The ocean can reduce carbon emissions by 11.8 gigatons by 2050, or 21% of the target set in the Paris Agreement – an important contribution to putting the planet on a 1.5°C trajectory of average temperature rise. To achieve this objective, investments are needed in five areas: renewable energy, maritime transport, marine and coastal ecosystems; fisheries, aquaculture and dietary changes; and carbon stock in the ocean floor.
The estimate is from a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), released on July 1, during the last day of the UN Ocean Conference, recently held in Lisbon Portugal from 27 June to 1 July.
Coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, marshes and seagrass can store ten times more carbon in the soil than terrestrial ecosystems. When healthy, these environments keep biodiversity in balance and ensure food security, tourism and the livelihoods for coastal communities, in addition to mitigating extreme weather events such as storms and sea surges.
Around 680 million people live in coastal zones, with a projected increase to 1 billion in 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The United Nations Global Compact estimates that marine fisheries are responsible for 57 million jobs. Fish, in turn, are the primary source of protein for more than half of the world's population.
Despite this importance, the UNESCO report pointed out that coastal ecosystems are among the most threatened on the planet, with a loss of up to 516,000 km² each year. They are affected, for example, by predatory resource extraction, urban and industrial development, pollution, agriculture and aquaculture. Unbalanced, they can release CO2 into the atmosphere and thus contribute to intensifying the climate crisis.
“Many of these high-intensity events form in the ocean and impact all countries and continents, so having a good scientific basis for understanding how they will evolve is important for landlocked countries, not just coastal ones,” said Julian Barbiere, head of the Section for UNESCO Marine Policy.
“We live in a world of unprecedented disaster risk. Over the past 20 years, the frequency and intensity of disasters have increased, and most of them are related to water,” said Mami Mizutori, Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Disordered development, climate change, environmental degradation and unsustainable use of resources represent the main drivers of these risks.
If this current trend continues until 2030, the estimate is that there will be 560 medium- and large-scale disasters per year on the planet, or three every two days.
“We know that these disasters disproportionately impact coastal areas and small island developing states,” Mizutori continued. “To achieve the 2030 Agenda, we need to integrate risk reduction at the heart of development, economic policies, legislation and plans, because nothing erodes sustainable development more than disasters.”
Mizutori highlighted two crucial points to fill gaps and meet Sustainable Development Goal 14, which aims to protect marine life. First, revisions to the Sendai Framework in 2023, which addresses risk reduction, and action on the International Decade for Action on Water. Another point is the initiative launched last March by the World Meteorological Organization: the implementation, in five years, of a global system of early warning and action, which combines meteorological and hydrological warnings.
“This system needs to be connected with early action in the field. This needs to go further, that is, it must reach the most vulnerable population and cover the entire world, because currently only 40% of developing countries are covered by such systems,” said Mizutori. “The resilience of coastal communities is closely linked to the health of marine and coastal ecosystems. And the momentum offered by this conference cannot be wasted.”
In Brazil, marine dependence is expressed along the almost 8.5 thousand kilometers of coast and islands bathed by the Atlantic, where 395 municipalities are located in 17 states. For 19% of the Brazilian population, healthy oceans are a matter of survival in the face of the climate crisis.
The plans and commitments for the Ocean Decade (2021-2030) were the subject of an event held on the first day of the UN Ocean Conference. Organized by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) of Brazil, the panel brought together representatives from Portuguese-speaking countries (Angola, Cape Verde and Portugal) to discuss each nation's plans and means of cooperation in research, as well as responses to the climate crisis.
“The Ocean Decade agenda has a clear synergy with the entire climate change discussion, because the ocean-climate relationship is direct and inseparable. Within the objectives, an expected result is to have a predictable ocean,” oceanographer Ronaldo Christofoletti, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo and co-chair of the Communication Advisory Group for the UNESCO Ocean Decade, told National Geographic .
For Christofoletti, Brazil has advanced in the integration of ocean-climate science, through institutions such as the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and groups that work with climate change. But the oceanographer considers it necessary to integrate the local and global levels into adaptation and mitigation planning. It is a fundamental step towards the beginning of the Ocean Decade, but has been lacking since the launch of the first instruments attempting to address the climate crisis in Brazil.
“Our levels of federal, state and municipal governance are often individual. When the municipal climate change plan for Santos and the national one were ready, they did not converse, because they were made separately. So, it had to go through a review process,” recalls the scientist.
Christofoletti participated in the creation of the Municipal Climate Change Plan for Santos – the first in the country. During the Oceans Conference, he announced that the city of São Paulo will host the international meeting 'Dialogues of Oceanic Culture', which will take place from October 10-15 in 2022 and will bring together academia, civil society, the public sector and the private sector.
Alexander Turra, professor at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo, perceives a “philosophical complexity” in the absence of oceans in the climate and biodiversity agendas.
“There is great synergy. In the ocean, there are many effects of climate change that are severe, catastrophic especially for the most vulnerable sections of the population,” added Turra, who coordinates the UNESCO Chair for Ocean Sustainability. He classifies these disproportionate impacts as “oceanic racism”, a derivation of the concept of “environmental racism”. The situation is worsening along the Brazilian coast, where a large part of the population lives in risk areas and already suffers the direct consequences of storm surges, rising sea levels and storms, among other impacts.
“On the other hand, the ocean is a good ally in the search for the transition to a low carbon economy, due to clean and renewable energy sources,” argues Turra. “This is part of the Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which has enormous potential. Brazil has all the instruments and paths in front of us, what it needs is to implement this movement, to overcome this difficulty of taking a bold stance and contributing to mitigate these changes. It is possible."
Climate mitigation and adaptation
The coastal zone is one of the 11 sectors covered by the National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change (PNA), under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. Established in 2016, the plan identifies regions that are vulnerable or exposed to effects such as temperature and precipitation variations and sea level rise – impacts already predicted and monitored, which are increasingly recurrent and intense along the Brazilian coast. This demands the monitoring of extreme events and climatic variables, with essential data and projections for municipal and state managers to provide an adequate response – a gap that still persists. Scientists insist that the PNA already needs to be updated.
In 2021, MCTI launched AdaptaBrasil, a platform created to collect data at the local level and generate useful indicators for managers in responding to climate change. With this, it seeks to parameterize the information produced by scientists from all over Brazil, but the difficulties range from funding, to the availability of open and quality data.
“The great drama of adaptation in Brazil is the scale of the data. A mayor has nothing to do with the information that, in ten years, in a space of 200 kilometers there is a chance of increasing precipitation by 50%, because he will not know in which neighborhood he will have to increase the rainwater drainage,”, says Karen Silverwood-Cope, General Coordinator of Oceans, Antarctica and Geosciences at MCTI. “For municipalities to implement changes in urban planning and zoning, they need data at scale, which is very expensive. Although we have launched the platform, we still don't have relevant scale.”
INPE is the leading Brazilian institution in climate modelling and scenario projections, adapting foreign models to the Brazilian reality, continues Cope. The intention is to develop a model of its own, at a scale of 5 kilometers. The Brazilian Earth System Model (BESM) is now available for Southeast Brazil. But data processing requires more financial resources than are available if it to be expanded to the entire national territory.
“In the case of modelling, we need to invest in supercomputers and research. With budget cuts in the last five years, the quality of our modeling was impeded from advancing. This is a serious thing”, assesses Cope. “The other solution is to have a knowledge production approach, with in situ analysis, that works with public data, open and shared science, that we can aggregate on platforms like AdaptaBrasil for the broad use of decision makers, who make public management. This is on the science side. Management, on the other hand, needs to be based on evidence, and not on the achometer with poorly trained servers in municipalities and states.”
Funded by MCTI, Pirata is one of the longest-running international cooperation projects in Brazil. For 25 years, data has been generated continuously, using buoys, which identify indicators such as ocean quality, current circulation and temperature. But the monitoring logistics, which must be on-site, are limited to a Navy ship. In other words, the program is vulnerable to time-consuming maintenance of the vessel and buoys. High investment is also intimidating. “A day on a ship costs R$ 200 thousand ($371,264$ So, embedded research is extremely expensive and this greatly limits the potential of a lot of research that we could have in Brazil,” observes Cope.
The level of climate awareness of municipal leaders in coastal areas is far below what is necessary, given the scenario of extremes already experienced, says Rodrigo Perpétuo, Executive Director for South America at ICLEI, a non-governmental organization that helps governments' implementation of sustainable policies. “The issue of rising sea levels is not populating the imagination and the sense of reality as it should in coastal cities,” says Perpétuo.
But Santos (São Paulo) and Recife (Pernambuco) stand out as two of the exceptions, based on two elements that are lacking in national coverage: the articulation between levels of government and the good use of international cooperation.
In 2015, the city of Santos created the Municipal Commission for Adaptation to Climate Change, formed by members and alternates from most secretariats, the mayor's office and the government secretariat, in addition to civil society. In 2016, it launched the Santos Municipal Climate Change Plan. The pioneering initiative in the country was the result of the Metrópole project, financed by the Belmont Forum, and brought together some of the country's leading scientists.
“This study analyzed the rise in sea level due to coastal flooding, in extreme events with a recurrence time of 100 years, and the development of the Adaptive Capacity Index within these municipalities”, points out Eduardo Hosokawa, Deputy Coordinator of the Section for Climate Change, linked to the Santos Municipal Environment Department.
In early 2022, the municipality launched the Climate Action Plan (PACs), an improvement on the previous document that was approved by the City Council in June. The instrument was built with support from the ProAdapta project, from the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).
While the 2017 plan indicated priorities, the PACs establishes short- (until 2025), medium- (2030) and long-term (2050) targets and indicators, divided into eight axes that address climate vulnerabilities and resilience efforts. Since 2018, it has been integrated into the master plan, with the function of guiding public policies on housing, infrastructure and mobility and involving all departments.
“We need to connect the health, development and mobility system to the environment and make the city free of greenhouse gases by 2050. The Environment Ministry needs to influence urban development and planning, in the offer of a new service, subdivision or development, and guarantee the preservation of protected areas”, says Marcos Libório, Secretary of the Environment of Santos.
Most of the population of Santos (over 430,000) lives in a 39 kilometer-squared radius on the island of São Vicente – an anthropic intervention that practically waterproofs the soil of the region and intensifies heat waves. On the hill, the most vulnerable population that occupies it is subject to landslides and mass movements. The northwest zone, located at sea level, faces recurrent flooding.
Ponta da Praia is at high risk for sea level rise. Combined with spring tide, heavy rains and gusts of wind, the result demonstrates the intensity of the climate emergency. In 2016, a strong surf ripped the pier and destroyed the Santos waterfront. Two years later, the municipality used a nature-based solution: Geobags, large sandbags arranged along the beach, in order to cushion the impact of storm surges on urban infrastructure.
“We have concentrated rain, which triggers mass movements and landslides. We don't have droughts, but an increase in dry periods”, says Hosokawa, from the Santos Environment Department. “Sea level rise is a very important issue, with an already observed impact of storm surges on urban infrastructure and saline intrusion events, which affect urban drainage and silt up the entire pipeline along a stretch of coast. And the gusts of wind – now we feel these incoming cold fronts much stronger, in a place that already has more exposure.”
Recife, in turn, started its climate policy with the support of a project financed by the European Commission, called Urban LEDS. This initiative focusing on the global south, ended in 2022 and trained eight Brazilian cities. Thus, the capital of Pernambuco developed its own instruments for climate management, an inventory of emissions and governance with commitments signed, for example, with the Global Compact of Mayors for Climate and Energy, and the association with ICLEI in 2015.
In 2019, Recife declared a climate emergency. In 2020, the municipality launched the Local Climate Action Plan, divided into mobility, resilience, sanitation and energy, with actions for 2030, 2045 and 2050. In addition, the municipality should complete the Sector Adaptation Plan in August. Funded by the Global Environment Facility, it will cover simulations and solutions to problems such as floods and droughts, as well as their social, environmental and economic impacts.
Mitigation and adaptation actions are important for Recife, where 81.8% of the population lives within 30 meters of the coastline. The topographic characteristics of the municipality already leave it in a situation of natural vulnerability, observes Carlos Ribeiro, Secretary of the Environment of Recife.
“We are 60% plains and 40% hills. Some normal high tides, without rain, already leave places on the plain in a situation of returning water from the manhole, from sewage. On the hill, you don't have to have a big episode for a landslide to occur,” continues the Secretary. “This topographical and physical fragility is aggravated by climate change, and that puts us in extreme vulnerability. Since 2016, there has been a higher incidence of disaster episodes.”
In late May and early June, there was an extreme event with storms and floods that left 128 dead and 61,000 homeless (9,000 homeless in the Recife metropolitan region). According to Ribeiro, the situation would be worse if it didn't have the climate action plan. “Public authorities are viewing this event as a result of climate change. Recife has adopted a policy to control these areas, for example, those in the hills, along the lines of resilience and the history of occurrences,” he says.
According to the secretary, the city government has implemented policies for controlling drainage, building staircases and retaining slopes on the hills. An alert system communicates the inhabitants of the most critical areas, with individual alerts on smartphones.
Housing programs relocate people living on stilts at the water's edge – from the sea or rivers – and are aligned with mangrove restoration projects. Other nature-based solutions involve filter gardens, for the treatment of effluents, and linear parks, to avoid the reoccupation of risk areas.
For a municipality to effectively implement the climate agenda, Ribeiro considers that the greatest challenges are the governance of public authorities and the environmental education of society. “Within our autonomy, what we do is take these programs to the municipal public network – from education, some routine works, maintenance and cleaning of the city, small sanitation and construction programs. For a broad policy, for example, housing and education, the municipality alone cannot. We need federal and state support, as well as international cooperation.”
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was originally published in Portuguese by National Geographic on July 2, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: City of Santos, coast of São Paulo / Credit: Caio Ribeiro Pereira via Unsplash.