Innovation That Matters

Lucy Siegle asks: ‘Is this the coral COP?’

Sustainable Source

As she heads to Sharm El-Sheikh this week, Springwise editorial director Lucy Siegle tells us what she is looking forward to in week two of COP27

First, a near-term prediction. In a departure from the long tradition of COPs (aka the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC)), week two of COP27 seems set to deliver the big stories and strongest signals. This contrasts with recent precedent, where global leaders have commanded all the headlines in the opening days of the international climate summit. Partly, this is to do with personnel. Whereas week one at Sharm El-Sheikh was marked by no-shows from the leaders of India, Australia, and interestingly, Canada (plus a ‘do-I-really-have-to-go’ appearance from Rishi Sunak), week two has some big hitters.

Indeed, the biggest star turn is not even a president, but a president-elect, as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who takes office in January in Brazil, arrives in Egypt. The buzz around Lula is partly one of utter relief. Most of the Amazon rainforest biome, dubbed the lungs of the earth and one of the planet’s most important carbon stores, is in Brazil and, under hard-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation rates have soared. According to Carbon Brief, given his promised reinstatement of forestry protection policies, the fact of Lula’s election could avoid 75,960 kilometres squared of Amazon rainforest loss by 2030 – an area roughly the size of Panama. This would significantly curb Brazil’s emissions. Lula can presumably expect a warm welcome.

Due to the mid-term elections in the US, highly rated US envoy John Kerry pitched up a little later in proceedings too, at the end of week one. It wasn’t long before ‘announcements’ (the lifeblood of COPs) began emerging, including one on ‘safe small modular nuclear reactors’ announced in tandem with the Ukrainian energy minister.

However, the biggest personality in the final days of COP27 is likely to be the Biosphere itself. And this is how it should be. Since the Earth was finally allowed a look-in with the international climate regime in Glasgow, by way of an Ocean day and a Nature plenary, announcements and compacts on nature-based solutions, and associated models like nature-based financing, have stolen the show. This is in addition to a separate biodiversity COP, COP15, that will take place in Montreal in December. It makes sense; from peat bogs to rainforests (and there is even temperate rainforest in Scotland being restored via funding from COP26) nature is a super carbon sucker and storer.

Covering 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface area, the ocean plays a particularly important role in regulating the global carbon budget. It used to be thought that the oceans sank around two billion tonnes of CO2 every year, but research by academics at Exeter University, published in Nature in 2020, suggested that this was short by nearly a billion tonnes. The increased appreciation of the ocean as a carbon sink has led to a greater emphasis on it by the international climate regime and the policy, funding, and R&D that tends to follow.

Three coral innovations spotted by Springwise




But it’s complicated. Only healthy seas can play their regulating role properly and ours are under stress. Research published earlier this year warns that the oceans could switch from a net carbon sink to a net emitter, driving global heating. Meanwhile, as the seas absorb carbon dioxide, acidification occurs, threatening ocean biomass – including fish stocks that billions of humans rely on as a food and income source. The phrase ‘Blue Economy’ attempts to balance these competing concerns and is now heartily used in sustainable development. Given the need for sustainable development, ocean action lends itself to the blended finance models  – using development capital as part of the effort to mobilise private capital for climate and nature – that are increasingly factored into the UN Climate regime.

Meanwhile, the UN’s 30 x 30 treaty aims to get 30 per cent of global seas into protected marine reserve status by 2030. This means venturing out from near-shore marine reserves, which are relatively easy, into the high seas where there’s more biodiversity to protect but more challenges to overcome. As the Blue Economy deepens (excuse the pun) to include everything from sustainable fishing to sustainable shipping, offshore wind power, and harvesting seaweed (kelponomics anybody?), investors are becoming more interested.

Clearly, innovation has a major part to play too in developing a Blue Economy that can observe planetary boundaries. But the next generation of ocean innovation will need to help ocean eco-systems to regenerate, not just try to be less bad. On that note, back to COP27 and Thursday, the 16th, which is designated Biodiversity Day, where I predict this will go even deeper.

By happenstance, Sharm El Sheikh boasts a spectacular coral reef, part of the Great Fringing Reef of the Red Sea. It is notable not just for providing a home to a cornucopia of sea life and being photogenic, but it is also identified as one of the most climate-tolerant reefs in the world by the 50 Reefs scientific study. While other reefs are ailing, the Great Fringing Reef is buzzing with life. Scientists believe that, as long as global temperature can be kept below two degrees Celsius, this reef has the potential to survive and could be the key to repopulating surrounding reefs, potentially pulling an entire ecosystem from the edge of near extinction.

This week the Egyptian Government will be asked by an international delegation to commit to protecting the remaining half of the reef; currently only 50 per cent of Egypt’s Great Fringing Reef is protected. Everyone is waiting for a big COP27 announcement later this week. Leaders and decision-makers in government as well as philanthropic organisations, financial institutions, and impact investors will be asked to prioritise funding for the protection of coral reefs too. Might that in turn unlock the next generation of innovation around protecting and regenerating coral? Watch this space!

Lucy Siegle is a climate-focused author, journalist and co-host of popular podcast So Hot Right Now. She is editorial director and ambassador at Springwise and will be in Sharm El-Sheik for COP27 this week.

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