The Climate Change Thematic Assessment summarises the information on climate change and ocean acidification in the OSPAR Maritime Area. The ocean is critical in regulating the Earth’s climate: it has absorbed 89% of the excess heat trapped inside the atmosphere since the 1970s, and every year absorbs at least a quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by human activities.
Their ability to absorb heat and CO2 means that marine ecosystems, and the human activities within them, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea level and temperatures, reduced pH values, changes in rainfall amounts and reduced sea ice coverage, among others, are all effects of the rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. These pressures have resulted in documented changes to marine ecosystems, for example in the distribution of species and the timing of key life stage events. Local and regional impacts can vary, and some regions are experiencing changes at a much faster rate (for example, in the Arctic Waters (Region I)). Climate extremes, such as marine heatwaves, storms and waves are also becoming more prevalent.
Increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the related impacts on the marine environment are influenced by almost all socio-economic drivers and by a wide-ranging number of associated human activities, both on land and at sea.
Human activities in the marine environment and marine ecosystems will need to adapt to both the observed and anticipated changes. In addition, the coastal and marine environment offer opportunities for reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, (e.g. through the production of offshore wind and wave energy), for protecting and restoring natural greenhouse gas sinks (such as blue carbon and sedimentary carbon) and for establishing anthropogenic carbon storage, often referred to as carbon capture and storage (CCS). These opportunities need to be fully explored and maximised to support climate action.
Q1. Identify the problems? Are they the same in all OSPAR regions?
Since the industrial revolution, greenhouse gases emitted by human activities have caused the Earth’s climate (the long-term average prevailing conditions) to change. These greenhouse gases have originated from the combustion of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and gas) and from changes in agriculture, forestry and other land use. Greenhouse gases are effective at trapping the heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, like layers of blankets to keep your body warm on a cold night. This additional energy in the Earth system has led to global warming, with impacts for terrestrial environments and the ocean. The majority of this heat has been absorbed by the ocean, highlighting the importance of the ocean in regulating the Earth’s climate.
In the ocean, climate change has led to warming, decreased oxygen concentrations, marine heatwaves and sea-level rise, with many further related impacts across marine ecosystems and the services they provide. Moreover, the excess CO2 released into the atmosphere by human activities is being drawn down into the ocean, leading to acidification (see: Climate Change and Ocean Acidifcation - An Explainer.pdf ). Climate change is also triggering widespread change in the water cycle by changing the prevailing atmospheric conditions and causing changes to other parameters such as stratification and ocean circulation. Climate extremes, such as storms and waves are becoming more prevalent.
These changes in the physical and chemical conditions of the marine environment are affecting marine habitats and ecosystems across the OSPAR Maritime Area, although there are regional and local variations in these pressures. The root cause is global, but the effects, such as storms and floods or changes in rainfall, are felt at more local scales. There are also regional variations in the rate of change, for example the higher rates of sea temperature warming in Arctic Waters.
These localised effects can trigger changes in other regions. Some studies have suggested that losses of Arctic sea-ice may affect the position and strength of strong winds such as the polar vortex and the jet stream, which may then cause extreme weather at mid-latitudes.
Not all pressures are changing at the same rate across the OSPAR Maritime Area, and some regions are experiencing changes at a much faster rate (Arctic Waters). Changes in sea-level rise and in the frequency and intensity of the strongest storms may impact lower lying areas in OSPAR countries more significantly. The eventual climate risk, a combination of vulnerability and exposure, emerges on a much more local scale, requiring a national response.
Because of the connectivity between land and sea, land-based impacts may also lead to pressures on the coastal and marine environment, for example from intense rainfall events.
Q2. What has been done?
The topics of marine climate change and ocean acidification (OA) have increasingly gained prominence within OSPAR’s work. At the same time, the interconnection between ocean and climate has also received greater recognition on the global policy scene, for example at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) in Madrid in 2019, and more recently in the COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact, in which the parties agree to integrate and strengthen ocean action across the UNFCCC and to establish an annual ocean dialogue, providing an opportunity to permanently embed the ocean into climate change responses.
The OSPAR Convention already provides some measures intended to help Contracting Parties reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (mitigation), live with the consequences of climate change (adaptation), or increase the resilience of their natural and socio-economic systems to climate change impacts. These include OSPAR Decisions 2007/1 and 2007/2, both relating to the storage of CO2 streams. The OSPAR network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) may also be regarded as supporting increased ecosystem resilience. However, OSPAR still needs to adopt further specific measures in order to tackle climate change and ocean acidification.
The Quality Status Report 2010 identified climate change impacts as an increasing pressure on marine ecosystems. It also found that the pressures from human activities would alter as societies mitigated against and adapted to climate change. The assessment recommended that OSPAR Contracting Parties should cooperate in reducing existing pressures, managing sea-based renewable energy and carbon capture and storage developments, and, inter alia, in monitoring and assessing ocean acidification and climate change.
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 the protection of Arctic waters has resonance beyond the region itself. For example, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) reported in 2017 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”.
This assessment informed OSPAR’s commitments on climate change and ocean acidification under the North-East Atlantic Environmental Strategy for 2020 (NEAES 2020). These included the monitoring and assessment of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, incorporating the impacts of, and responses to, climate change and ocean acidification in integrated management, and improving knowledge on the interactions between climate change and eutrophication.
OSPAR’s Intermediate Assessment 2017 (IA 2017) made further progress on assessing marine climate and climate change (including ocean acidification) in the OSPAR Maritime Area, while recognising that more progress needed to be made. The IA 2017 also recommended placing prevailing ocean conditions within the cumulative effects framework (which has been further advanced by the application of the DAPSIR framework in QSR 2023).
Ocean acidification received little consideration under QSR 2010 but has gained increasing prominence since then. OA monitoring became a voluntary parameter reported under OSPAR’s Coordinated Environmental Monitoring Programme (CEMP) following the work done by the Joint Study Group on Ocean Acidification (SGOA, 2012-2014) and the report it delivered (ICES, 2014). Subsequently, an intersessional correspondence group (ICG) on OA was established and first met in 2019. This group was tasked with the delivery of an ocean acidification assessment for QSR 2023.
As set out in NEAES 2020, OSPAR has focused on managing many of the human pressures that affect the marine environment, although there has been increasing recognition of the importance of climate change and ocean acidification in understanding changes in marine biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. In accordance with this strategy, OSPAR has committed to monitor and assess the nature, rate and extent of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on the marine environment and to consider appropriate ways to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. Strengthening the OSPAR network of MPAs was also emphasised as part of the strategic direction under NEAES 2020. However, more work will be needed before the resulting increase in the resilience of the marine ecosystem to climate change can be quantified.
Q3. Did it work? Developments since QSR2010 and NEAES 2020
OSPAR has recognised the need to emphasise climate change and ocean acidification more strongly in its work. Although these topics gained prominence in NEAES 2020, the evaluation of this strategy (OSPAR, 2021) reveals that progress on climate change and ocean acidification has been limited. A regional, coordinated monitoring and assessment programme for climate change and ocean acidification has not been achieved to the same degree as for the marine biodiversity and ecosystem function. Good progress has been made towards the monitoring and assessment of ocean acidification, through the establishment of the ICG-OA in 2018 and the group’s subsequent work.
Climate change signals are apparent in several of the assessments completed in the framework of the QSR 2023, but a more developed understanding of the fundamental links between ecosystem responses, climate and other anthropogenic drivers is required.
The NEAES 2020 had ambitions to monitor and assess the current and future impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on species, habitats and ecosystem functioning, determine the timescale(s) for such impacts to take effect and their possible extent, and to consider management options suitable for mitigating and adapting to such impacts. While this has not been achieved, OSPAR’s North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy (NEAES) 2030 has confirmed the continued intention to support progress towards these goals in the forthcoming assessment cycle, with three of its 12 strategic objectives focused specifically on climate change and ocean acidification.
Q4. How does this field affect the overall quality status?
It is clear that changes in the prevailing physico-chemical conditions of the marine environment in the OSPAR Maritime Area have been caused by climate change and ocean acidification. Thematic assessments produced for QSR 2023 indicate that climate change and ocean acidification are already having an effect on the marine ecosystem and all human activities in the OSPAR Maritime Area. However, there remains the difficulty of quantifying these impacts and fully integrating them in order to determine the resulting change in overall quality status. This mainly stems from the difficulty in distinguishing with confidence the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification from the impacts of other processes that are either primary or managed drivers. Such strong causal links and identified mechanisms are currently lacking, but future developments may bring improvement in directly attributing changes in the quality status of marine ecosystem and human activities to climate change. To address this, OSPAR should further explore how indicators change in response to changes in the climate pressures identified in this thematic assessment.
Q5. What do we do next?
Addressing climate change will require action at all levels of society. This action needs to focus on three aspects: (i) preparing for and adapting to the hazards exacerbated by climate change, (ii) building up resilience across the system by managing pressures, and (iii) reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing their uptake and storage. Although many of the levers for achieving this lie outside of the OSPAR mandate, we will contribute to international progress towards a climate-ready and low-carbon society, under the North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy (NEAES) 2030. As part of this work, OSPAR should proactively adopt specific measures to address climate change and ocean acidification.
Resilience to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification is one of the four themes encompassed by NEAES 2030. This theme has three strategic objectives:
- OSPAR will raise awareness of climate change and ocean acidification by monitoring, analysing and communicating their effects (Strategic Objective 10);
- OSPAR will facilitate adaptation to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification by considering additional pressures when developing programmes, actions and measures (Strategic Objective 11); and
- OSPAR will mitigate climate change and ocean acidification by contributing to global efforts, including by safeguarding the marine environment’s role as a natural carbon store (Strategic Objective 12).
The Climate Change Expert Group, established to deliver the Climate Change thematic assessment for QSR 2023, will propose that OSPAR consider establishing a permanent working group on climate change to address these objectives. This group’s work would include regular assessments of current and projected impacts and support the work of other Committees in integrating climate change into their assessments and policy work. To progress the work of attributing changes in the overall quality status of marine ecosystem and human activities to climate change, OSPAR should explore further how indicators reflect changes in climate pressures. In future assessments, OSPAR might also consider the assessment of physico-chemical pressures within a more formal framework; these could then be included in the Joint Assessment & Monitoring Programme (JAMP).
The work programme on climate change and ocean acidification would also inform the future implementation of nature-based solutions for different habitat types in the OSPAR Maritime Area. The multiple benefits of these nature-based solutions include carbon uptake and storage through natural processes, the reversal of biodiversity loss, and improved ecosystem resilience.
Strengthened collaboration between the OSPAR experts on ocean acidification and climate change will be central to addressing these strategic objectives and progressing the necessary underlying tasks.
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Climate Change Assessments
Lead authors: Barbara Berx and Stephen Dye
Supporting authors: Catia Bartilotti, Julien Favier, Helgi Jensson, Manuela Krakau, Youna Lyons, Claudia Morys, Susana Lincoln, Sorcha Ni Longphuirt, Glenn Nolan, Karl Norling, Cesar Pola, Patrick Roose, Bettina Taylor and Antje Voelker
Supported by: OSPAR Commission Secretariat, all Thematic Assessment leads and their respective Committees (Biodiversity Committee (BDC), Environmental Impacts of Human Activities Committee (EIHA), Hazardous Substances and Eutrophication Committee (HASEC), Offshore Industry Committee (OIC) and Radioactive Substances Committee (RSC)), Intersessional Correspondence Group on Ecosystem Assessment Outlook (ICG-EcoC), Intersessional Correspondence Group on Economic and Social Analysis (ICG-ESA), Intersessional Correspondence Group on the Quality Status Report (ICG-QSR)
OSPAR, 2023. Climate Change Thematic Assessment. In: OSPAR, 2023: Quality Status Report 2023. OSPAR Commission, London. Available at: https://oap.ospar.org/en/ospar-assessments/quality-status-reports/qsr-2023/thematic-assessments/climate-change/