When asked to think about the relationship between climate change and Indonesia, the most likely answers would revolve around rainforests, deforestation, orangutans and loss of livelihoods. Missing from this picture is any appreciation of the role played by the oceans of Indonesia. This is especially surprising given that Indonesia’s:

  • the world’s largest archipelago;
  • 17,000 islands stretch over 5000 thousand kilometres East to West, or an eighth of the world’s circumference;
  • total sea area is four times bigger than the land area.

This makes Indonesia particularly vulnerable: as Rachmat Witoelar, the environment minister pointed out, the country could lose 2000 islands by 2030 if sea levels continue to rise. But it is not just Indonesia that stands to lose out. Globally the effect of climate change on coastal communities and island states is potentially horrendous. This therefore makes the neglect of oceans in recent climate change conferences all the more puzzling. As noted by Gellywynn Jusuf, in Bali only one session out of 800 discussed climate change and its impact on oceans: in Poznan, oceans were barely mentioned.

This, together with new research suggesting that sea-level rises have been under-estimated, makes the recent announcement of the World Ocean Conference in May all the more important. Taking place in Sulawesi, Indonesia, it is hoped that the WOC will refocus the world’s attention on the important relationship between the oceans and climate change. It aims to increase awareness of:

  1. the links between climate change, the implications for the socio-economic position of coastal peoples and the ecological conditions of coastal and marine zones;
  2. the vital role that oceans play in mitigating climate change;
  3. the need for mitigation of disasters caused by climate change;
  4. the need for a strong commitment for continued discussions on the role of oceans in climate change and the effects of climate change on oceans.

There is a further possible reason for the conference: besides increasing awareness of the relationship between climate change and the oceans, and shifting some of the focus away from forests, it is possible that this conference may lay the groundwork for some sort of remuneration scheme for those countries with large oceans.

Given the potential carbon sink capacity of oceans, with Indonesia alone purportedly having the ability to ‘absorb’ up to 60 million tonnes of CO2 a year through the oceans, a REDD-like scheme for oceans could bring huge monetary sums for those countries directly affected by rising sea-levels. As Freddy Numberi, the Indonesian Maritime and Fisheries Minister, suggests “by protecting the oceans, we will be saving the livelihoods of so many people in small-island states. For this reason, wealthy nations should contribute to the cause.”

Is such a scheme feasible? REDD at its core is simple: pay money to stop cutting down trees. Trying to quantify not only degradation in the oceans but also their ability to act as carbon sinks maybe impossible but such a scheme [I am suggesting Reducing Emissions from Oceanic Degradation in Developing Countries or REOD as the name for such a programme]could provide at the very least compensation for those island countries hardest hit by climate change. This makes it a possibility worth exploring.

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