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As UN Climate Change Conference Continues, Here’s How Aquaculture Can Make a Difference

December 10, 2019

Representatives of the worlds’ governments have been gathering this month in Spain for what is known as COP25 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But what does this involve? What will be discussed? And how can aquaculture play a role in tackling the climate crisis?

What is COP25?

It is the 25th annual UN Climate Change Conference. COP stands for Conference of the Parties, referring to the states that are party to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (all 197 of them). It’s a gathering of world governments to attempt to find a global solution to the climate change crisis.

What have previous conferences achieved?

You will probably be familiar with some of the treaties that have emerged from previous COP meetings. The Kyoto Protocol, which outlined requirements for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, was negotiated at COP3, which took place in 1997 in – you guessed it – Kyoto.

More recently, the 2015 COP saw the Paris Agreement, in which nations committed to limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels.   

What will be discussed this year?

Work will continue on the Paris Agreement, and the parties will also be looking ahead to next year. As well as discussions over specific articles of the Paris Agreement, the UN says that the conference will serve to “build ambition ahead of 2020, the year in which countries have committed to submit new and updated national climate action plans.”

More information about this year’s conference can be found on the UN website.

What does this have to do with aquaculture?

Leaving aside the impact that climate change could have on the aquaculture industry (but only for a moment – see below), responsible seafood can be part of the solution to climate change. Numerous reports, including one by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year, have noted that increasing meat consumption around the world, particularly red meat, is fuelling climate change. But fish is one of the most efficient converters of feed into high quality food, and has a lower carbon footprint compared to other animal production systems. As the world’s population continues to grow, and with it the demand for meat, seafood must be part of the solution.

Farmed salmon produces a fraction of the carbon generated by the beef industry and the pressure on the environment represented by feed to grow stock is the lowest by far with seafood production. And even taking into account the use of land for feed production, aquaculture can make a big contribution to land preservation. One recent study calculated that if aquaculture provided the world’s additional protein requirements in 2050 instead of agriculture, a global total of between 727 and 747 million land hectares could be saved – that’s an area of land twice the size of India.

There is a big caveat to all this – we must ensure that this seafood is being produced responsibly: the world’s food and climate change crises won’t be solved with yet more irresponsible and badly planned food production systems. ASC’s standards specifically address these potential impacts, requiring farms to meet requirements ranging from the strictly limited use of antibiotics, to the protection of local biodiversity and the monitoring of impacts to the sea floor, with many more in between (our Salmon Standard alone contains over 150 requirements). And our standards also include requirements to protect the local communities and fair wages and proper training, amongst other benefits, for the workers that help produce the fish.

What could climate change mean for aquaculture?

While it’s impossible to predict the future, climate change is something that will affect us all, and will impact every industry, making it all the more important that we work together to tackle its complex causes.

One impact of climate change is increasingly unpredictable weather events. Just last month ASC published a white paper about plastic ‘ghost gear’ from aquaculture that found that extreme weather was a leading cause of plastic gear being lost from fish farms and ending up in oceans, rivers and lakes. Worryingly, the paper warned that the increasing frequency and severity of such extreme weather due to climate change meant this would continue to be a major cause of lost plastic gear as the industry continues to expand. It pointed out that a large proportion of fish farms are sited in coastal areas, making them particularly vulnerable to the sort of extreme weather that climate change could make worse.

This goes to show how interconnected and complex the issues of climate change, food security, and food production can be (not to mention the issue of plastic pollution). It can also be hard to know what you can do about it. If you’re looking to make small changes, consuming more carbon-efficient seafood can be a good first step. If you want to ensure that seafood was produced responsibly, make sure you look for the ASC logo.

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