The ocean - our greatest climate ally hiding in plain sight
As news pours in daily on catastrophic wildfires, extreme marine heatwaves and floods around the globe, policymakers and businesses must zero in on their decarbonisation plans and impacts on nature with renewed zeal, supported by collaborations such as the Science Based Targets initiative and the Taskforce for Nature Related Financial Disclosures.
But how may organisations see that regenerating nature is a vast opportunity, not only in climatic, environmental and economic terms, cost-effectively providing at least 37% of the climate mitigation needed by 2030, but as a way to innovate and create new value streams?
How many understand the degree to which ocean action is climate action? The world ocean encompasses over 70% of the surface area of the planet and 99% of its living space. The ocean is the largest carbon sink on earth and plays a dominant role in the carbon cycle. A paper commissioned by the High level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy estimates ocean-based climate action could deliver a fifth of the emissions cuts needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, without even considering the full spectrum of blue economy opportunities.
For too many the ocean remains out of sight and out of mind, with SDG14 Life Below Water the least funded of the UN sustainable development goals, despite underpinning almost all other SDGs.
We live on a blue planet. Credit: Visual Capitalist
There is only one definition of sustainability – nature’s
There can be no sustained human prosperity without actively nurturing nature. This is a fundamental worldview that indigenous peoples have consistently upheld, one where relationships, reciprocity and responsibilities between people and nature underpin all societal behaviour. If we want to continue reaping the benefits of the ocean and preserve the resilience and “option values” that marine biodiversity intrinsically provides, then we have to take only what we need whilst leaving natural systems intact, and waste less. This means ending overfishing (over a third of wild fish stocks are overfished) and rebuilding populations of the lost ocean giants, 90% of which have been lost since 1800. This would restore the flow of energy through the marine ecosystem and with it, the full potential of the biological carbon pump, which transmits 10.2 gigatonnes of carbon every year into the ocean's depths.
We also have to stop routinely damaging critical habitats like coral reefs, seagrass meadows, kelp forests and mangroves, and restore them all at scale. These are the nurseries and coastal carbon sinks of the sea which protect coastlines and communities. Healthy habitats and a rich diversity of abundant species buffer the capacity of marine ecosystems to recover from shocks even as conditions change. With only 2.9% of the ocean safeguarded from fishing activity, the marine protection and restoration opportunity is vast.
Humans have fundamentally altered the marine life pyramid. Credit: The oceanic size spectrum from bacteria to whales
Shifting to an ecosystem-based management approach takes a holistic view across all sectors such as fisheries, tourism, offshore energy, shipping and subsistence activities. It recognises the plurality of benefits and services that thriving ecosystems provide to society, including “blue foods”, materials, genetic resources, climate regulation services, cultural, social, wellbeing and recreational benefits, and seeks to sustain the carrying capacity of ecosystems to maintain these benefits, by managing activities and cumulative pressures appropriately. It also recognises that marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems are highly interconnected and pressures in one place (such as dams, agricultural run-off or sewage pollution) will manifest in others.
The economy we need for the ocean we want
Under the banner of the UN Ocean Decade, many marine scientists, indigenous peoples and local communities are leading the co-design and co-production of the “science we need for the ocean we want”. Now we need businesses, policymakers and financiers to join in with co-designing and co-producing the economy we need for the ocean we want, which places thriving marine life and coastal communities at the heart of activities. Businesses and policymakers can learn how to help by partnering with NGOs, academics and indigenous peoples and local communities, whilst providing essential human, technical and financial resources and convening power.
Here are some suggestions for what you can do:
- Enable, invest and participate in well managed marine protected areas and blue carbon projects, to protect and restore marine ecosystems, habitats and species, ensuring indigenous peoples and local communities have a leading stake throughout. Support “seascape” approaches encompassing connectivity between multiple ecosystems, such as the Solent Seascape Restoration project, which is restoring seagrass meadows, native oyster reefs, saltmarshes and seabird nesting habitats with involvement from local communities, councils and businesses.
- Support “ridge to reef” projects which consider the land to sea continuum and other restoration projects which alleviate pressures on key habitats and species. For instance removing invasive species can restore seabird populations and nutrient flows in island ecosystems, improving coral reef community composition and resilience. Restorative aquaculture can provide healthy foods whilst also improving water quality, buffering ocean acidification and providing new marine habitats.
- Support the development of marine science and technologies, including AI, the Internet of Things and machine learning, to comprehend marine ecosystem functioning and the roles of species in maintaining ecosystem integrity and benefits under changing conditions. Animals such as whales, sea otters, fish, clams and mussels can play key roles in accelerating restoration and animating the carbon cycle.
- Double-down on circular economy approaches to eliminate waste, reduce overharvesting, improve materials security and de-risk supply chains. Iceland’s 100% fish initiative has amply demonstrated how limiting fishing and innovating around fish waste can drive new regenerative business models. Circular economy initiatives send important market signals to challenge new exploitation frontiers such as deepsea mining. As France’s state secretary for the sea so eloquently explains, “if we want to protect the environment and tackle climate change, we need to make sure that we protect the ocean, and to protect the ocean we need to protect against deep-sea mining.”
- Give phytoplankton a break. Phytoplankton capture four Amazon forests’ worth of CO2 per year. Support research and uptake of green chemicals to replace the cocktail of deadly chemicals silently infiltrating our ocean from sectors such as mining, fashion, agriculture and manufacturing.
- Invest in waste interventions, offshore noise abatement technologies and forensic fishing practices which harvest seafood more selectively, all of which will benefit marine life.
- Ensure your decarbonisation pathway is Paris-aligned or better. Anything less is piling more pressure onto our ocean. Anything more is progress towards owning your legacy impacts.
- Fund and insure only ocean-positive activities.
Above all, I invite you to subvert your thinking. Act with humility. Recognise that nature’s cycles are long-term and set your return-on-investment expectations accordingly. Consider solutions from the ocean’s point of view. What does a particular coral reef, seagrass meadow, seabird colony, fishery or kelp forest need in order to thrive? These systems face a plethora of accumulating pressures which are exacerbated by warming oceans, deoxygenation and acidification. Clean water, devoid of plastic and chemical waste and nutrient overload from poor agricultural or wastewater treatment practices is essential for these systems to withstand the additional burdens of a changing climate.
Ensure you understand and comprehensively address the full ripple effects of your corporate practices and challenge others in your ecosystem to do the same. Land use impacts all of our rivers, and all rivers lead to the sea.
No regrets philosophy
UK suffers marine heatwave Credit: ESA
The ocean has done all the heavy lifting in absorbing excess heat; it is the planetary thermostat. But now the ocean is showing unprecedented thermal stress. As waters warm, oxygen levels plunge and species have to consume more to maintain their energetic demands and avoid suffocation. Prey and predator species have different capacities to move to cooler waters. We are seeing the consequences of these abrupt changes in mass marine life die-offs, from fish to penguins to kelp and seals.
The faster we transition to a regenerative blue economy with meaningful levels of marine protection and restoration, the less global warming will cost us all in the long run. Grand challenges call for bold action and the risks and costs of incremental action are escalating daily. Aim in 2030 to look back on this Decade of Ecosystem Restoration with no regrets but with gratitude, that you contributed to something truly remarkable.