It is under three weeks until the start of one of the most important climate summits in history. At the end of November, world leaders gather in the UAE for COP 28, an ever-more urgent climate crisis looming amid growing geopolitical instability. Here, Karen Sack, head of a major organisation devoted to driving major finance to ocean-related sustainability initiatives, outlines what needs to happen – and what she fears may transpire instead
LUX: Speaking as Executive Director for the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA) as well bringing in your own views, what do you think should happen at COP 28?
Karen Sack: This year we have seen the number of climate disasters ratcheting up. We are so close to that 1.5 degree increase of the world’s temperature. September has smashed all the records in terms of the amount of warming, with a 0.5 degree Celsius rate of change. From our perspective, there are five key focus areas for us at COP 28.
The first and most important is that we have to keep that 1.5 degree target alive. That is the Paris Agreement target, adopted at COP 21. It is absolutely critical on all kinds of scientific levels, in terms of tipping points as well the existential reality, particularly for small island developing states, and for the potential impacts on coastal communities in developing countries as well as everywhere around the world. That should be the absolute focus of this meeting and the intent should be on how to do that, in terms of outcome for the COP.
Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine
Secondly, and very importantly, is that as we look at the real need to scale down emissions to phase out fossil fuels, we also need to recognise that a liveable planet, particularly a liveable planet for humans, requires the regeneration of ocean environment. Nature needs to be at the heart of the story, in terms of addressing the biodiversity and the climate crises, because together we need to address those two issues.
The third key element is recognising that if we are going to address mitigation, adaptation and resilience – three of the core elements of the COP – as well as bring in nature, we have to focus on regeneration. We have to move beyond sustainability, which we predominantly focused on in the past. If what we do now is just sustainable, that is insufficient. We have to address mitigation, adaptation, resilience and regeneration. We need to significantly upscale sustainable finance and investment. From our perspective, that needs to be scaled into blue nature – into the ocean, as a critical carbon sink and biodiversity reservoir, as well as a key source of livelihood.
The fourth thing we need to look for regarding our focus on maintaining resilient coastal communities, is to ensure that where investments are going to be made in coastal areas that there are high quality safeguards and guardrails for those investments, so that those communities can thrive and that investments made are made with the full consent and engagement of those communities.
Fifth and finally, what is really key to get out of COP28 is to establish that there are certain things which should not be investable propositions. In the ocean space, that means not investing into offshore oil and gas or emerging sectors like sea-bed mining that could be incredibly destructive, and for which the full suite of impacts are as yet unknown.
From our perspective, there should be an absolute, precautionary pause on any investment into this potential new sector until there is much more information, better controls and better safeguards in place. The question remains as to whether it should happen at all, but there should at least be a pause until 2030 for sea-bed mining. My view is that it should not happen at all.
LUX: You have said before that there is enough talk but not enough action. What needs to be done around sustainable finance to make that gap close?
KS: Fundamentally, there must be an agreement to move forward on the loss and damages fund. There have been ongoing negotiations, but this needs to be sorted out and settled so that funds can begin to flow into that loss and damages fund and then to the communities most affected.
Secondly, we have got to close the gap on adaptation finance; the UN Environment Programme released a report just this past week which showed that the finance gap, for adaptation finance, is 50% higher than it was previously thought. That means we have got to start looking at the hundreds of billions of dollars that have got a flow from the public as well as the private sector.
The biggest risk that we are all exposed to is inaction. The more we can do earlier in the process to drive financing into adaptation and resilience, as well as mitigation, the better, and the less costly that will be in the long term. That is key to closing those adaptation gaps. And in the ocean space, working with partners and the high-level climate champions, we have identified five ocean breakthroughs which need to be addressed.
LUX: Is there a danger of double-counting or under-counting?
KS: It is essential that governments start to work across treaties rather than keeping climate and ocean and finance treaties separate. We need to start to think about what is needed to address the issues across the climate and the nature space to prevent under-counting or double-counting.
LUX: What will incentivise governments to do that? What needs to happen?
KS: In part, it is putting numbers on the table: what is the need and what is needed to address it. Finance ministries are starting to identify these numbers and address what these gaps mean. Hopefully that begins to draw the discussion out of ministerial silos and begin to bring an all of government approach to the table in addressing them. Once that begins to happen, then it also requires Ministerial level engagement and how key ministers can get together more informally to address those issues. I know that a couple of months ago in Vancouver, the Canadian Minister for Environment and Climate Change flagged the need for ministers to come together across these treaties to address some of these issues. This is just a starting point though, because the issues we are facing extend beyond what governments can do and have to involve development finance institutions and the private sector too.
LUX: Is there an issue of a big difference in policy between more progressive governments, such as Canada and the EU, and others with very large economies who are less close to enacting such change?
KS: Absolutely. There are also fossil fuel economies which are in the middle of all of this. One of the issues is that, since the UNFCCC started its work, countries have been – and remain – defined according to their different economic statuses. Yet there are countries which are large emitters now, and countries that historically have had a large carbon footprint. There are also economies that are fossil-fuel driven economies and have contributed to significant fossil fuel emissions, either by themselves or through selling their fossil fuels on the open market. The reality of the challenges that the world now faces is that rather than arguing over who has done what for how long, the focus needs to shift towards how each of these actors can play a role in building and financing resilience and adaptation, and mitigating harm. We have to think beyond the traditional brackets that different countries have been put into, because this is an existential crisis for all of us.
LUX: Do you see authentic intent among enough governments, or are some just talking the talk?
KS: This is part of the challenge. We have seen so many significant climate events this year which you would think would bring people to the table with urgency, focus and determination, but that is not happening across the board. This is where the private sector needs to come in to help move things forward. There has, of course, been push-back in some private sector quarters as well. But the reality is that if we project forward to revenue and growth impacts or profit margins, not just over the next quarter or few years, but to five and ten years down the track, the potential costs of inaction are staggering. These are no longer issues for the next generation, they must be addressed now. We have a choice as humans. The planet will be fine. It is us who are going to be harmed. We choose whether we act now or we delay but, as I said earlier, both cost and risk become exponential the more we delay. We should be focusing all of our attention on acting now.
LUX: Is there a risk that the more we innovate to offset, or capture, the more we have permission to emit?
KS: Absolutely, which is why we have really got to focus on reducing and phasing out fossil fuel emissions as quickly as possible, and we have got to think about the most cost-effective, efficient ways to invest in adaptation and resilience. Let’s shift those investments into sustainable, regenerative renewables, such as wind, solar and tidal power, and let’s focus on investing into nature and helping to build resilient, natural ecosystems which are also the most effective carbon sinks that are on Earth right now. These are incredibly effective both in the functions they fulfill, as well as the costs that they incur.
LUX: Do you think that large-scale, open-ocean carbon-capture – which is currently unregulated, untested but has the potential for enormous scale – should be focused on, or it a diversion?
KS: I think that there will always be untested technologies and potential large-scale solutions, which will be put on the table as a panacea to resolve our issues. There is no harm in asking scientists to explore the viability of some of those mechanisms, to understand the costs, the potential collateral damage and impacts of them before we move forward with them, but thinking that we can chase rainbows or invent unicorns that will solve our problems, while letting everything else fall apart at the seams, does not seem like a sensible solution.
However, there are tried and tested approaches which we know will work. We know that not using fossil fuels is the most critical step that has to be taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We know that regenerating and restoring nature is very important for addressing elements of biodiversity as well as the climate crisis. We must work on these two things and build adaptation and resilience – as quickly as possible – by focusing on investing into renewables and investing into nature, and ensuring that government policies and investments from governments and the private sector enable this.
LUX: What do you fear will happen at COP 28?
KS: There are a lot of initiatives which are being taken forward, and discussions happening, at COP 28. All of them are taking place in the face of significant geopolitical change and challenge. My biggest fear is that the international community does not move far and fast enough and as quickly as possible at this COP, and that the interests of the fossil fuel sector take hold. We cannot go there again. We do not have the time and we certainly do not have the space. We need – as we say in the ocean world – all hands on deck! We must move swiftly. We need action, and we need it now. That is what we need out of this COP: concerted action at speed and at scale.
The 28th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP) is set to take place between the 30th November and 12th December 2023
Karen Sack is Executive Director of the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance
Deutsche Bank was the first bank to join the Ocean Risk and Resilience Alliance
Lower three images by Isabella Fergusson
Read more: oceanriskalliance.org