Ocean-related lessons from the IPCC: Part 2 – Focusing on ocean climate solutions

This blog is the second in a two-part series: Part 1 reviews the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from a marine perspective; and Part 2 outlines solutions to the climate impacts the ocean is facing.

The February 2022 IPCC report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (the IPCC Report), summarizes how the oceans have been affected by rising global temperatures, and by the significant amounts of carbon the seas have absorbed in the last half-century. These global shifts have resulted in serious impacts like ocean acidification and deoxygenation – as well as ocean warming and marine heatwaves, sea level rise, and impacts to life in the deep sea.

The good news is that the solutions to the climate crisis exist: eliminate our use of fossil fuels, so as not to pour fuel on the literal and metaphorical fire, and adapt to the changes we are already experiencing. The biggest hurdle is generating the political will to see these solutions implemented.

Here are a few of the important ocean-focused solutions West Coast is working on to address the overlapping challenges facing the marine environment and those who depend on it:

A marine protected area network in the Great Bear Sea

“[M]aintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystem services at a global scale depends on effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30% to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean areas, including currently near-natural ecosystems.” [p. SPM-34 of the IPCC Report, at para SPM.D.4]

Like parks on land, marine protected areas (MPAs) play a key role in conservation – setting special areas of the ocean aside to safeguard them from harmful human activities.

Though the IPCC Report cautions against relying on MPAs to provide substantial protection against climate impacts past 2050, it does acknowledge that they can contribute to adaptation and mitigation. To achieve these goals, MPAs must be strategically implemented, well governed and designed to address climate change.

MPAs can produce a host of climate-related benefits (as well as many other benefits), like increasing resilience of ecosystems and species in the face of climate change, protecting carbon-sequestering features, and offering baseline data when studying climate impacts. West Coast is involved in the establishment of a network of MPAs being developed in the Great Bear Sea (also known as the Northern Shelf Bioregion), which would help fulfill the federal government’s promise to protect 25% of lands and waters in Canada by 2025 and 30% by 2030.

Revitalizing Indigenous laws and supporting self-determination

“Western scientific practices and technology may not be sufficient in addressing future natural resource management challenges. Supporting Indigenous self-determination, recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and supporting Indigenous knowledge based-adaptation are critical to reducing climate change risks to achieve adaptation success.” [p. 14-5 of the IPCC Report]

The IPCC Report reminds us that supporting Indigenous knowledge and self-determination is good for everyone – Indigenous peoples and settlers alike. West Coast’s RELAW program (Revitalizing Indigenous law for land, air and water), recognizes that for thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have governed their territories according to their own laws – safeguarding land, air, water and communities to sustain their cultures and economies. Indigenous law can and should be used on the ground (and on the water) today, and many Indigenous nations are applying their laws in new ways to address environmental challenges in their territories.

For example, just last year, the Gitanyow publicly released the Gitanyow Wilp Sustainability Assessment Process (GWSAP), an innovative Indigenous legal instrument setting out requirements for fully Indigenous-led assessment of projects in Gitanyow Lax’yip (territory), based on Gitanyow’s own laws.

And on March 9, 2022 Tsleil-Waututh Nation released a series of reports laying out the cumulative effects of human activities on the health of Burrard Inlet, within their territory – an example of leadership and employing Indigenous knowledge toward addressing existing harm and looking toward mitigating future harm.

Crown governments must also look to Indigenous governments to co-develop and co-manage conserved areas – like what is happening with the Great Bear Sea MPA network. Indigenous nations have led this effort for decades (including by establishing the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in 2018), advocating for an MPA Network in alignment with their governance and laws focused on respect, reciprocity, interconnectedness and intergenerational knowledge.

A coastal strategy for BC that prioritizes nature-based solutions

“Coastal habitats like mangroves or vegetated dunes protect coastal communities from sea-level rise and storm surges, while supporting fisheries, sequestering carbon and providing other ecosystem services as well. Efforts to restore, conserve and/or recover these natural habitats help people confront the impacts of climate change. These marine nature-based solutions like marine protected areas, habitat restoration and sustainable fisheries are cost-effective and provide myriad benefits to society.” [p. 3-150 of the IPCC Report]

“Nature-based solutions” are actions to conserve, restore or manage ecosystems that address societal challenges and provide human well-being and biodiversity benefits. They are solutions to big social challenges that centre nature.

Sea level rise, ocean acidification and coastal development have damaged important components of coastal ecosystems that provide natural shoreline protection – like coral reefs, mangroves and salt marshes. Our ability to adapt to current coastal impacts, cope with future coastal risks, and prevent further acceleration of sea level rise beyond 2050 depends on immediate action to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. To support resilient coastlines and communities, we need to protect, restore and monitor the health of coastal ecosystems, mitigate ocean acidification, and sustainably steward coastal and ocean spaces.

Many jurisdictions around the world have adopted coastal protection strategies and laws to enable them to address these issues, and West Coast has long raised concerns that BC lacks a coastal protection strategy and law. In 2020 the provincial government heard our concerns and committed to “developing a coastal marine strategy – in partnership with First Nations and federal and local governments – to better protect coastal habitat while growing coastal economies.” The Province is currently working in partnership with coastal Indigenous nations to develop the strategy.

A BC coastal strategy would help improve coordination and collaboration among different jurisdictions along the coast – and this sort of collaboration is essential in advancing coastal climate solutions, such as nature-based flood protection measures in the Fraser River estuary.

West Coast has been working with partners to support a “Living Dike” in the Fraser River delta, as a means to provide coastal flood protection while protecting and enhancing coastal and aquatic ecosystems. The Living Dike is an example of a nature-based solution aimed at minimizing the loss of coastal ecosystems while establishing flood protection for communities, as sea levels rise in a changing climate.

Blue carbon to support climate change mitigation

Blue carbon” is the carbon that is stored in marine and coastal ecosystems (like salt marshes, seagrass beds, and mangroves). Coastal ecosystems in particular are highly efficient at storing CO2 from the atmosphere by trapping and burying organic matter in their soils. If these areas are protected and restored, they can continue to capture and store carbon for hundreds of years or more.

West Coast has developed blue carbon technical and policy documents that provide useful inputs for policymakers and planners, as well as identified knowledge gaps and opportunities for further research.


Coordinated adaptation planning and implementation is crucial to better help marine ecosystems and coastal communities adapt to climate change’s impacts, in both the near and long term. The planning process should be systematic, inclusive and evidence-based. Unfortunately, action to date has been mostly gradual, incremental and reactive – which means we have no time to waste in advancing these solutions.

The latest IPCC Report reminds us that we cannot afford to ignore the ocean in our climate response. As journalist-playwright Alanna Mitchell said, “[i]f everything on land were to die tomorrow, everything in the ocean would be fine, but if everything in the ocean dies, nothing on land will survive.”

If we focus our attention on the solutions to this crisis and advocating for these solutions to our elected officials, we can avoid getting lost in climate grief and anxiety and give ourselves and our children the best hope for a livable future.

Top photo credit: Brodie Guy via Flickr Creative Commons

Erin Gray – Staff Lawyer