expensive vessel platforms and we’ve found that there is a strong appetite and willingness within the sector to make them available for scientific measurements — as long as they don’t, of course, disrupt the main business of the ship. 

“The cost of procuring the instruments and managing the data is quite small in relation to the capital and operating costs of large vessels, but there is a question mark over who bears the funding. Shipping companies argue that because they are providing the platforms, the scientific community should be suppling everything else. But, unfortunately, in relation to the very insecure budgets of individual research organisations, those costs are relatively large. So, for the want of that small marginal funding, it actually becomes quite difficult to do. It’s an important barrier that we must break through in Sharm el-Sheikh.” 

Catch-up on Dennis O’Neill’s ‘Going nuclear’ article published in the IMarEST Marine Professional online in November 2021.  

Read the UN briefing document on long-term low-emission development strategies prepared for COP27. 

Learn how the IMarEST engages with the United Nations and other international fora and how to get involved and make your contribution by joining the IMarEST Special Interest Groups.


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.