5 Steps for Ocean Climate Action Across the Biden Administration


The Biden-Harris administration’s “Climate Cabinet” is moving full steam ahead toward achieving the president’s domestic and international climate goals, as evidenced by today’s Leaders Summit on Climate and the release of an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution for the Paris Agreement. Through a coordinated approach, the administration has stated its intent to incorporate the ocean into climate change strategies and solutions like never before. With more than 94 million Americans living near oceans and coasts, it is essential that the administration’s plan is inclusive of the many ocean-related risks and potential solutions.

The Institute’s Energy and Environment Program has a long history of informing policymakers’ climate priorities and is eager now to see key members in Biden’s cabinet use their departments and platforms to ensure that our national climate plan is an ocean-climate plan. There are five primary areas where the administration can work across agencies and take proactive #OceanClimateAction.

1. International Cooperation: Give the ocean a prominent role in international climate agreements and leverage it as a tool to rebuild strong international relationships

As the United States reemerges in a climate leadership role on the international stage, a whole-of-government approach, led by the State Department and the National Security Council, should prioritize the ocean in multilateral and bilateral climate negotiations and solutions. Released today, on Earth Day 2021, the US’s new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) specifically highlights ocean solutions, such as scaling-up offshore renewable energy and reducing emissions from shipping and ports, as pathways to reach the US’s emissions reduction target of 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030 and a net-zero economy by 2050. This NDC brings attention to “hidden” ocean-based greenhouse gas emission sources around the world and provides the US an opportunity to lead in emissions reduction solutions within the ocean sector.

Working hand-in-hand with long-time ocean champion and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John F. Kerry, and UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken should also utilize science diplomacy to build scientific collaboration and partnerships across nations. Doing so they protect US interests abroad, build strong relationships, and advocate for ocean-inclusive climate policies. The recently launched UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) is asking the global ocean community to consider the characteristics of “the ocean we need for the future we want” on the world stage, and the US should emphasize climate resilience and reliance on science as key characteristics of the ocean we want.

Maritime transport—the lifeblood of global trade—is another ocean-based, major source of greenhouse gas emissions that can be reduced through international cooperation. In his role leading the Department of Transportation, Secretary Pete Buttigieg can initiate cross-agency work with major trade partners to designate zero-emission shipping corridors in the coming years and update infrastructure in US ports to support a transition to zero-emission shipping fuels. The Department of Homeland Security, through the US Coast Guard, and Secretary Envoy Kerry can also help lead a reinvigorated cross-agency US delegation to fulfill the Biden administration’s commitment to work with countries at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to achieve zero emissions from international shipping by 2050, which represents far more ambitious maritime sector decarbonization goals and measures than we have seen from that body to date. The NDC also signals increased US leadership at the IMO to support the decarbonization of maritime shipping. Connecting trade to decarbonization could help the necessary fuels and infrastructure scale quicker and cost less in this “hard to abate” sector.

2. Quantifying Costs: Calculate and incorporate the cost of ocean-climate impacts into decision making about solutions

Without rapid emission cuts, conservative estimates have projected 10% and 23% global GDP losses this century as a result of climate change. This already sounds significant, but consider that these projections ignore the rising price tag of ocean-related factors such as sea-level rise, the economic cost of migration of commercially and recreationally valuable marine species, and extreme events like hurricanes. The financial cost of climate inaction compared to the cost of cutting emissions is powerful evidence for policymakers and can help drive both the business and environmental case for climate action.

Some agencies have already begun to internalize and plan for ocean-specific financial impacts, including the Department of Defense. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen proposed a new climate-focused Treasury hub to investigate the risks that climate change poses to the US financial system and to identify the potential tax policy incentives that could be leveraged for climate mitigation and resilience. This hub and the Biden administration more broadly should incorporate ocean-specific financial risk, such as the growing cost of natural disasters like hurricanes, into larger conversations around climate financial risk.

With more than 94 million Americans living near oceans and coasts, it is essential that the administration’s plan is inclusive of the many ocean-related risks and potential solutions.

In addition to assessing risk, US policymakers and agencies should renew their focus on market-based measures and ensure ocean-based sectors of the economy are part of the equation. Carbon prices and taxes are discussed with increasing seriousness in conversations about climate solutions worldwide. The European Union can serve as a model for inclusion of key maritime sectors in carbon pricing schemes—it voted in 2020 to include greenhouse gas emissions from maritime shipping in its carbon market starting in 2022, charting a path toward setting a carbon price for the shipping industry.

In order to calculate and include in decision making the impact of shipping emissions on our economy and wellbeing here in the US, we must first understand what those emissions are. A measure to require accurate monitoring, reporting, and verification of shipping emissions was introduced in the US House Natural Resources Committee in October 2020 within the Ocean Climate Based Solutions Act, a proposal that warrants serious consideration. Good data provides a cornerstone for a variety of potential policy solutions, including being a prerequisite for inclusion of the sector in any future carbon market.

Accurate and up-to-date accounting of the costs of inaction on climate change, including ocean-related impacts, are needed to demonstrate the long-term economic benefits of implementing solutions.

3. Clean Energy: Capitalize on ocean renewable energy solutions

Offshore wind and other developing marine energy technologies like tidal, wave, and ocean currents can make significant contributions to reaching our domestic clean energy goals. The Biden administration has announced its intent to seize the opportunity of offshore wind and other clean energy solutions that the ocean and coasts offer toward its ambitious decarbonization targets.

The Departments of the Interior, Energy, and Transportation are three of the major players in the development of ocean-based renewable energy and should help the administration meet and surpass its goal to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030 and achieve a zero-emissions electricity sector by 2035. Toward this, the administration has announced a major push off the East Coast to expand offshore wind power. This plan alone would generate 30 gigawatts of offshore power by the end of the decade and would create clean energy jobs, which Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm has prioritized. Of course, developing a comprehensive offshore wind plan must include consultation and coordination with existing ocean stakeholders (e.g., fishers, homeowners, the maritime transport sector, and environmental concerns) at the federal, state, and local levels to derive win-win solutions for local communities wherever possible while advancing our nation’s decarbonization priorities.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) also has a crucial role to play in promoting clean ocean energy solutions of the future. In early March 2021, FERC licensed the first open ocean wave energy testing facility, PacWave South, at Oregon State University. This is a great example of how federal funding, policy incentives, and R&D can advance new ocean energy solutions and help bring underutilized renewable energy sources to scale in the coming years.

4. Ocean and Coastal Conservation: Tap into ocean conservation as a climate change solution

President Biden’s early executive order directing the Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality to recommend steps to conserve at least 30% of US land and waters signaled that conservation would be a key element of the administration’s climate agenda.

Secretary Deb Haaland of the Department of Interior, an agency with authority over submerged lands of the US outer continental shelf, is especially well equipped to lead the process of identifying new ocean-specific conservation opportunities. Working alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of Commerce and other key ocean agencies and stakeholders, Secretary Haaland and the Biden administration can use the “30 by 30” initiative to identify new opportunities to protect key areas of the ocean, including valuable fish habitat and coral reefs while leveraging the ocean as a carbon sink.

Termed “blue carbon,” ocean and coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass meadows, and kelp forests have been found to be 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon than on-land forests and should therefore be obvious candidates for conservation. The US’s NDC made a commitment to pursue nature-based sequestration solutions, specifically highlighting the important role of blue carbon. The administration and federal agencies will need to work closely with state and local stakeholders to ensure that new coastal habitat and carbon sink conservation measures help bolster the long-term wellbeing of coastal communities and support ocean-based livelihoods wherever possible.

5. Environmental Justice: Ensure ocean-based environmental justice impacts are addressed

The White House’s announcement of an Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Justice40, President Biden’s proposal to allocate 40% of clean energy, transit, and climate investments to underrepresented communities, has elevated environmental justice to the mainstream of federal climate conversations. Many climate-focused environmental justice issues, such as persistent flooding, sea-level rise, clean water access, and funding for mitigation and resilience, are tied directly to the ocean and coasts. As the administration and agencies consider funding decisions and policy priorities, the far-reaching impacts of ocean-related environmental justice issues should be given special consideration.

The proposed Healthy Ports Program outlined in the president’s American Jobs Plan within the Department of Transportation would seek to mitigate the cumulative impacts of air pollution in communities surrounding ports, often low-income, communities of color. If included in an infrastructure package passed by Congress, federal officials will need to consult with local port communities and environmental justice groups that work on their behalf, to understand how this program can best support their unique needs, and ensure that it advances long term solutions to reduce air pollution and eliminate greenhouse gases from ports.

The Department of Agriculture’s historic discrimination against Black farmers has contributed to their disproportionate vulnerability to climate change. Laudably, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has prioritized racial equality and half of the $10.4 billion allocated for agriculture in the American Jobs Plan is being set aside for disadvantaged farmers, of which Black farmers compromise 25%. The $1.01 billion allocated for outreach, additional training, education, technical assistance, grants, and new loans needs to be utilized with a climate-forward focus, helping Black farmers prepare for a changing climate, protecting soil health, and other issues, including those with an ocean nexus such as recurrent hurricanes, saltwater intrusion, and nutrient pollution.

By taking a more holistic, government-wide approach, this administration is poised to go farther than any other in advancing action on climate change and ensuring that the ocean is a priority in cross-agency strategies. As the Biden-Harris administration presses the US government to focus on climate change, they need to ensure that 70% of the planet, including the over 95,000 miles of US coastline and a 3.4 million square mile Exclusive Economic Zone, is prioritized proportional to the indispensable role our ocean plays in sustaining life on Earth.

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