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Outcomes of COP28
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Outcomes for whales and dolphins from COP28

Ed Goodall

Ed Goodall

Ed is WDC's head of intergovernmental engagement. He meets with world leaders to increase protection and reduce harm to whales and dolphins, for their sake and our own.

The world’s biggest climate event, COP28, has concluded. We know what we need to do, yet sometimes it's hard to imagine we will ever get there. But when we look at changes over time, we see that we are moving in the right direction, as more people understand the need to return to a more harmonious relationship with our planet. I wish progress was faster, but there are powerful forces at work.

Let’s take a deeper dive into our role at this global summit, what was asked for, and what was achieved.

We were at COP to give a voice to the whales and to convince policymakers to protect the ocean, because we need to save the whale to save the world. Teaming up with our new ambassador Tom Mustill, we played whale song across the conference site and throughout the city. Thousands of people heard the songs of the ocean. Some were whale song connoisseurs; others were hearing it for the first time. Everyone felt a connection. An ancient connection. They felt energised.

Sounds of the ocean at COP28 - Ed Goodall and Tom Mustill
Collectively we brought the voice of all the ocean people (whales and dolphins are ocean people too!) into the heart of COP.

With so much at stake, there were a lot of asks on the table and we’ll explore four of them here. We made some good progress, but there was so much more that could have been achieved to reduce the pressure on whales and dolphins from climate change and climate-linked industries. With COP29 set to be hosted in Azerbaijan next year, we will once again be up against a presidency with fossil fuel interests. With the clock ticking, we can’t afford to wait for COP30 in Brazil to start making some serious commitments to reverse the trajectory we are on.

Whales are our crucial allies in this battle, so we desperately need to take care of them, so they can take care of us.
Whales are our crucial allies in this battle, so we desperately need to take care of them, so they can take care of us.

Ask 1:   Phase-out fossil fuel

What happened?

We know fossil fuels are the leading cause of the climate crisis, and climate change impacts in the ocean are affecting whales and dolphins in a multitude of ways. Before COP28, we signed the Dubai Ocean Declaration alongside dozens of other organisations, calling for drastic cuts to greenhouse gases. Although this was disappointingly watered down in the final agreement, given the urgency, it was the first time in 30 years that 130 nations formally acknowledged the need to transition away from fossil fuels. It’s a good step, but should have happened decades ago.

It might seem like a bad thing, but the massive increase in fossil fuel lobbyists shows us that actually, we’re winning. The oil, coal and gas barons are scared. They're throwing everything they’ve got at this fight because they know the sun is setting on their chapter of history. And with a pledge to triple renewable energy, the energy transition away from fossil fuels is in sight. But it’s vital that the construction of offshore developments for wind, tidal and other forms of ocean-based energy generation are conducted in such a way that impacts on whales and dolphins are strictly limited. We’ll be keeping a close watch.

If we want to save whales, dolphins and porpoises, we have to protect their habitat. 
 © Nicholas Doherty
If we want to save whales, dolphins and porpoises, we have to protect their habitat. © Nicholas Doherty

Ask 2:   Remove carbon from the atmosphere

What happened?          

The declaration also states that we must seek ways, based on sound scientific evidence, of removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and storing it for long periods of time. We’re already working on this through our Climate Giants Project and this research programme is filling key knowledge gaps on the role whales and dolphins play in the carbon cycle.

Sperm whale poo
When whales die they help lock away huge amounts of carbon

Using ground-breaking research, our Climate Giants projects will help us understand more about the roles whales can play in helping to tackle the climate crisis.

But here’s the problem, there’s concerning wording in the agreement that could increase interest in ‘geoengineering’ – whereby humans artificially alter the ocean to force it to take up more carbon. We already know that restoring marine life will help the ocean remove carbon from the atmosphere naturally and increase its overall resilience, so this seems counterintuitive and could have unknown disastrous consequences.

Whales help the seas flourish, transporting nutrients in their wee and poo across fast distances

Ask 3:   Reduce harmful human activities

What happened?       

By signing the Dubai Ocean Declaration, we asked for concrete steps to curb human activities that interfere with the ocean’s natural function, including overfishing, habitat destruction, and marine pollution. We’re pleased to report that COP28 became known as the first ‘Food COP’ after 130 countries supported a declaration on sustainable agriculture. Whales and dolphins indirectly suffer the consequences of agriculture as excess nutrients find their way into the ocean and can cause harmful blooms of algae, so we’re hopeful that this declaration will bring us a step closer to protecting and restoring whale populations and healing our planet.

Algal bloom along shoreline
We need a healthy ocean and a healthy ocean needs whales.

Ask 4:   Restore wild animal populations

What happened?          

We co-hosted a side event on the role of animals in the carbon cycle, including whales. Dr Heidi Pearson from the University of Alaska Southeast, whose research we fund, helped present this topic. People are waking up to the need to restore wild animal populations, known as ‘rewilding’ (or to re-whale!), to help ecosystems function better and store and store more carbon. You can watch the whole event here.

The COP28 agreement makes several references to the need to protect, restore and conserve ocean and coastal ecosystems, but makes no firm commitments to do so. Nature in general, is getting more recognition and there was a call to accelerate nature-based solutions.

We must protect and restore populations of all our climate allies. © Rory Currin

Embracing change for the future

Participating in these conferences fills me with hope. I meet outstanding human beings - some of them with decades of experience and wisdom, others with fresh ideas and bursting with energy - giving their lives to a future they will never truly see. None of us know when we’ll have that breakthrough moment, but the walls of the past are visibly creaking.

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Whale sound bath at COP28
Panel at COP28

It was incredible to meet so many like-minded individuals, all working to protect our shared planet.

Often, we live within polarities. It makes us feel better to think that 'those people', 'over there' are all wrong and it's all their fault. It absolves us of the need to all look at ourselves and ask difficult questions. We are creatures of habit. Change induces stress. Ultimately, we can't change anyone but ourselves and we need to all look a bit harder at how we can work together to heal our shared planet.

WDC march. Save the whale to. Save the world
Together, we can make a big impact on one of the world’s biggest challenges, by getting behind the world’s biggest creatures.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us unlock the secrets of how whales and dolphins can help fight the climate crisis and loss of nature.