Legal Challenges for Including the Ocean within the UNFCCC Process (and a solution?)

Written by Natalya on .

At this UNFCCC meeting, I attended the executive secretary briefing to observer organizations, which I found out about through the group RINGO. A small departure from the topic, but a useful fact for anyone else attending future meetings is to know about RINGOs (Research and Independent NGOs), BINGOs (Business and Industry), and YOUNGOs (youth constituency). These are constituency groups, of which there are a total of 9 within the UNFCCC process, and RINGO is the only group that doesn’t advocate as a group for any part of the process. These groups often organize useful meetings (such as this one) that provide greater access and insight into the process. I certainly wish I had known about them earlier.

At this session, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, offered to answer anyone’s questions in a small group environment, which gave me the opportunity to ask her an ocean-focused question. Specifically, I was interested in how the global agreement on climate change (ie. Paris Agreement) could appropriately include the ocean given the importance of the ocean in mitigating climate change, the high economic value of ocean assets (recently estimated to be $24 trillion), and the fact that oceans are incurring major negative impacts from climate change.


UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figureres gives an executive briefing to the research and independent NGOs

Christiana’s answer was that the science on the role of the ocean in mitigating climate change as well as the science on the impacts sustained by the ocean from climate change was clear. And she welcomed and valued the efforts the scientific community has put into studying and communicating the benefits the ocean provides us and the costs associated with heat and carbon dioxide uptake. However, she said that from a legal perspective the framework could not appropriately address the ocean because the convention could only regulate emissions at the national level and not in international territory. The point was that since the ocean is international, it can’t fall within the jurisdiction, and therefore the consideration, of the UNFCCC.

Her answer made me pause because I had not considered the legal limits of the convention and did not realize that it only could work at the national level, especially since these meetings are usually referred to as “international climate negotiations”. My next thought, however, was that there was actually a lot of potential and a number of reasons to consider the ocean within the UNFCCC, specifically because a large part of the ocean is within national jurisdiction.

The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a nation stretches out to 200 nautical miles from the coast as set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLOS). Beyond 200 nautical miles, except in cases where the continental shelf is extended, the ocean becomes international territory, managed under the UNLOS. But within these 200 nautical miles, marine ecosystems are considered national territory. When looking at the total ocean, ~45% falls within the EEZs of nations. Since the ocean covers ~71% of the world, the total ocean area within national jurisdiction is quite large. Furthermore, most of the ocean climate change impacts that nations are most directly impacted by occur within the EEZ, highlighting that there is a real reason to consider these areas appropriately within the UNFCCC process.


RINGO meetings are smaller and offer a more intimate exhange of information 

Christiana’s answer did give me an important perspective on distinguishing international waters VS marine ecosystems within national jurisdiction when discussing the role of the ocean in the UNFCCC. It also helped me understand one of the reasons why historically oceans may not have been considered much within this process. However, there seems to be a misperception about the extent of EEZs and the amount of ocean area that falls within national jurisdiction (the assumption being that it’s much less), so I think this is an important point to make in further conversations. Overall, it was a great (though nerve-racking) experience to ask the executive secretary of the UNFCCC a direct question about a place for the ocean within the process and it shows how these more intimate meetings can offer opportunities to engage with policy makers even at the highest levels.

If you’d like to learn more about the new report on the value of ocean assets, you can find it here. The lead author was Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and it's a WWF report and is a great and important read.

With UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figures following the briefing



Contact Information

Ocean Scientists for Informed Policy
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92083-0202