Climate and Policy Context

Global Climate Change and Global Policies


Since publication of the OSPAR QSR 2010, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2015) has published its 5th assessment report, synthesising the current state of understanding on climate change impacts and adaptation. The report concludes “the science now shows with 95 percent certainty that human activity is the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century". The report confirms that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal, with many of the observed changes unprecedented over decades to millennia: warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, diminishing snow and ice, rising sea levels and increas­ing concentrations of greenhouse gases”. The report found that it is likely that the 30-year period between 1983 and 2012 in the Northern Hemisphere was the warmest in the last 1400 years. It goes on to state that “the more human activities disrupt the climate, the greater the risks of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems, and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system” and that “Due to projected climate change by the mid-21st century and beyond, global marine species redistribution and marine biodiversity reduction in sensitive regions will challenge the sustained provision of fisheries productivity and other ecosystem services”.


Based on annual average land and sea global temperature records extending back to 1880, all 16 years of the 21st century to date feature in the top 15 warmest years (this includes a tie for 16th, the only other year which features being 1998). 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 were the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th warmest years of the entire record, with both 2015 and 2016 being 0.9°C above the 20th-century average. The annual average temperatures in 2015 were mainly due to record temperatures in the ocean, which were influenced by the development of a strong El Niño. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is a mode of climate variability that acts within the Pacific but has impacts globally through connections or correlations with meteorological or other far-distant environmental phenomena. ENSO events are irregular but tend to work on a two to five year timescale, causing interannual climate variations across the world, and in its positive phase effecting a rise in global mean temperature.

Beyond 2016

Projecting climate change for a range of CO2 emission scenarios to 2100, the IPCC reported that global mean surface temperature change by 2081–2100 is likely to be 0.3–1.7°C under their lowest emission scenario for CO2 and would reach 2.6–4.8°C under the highest emissions scenario (compared to the 1961-1990 average). The IPCC projected that the Arctic region will continue to warm more rapidly than the global average.

In recent years, studies have begun to demonstrate the potential for skilful climate predictions or forecasts over seasons to decades, which include short-term natural variability alongside the effects of long-term climate change. In January, the United Kingdom Met Office publishes a forecast of global temperature for the subsequent five years. In 2016, the forecast was that the five-year period 2016–2020 could be expected to experience global average temperature 0.28–0.77°C above the 1981–2010 average (90% confidence range). Within this global average they highlighted the potential for regional variation, indicating that the sub-polar gyre region of the North Atlantic (part of the Wider Atlantic and Arctic Waters regions) may be relatively cool during the coming five years.


Climate Change Mitigation

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acts as the global instrument for agreement on binding treaties to limit greenhouse gas emissions and setting targets for the overall level of global warming. The Paris Agreement, adopted at the 21st United Nations Conference of the Parties on 12 December 2015, aims to “keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. In limiting CO2 emissions and hence the resulting temperature rises, the Paris Agreement also has the potential to lessen the degree of ocean acidification (Bopp et al., 2013; Williamson et al., 2017).


Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and associated targets, with SDG 14 focused on the oceans. The aim of SDG 14 is to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. Of its seven targets, Target 14.3 is to “Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels”. OSPAR’s Contracting Parties have committed to implement the 2030 Agenda and its associated SDGs.


Climate and OSPAR

OSPAR's North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy 2020 states that the “first effects of climate change and ocean acidification are apparent throughout the OSPAR Maritime Area and that pressures on the marine environment from climate change and ocean acidification are set to grow”. In accordance with this strategy OSPAR will monitor and assess the nature, rate and extent of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on the marine environment and consider appropriate ways of responding to those developments.

The QSR 2010 noted the key vulnerability of the Arctic region and its marine ecosystems to climate change and ocean acidification. The focus that OSPAR places on protection of Arctic waters has resonance beyond the region itself, AMAP (2017) reports that the Arctic “also plays an important role in global climate and weather, sea level rise, and world commerce, which means that impacts in the Arctic resonate far south of the Arctic Circle”.


Climate and the European Union Marine Strategy Framework Directive

The European Union Marine Strategy Framework Directive was drafted in the knowledge that marine ecosystems are dynamic. The Directive requires climate and environmental variability be considered.  The preamble to the Directive text states that “In view of the dynamic nature of marine ecosystems and their natural variability, and given that the pressures and impacts on them may vary with the evolvement of different patterns of human activity and the impact of climate change, it is essential to recognise that the determination of good environmental status may have to be adapted over time”. Thus the Directive includes requirements to identify causes of change within monitoring programmes; assess major changes in environmental conditions; and to include natural variability and climatic conditions in assessments of characteristics, pressures and impacts. Monitoring and understanding wider changes in the ecosystem can help interpret data that is focused on assessment of Good Environmental Status. For more information on the cross-cutting issues associated with climate change and climate variability please see the Cross cutting Issues section on Climate Change and MSFD.