About 80% of world trade is carried by sea, but the maritime industry handling these goods is on the frontline of climate woes, unless it adapts - fast.
Transformation is needed if the world trade system is to cope with the projected impacts of climate change.
“The hardest hit areas, coastlines, will affect us all since the lion’s share of trade itself is managed through international shipping and ports,” said UNCTAD’s chief of policy and legislation, Regina Asariotis, at a critical meeting to address this challenge on the sidelines of the COP24 global climate summit in Katowice, Poland in December.
This is a fact all actors in the ocean economy must face as it has baring on the trade and sustainable development prospects of all countries, but particularly developing and vulnerable small island nations, she added.
Indeed 60% of goods loaded and 63% of goods are unloaded in developing countries, UNCTAD has found.
Ms. Asariotis explained the double-edged nature of the climate challenge facing both the maritime and whole transport sector.
On one side, she said, maritime transport impacts the environment, through pollution and CO2 emissions.
On the other, rising sea levels and extreme weather – such as storms, record temperatures, heatwaves, droughts, and devastating rain – will affect maritime transport and infrastructure in major ways.
This is anticipated as early as 2030, when the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming point is likely to be reached, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in October.
Ms. Asariotis was speaking at a joint event hosted by UNCTAD and the International Maritime Organization at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's annual conference.
Climate change’s impacts and the urgent need to prepare ports and coastal transport infrastructure, especially those in small island developing states (SIDS), is a key concern of UNCTAD, which has been working on the issue for over a decade as part of its work on transport policy and legislation.
Sink or swim: the case for action
The potential for damage, delay and disruption across closely-linked global supply chains means addressing climate change’s impact on key transport infrastructure is of strategic economic importance.
“The impacts may be severe, and given what is at stake, we have no time to lose,” said Ms. Asariotis.
“Currently there is a disconnect between the evidence from the scientific community and the pace of policy change made by governments.”
“Our research aims to help bridge this gap by providing evidence-based information to help policymakers understand the most at risk areas and what kind of policy interventions are needed, now, to manage the risk, adapt and reduce the potential economic impacts.”
Goals and aspirations set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change and informed by the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development – both adopted by the international community in 2015 – mean that emissions need to be cut drastically. But there is little over a decade left to keep global warming below the 1.5 ºC threshold.
Sustainable Development Goal 9 calls on the global community to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable, industrialization and foster innovation.
In maritime transport the international debate and policy action regarding climate change focuses mainly on mitigation, or the reduction and control of greenhouse gas emissions.
While this is important, particularly in the long-term, Ms. Asariotis added, impacts of climate variability and change are happening already.
“What is needed are effective adaptation measures and policies, implemented now to manage the direct and indirect impacts on maritime transport infrastructure and services.”
“Changes in sea-level, temperature, humidity, precipitation and extreme storms, floods and other climatic factors are likely to affect seaports as well as all connecting transport infrastructure and the global network of supply-chains. Understanding the impacts and developing effective adaptation measures is critical.”
Results of a recent global port industry survey on climate change impacts and adaptation carried out by UNCTAD suggest, however, that much more needs to be done.
Although most respondent ports - which collectively handle over 16% of global throughput - had been impacted by weather-related events, the survey revealed important gaps in r information available to seaports of all sizes and across regions, with implications for effective climate risk assessment and adaptation planning.
"There is a need for better data and information and for mainstreaming climate change considerations into ordinary planning and operations processes," she said.
No man is an island
The SIDS are at immediate risk. They have small land mass, economies, and populations and their remote locations make them highly vulnerable to external shocks.
They are also exposed and vulnerable to natural disasters – a situation which is likely to be exacerbated by projected climate variability and change.
At the same time, their coastal transport infrastructure – seaports and airports – are critical lifelines for external trade, food, energy, and tourism, as well as for disaster risk response.
Ms. Asariotis highlighted two UNCTAD Caribbean case studies, Jamaica and Saint Lucia, where UNCTAD carried out a technical assistance project on climate change’s impacts on key coastal transport infrastructure, ports and airports, to enhance the adaptive capacity of SIDS.
She used them as an example of what could be done to inform and speed up policy and decision-making, she said.
A special website showcases these case studies and is a platform for other SIDS and countries grappling with immediate decisions to invest in supporting policy and infrastructure to manage climate change.
Key findings have been published in a scientific journal and informed the IPCC 1.5 degrees report.