In 2017, the United Nations declared 2021-2030 The Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Since 2018, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC) has been working with a range of stakeholders from governments, scientific organisations, the private sector, industry, and civil society to design and develop the mission of the Ocean Decade.
So, what is going on with our oceans?
We hear about four key issues. First is ocean acidification and deoxygenation from increased carbon in the atmosphere, resulting in impacts on the ocean ecosystems. Second, we hear about ocean warming and sea level rise, both a result of climate change. Third, we hear about impacts of pollution including from nutrient run-off and plastics, the concern to humans being micro-plastics in fish. Finally, over-fishing and exploitation of the natural resource that becomes sea food. We examine these in more detail further into this article. Oceans can be dead, but will still look the same, and the temperature variations won’t be notable enough for people to notice. Corals may die, and plastics may wash up on our beaches, which we will notice. And we will definitely notice the beachfront mansions destabilise from erosion as a result of sea level rise.
Why does it matter?
I spent my early years in Sri Lanka, an island nation, and moved to Australia, another island nation, and as we say ‘our home is girt by sea’. This means that we have wonderful beaches, water views, plentiful sea food and tourism and sporting opportunities to which land-locked nations do not have access. I am vegan and I do not go swimming or particularly enjoy water sports or activities. I definitely don’t have a water view. The German linguist Heinrich Zimmer once described the ocean as “limitless and immortal … the beginning and end of all things on Earth”. So, why should I care? Why should you care? The ocean covers 71% of the planet’s surface and contains 66% of life on the planet. It produces half of the oxygen on the planet and is a source of food for over 3 billion people worldwide. Those who do care intimately include communities in small island nations such as the Pacific islands which face extensive impact from climate change and communities that depend on sea food for their protein and eco-tourism income (such as Sri Lanka). This is the first common thread between climate change and oceans. They are both universal resources available to the whole planet, but equally their infringement is democratised – that is an impact on one part of the world may have a ripple effect to all who depend on the ocean as a resource. The second thread is that the ocean is part of the global system that keeps our planet in a habitable state. If all oceans dry up, we will not have the water cycle and therefore will run out of drinking water. This is similar to the climate system, which at its extremes will make the planet uninhabitable. The final thread is that they are both closely linked. Oceans act as carbon sinks, and without the oceans, the planet would have warmed much more rapidly. The deoxygenation of oceans will continue to cause and expand ocean dead zones.
What are the six key impacts on the oceans?
The atmosphere and the ocean exchange atmospheric gases across the sea surface to such an extent that over the last two centuries the oceans have absorbed 25-30 percent of the global accumulated emissions of carbon dioxide. While this process partially buffers climate change, the resulting impacts on the ocean’s carbonate system – known as ocean acidification – have consequences for the chemistry of the ocean, for the organisms that inhabit it, and for humanity. In some regions, such as the northwest coast of North America, acidification is already impacting on important commercial shellfish.
The ocean has absorbed 80 percent of the heat added to the climate system over the past two centuries, resulting in rising mean surface ocean temperatures and significant implications for marine ecosystems and resources, as well as for coastal populations around the world. One consequence of global warming is expected to be an increase in more extreme weather events. Ocean warming also impacts species distribution and food-webs underlying globally significant fisheries, with the range shifts of species moving toward higher latitudes and into deeper waters. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that the equator might already be too warm for some marine species to survive. Marine biodiversity is responding to the warming global temperature by moving away from the equator as the oceans heat up, according to the study that examined 48,661 marine species. Similar incidents have occurred in the past including some 252 million years ago and again around 125,000 years ago. The movement of commercial and artisanal fish and marine megafauna could compromise the ability of tropical nations to meet the Sustainable Development Goals concerning zero hunger and marine life.
Hypoxia (or deoxygenation) is one of the most acute consequences of eutrophication, the over-enrichment of waters with nutrients and organic matter resulting from anthropogenic nitrogen from fertiliser run-off, sewage and industrial waste. There are now over 500 known ‘dead zones’ (hypoxic zones) in the global ocean, where limited supplies of dissolved oxygen prohibit the growth and reproduction of organisms, and the number is increasing fastest in the developing world. Excess reactive nitrogen in the environment is considered one of the three out of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that have already been exceeded.
Sea level rise
Global mean sea level has already risen by about 25cm since the 1800s, and the pace is accelerating. Levels rose by approximately 1.8mm per year over the last five decades, doubled to 3.1mm per year in the 1990s, and were 2.5mm per year in the period 2003–2007. Sea level is an existential threat for some small islands, which will disappear entirely with even modest increases. Approximately 145 million people live within 1 meter of mean high water, more than 70% of whom are in Asia, and 268 million live within 5 meters. Sea level rise is caused by melting glaciers and ice caps, loss of ice from major ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, thermal expansion of the ocean, and changes in terrestrial storage. Latest research is indicating that Greenland’s ice is melting faster than anytime in the past 12,000 years (that, to put it in perspective, is pre-modern humans!), raising sea levels and changing ocean currents. Sea levels may rise by up to 0.1m by the end of the century with the Greenland melt alone. Artic sea ice melt is also gathering pace with this year’s summer sea ice minimum being the second lowest in 40 years. Satellite records between 1979 and 2019 show sea ice in the Arctic summer declined at about 13% per decade, and this year reached its lowest July levels on record, suggesting an ice free Arctic by 2050!
Marine pollution comes in many different forms, including toxic chemicals, solid waste, nutrient and sediment input due to human activities (e.g. agriculture, deforestation, sewage discharge, aquaculture), radioactivity, oil spills, and debris such as discarded fishing nets and plastics. It is understood that 35% of microplastics emanate from road tyre particles. Furthermore, the spread of invasive species throughout the ocean is increasingly referred to as ‘biological pollution’. Pollutants can also have a negative impact on the ability of organisms to cope with a changing climate, for example by undermining their immune and reproduction systems, and can weaken the resilience of marine ecosystems to other stressors such as acidification. Microplastics are an increasing human health impact, with long-term effects being unknown. It is estimated that approximately one truck of waste plastics enter the world’s oceans every minute, which will become two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2040. Tragically, despite all our efforts, only 9% of all plastic that ever been produced has been recycled!
Overuse of marine resources
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), fish provide 20 percent of the intake of animal protein for 1.5 billion people and 15 percent for about 3 billion people. The world’s marine capture fisheries are in a severely troubled state. The FAO estimates that 85 percent of fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. In better news, the European Union funded ATLAS Project has identified at least 12 new species of marine life, including a new kind of coral. Among their discoveries were mollusks, fish, sponges and a new kind of coral growth, Epizoanthus martinsae, which lives on black corals more than 1,300 feet beneath the surface. In addition, 35 known species were found in areas they had never previously been observed. The ATLAS team found evidence that greenhouse gasses are contributing to rising temperatures, slowing currents and increased ocean acidity, which threaten delicate coral reefs.
Would valuing nature help?
Scientists’ work on planetary boundaries indicates that a number of ecosystem boundaries have been breached or are close to being breached. This work, particularly on climate change, gave rise to the Taskforce on Climate related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) – effectively recognising that climate change poses a systemic risk to all businesses, similar to a global financial crisis or a pandemic. A few years later, we now see the emergence of the Taskforce on Nature related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) because, once again, the world sees the biodiversity crisis faced by us as a systemic threat to business. As the saying goes, there’s no business on a dead planet.
Both TCFD and TNFD will have the outcomes of allowing investors to assess the risks and opportunities presented to the companies they are interested in, allowing them to effectively ‘value’ the entity on the basis of the risks to the balance sheet and cashflow presented by climate and nature-based impacts, as well as opportunities.
In the context of oceans, valuing biodiversity and carbon is at infant stages, but not without the fundamentals that allow for rapid growth of this field. There’s a lot of research into blue carbon, mangroves, valuing eco-tourism and eutrophication reduction. The Global ‘Blue Economy’ is estimated at $3 trillion and 200 million jobs by 2030. Many people are unaware that their seafood may rely on mangroves and therefore see no problem in replacing this muddy and odorous ecosystem with car parks and resorts.
In one of the very few examples of business turning to offset its impacts on the ocean, the world’s largest retailer Walmart is targeting zero emissions by 2040 and aims to protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030.
The big question of whether ocean impacts, both past and future can be attributed to Nations, remains. Fundamentally, impacts measured, can be managed. My simplistic view would be that, the trifecta of impact management, offsets and financial assistance can be done, in a similar manner to carbon dioxide equivalents and emissions trading schemes for climate. Key factors, based on the six areas of ocean impacts discussed above, could be – carbon emissions (dealing with hypoxia, ocean warming, ocean acidification and sea level rise), pollution entering oceans from Nations both coastal and land-locked (indicators could include, but not limited to car tyre use, plastic use, nutrient use, litter and population) (dealing with ocean pollution) and ocean resources exploitation (indicators could include fisheries, fishing, sea bed mining). Other factors could include sensitivity of oceans and past pollution attribution. Carbon offsets and biodiversity offsets would play a role in mitigation assessment.
Oceans being the most significant climate regulator
Some parts of the world, Australia included, are warming disproportionately faster than the global average. Alarmingly, Australia has warmed by 1.4 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels while the global average warming has been around 0.9 – 1.1 degrees. Some parts of Australia, over the past year, have been close to 3 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This disproportionate effect is starting to impact the way we live. Climate change is starting to bite us harder – whether it is from extreme weather events, the destruction of our Great Barrier Reef, the drought that’s impacting our food bowls, biodiversity losses, water restrictions and rising insurance premiums due to the recurrence of flood and bush fire events due to the unnatural variations caused by this extreme warming.
So, where do oceans come in? The ocean is one of the Earth’s most significant climate regulators. It acts as a carbon sink to almost a third of emitted carbon dioxide and more than 80% of excess heat (which is a significant factor – just to imagine that the extreme weather events that we are seeing are only due to 20% of the residual surface heating). But, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has revealed the ocean may be nearing a tipping point. Historic levels of ocean acidification, warming and deoxygenation (oxygen loss) are also irreversibly affecting marine biodiversity and critical ecosystem functions. Furthermore, the latest update (AR6) to the IPCC climate assessment, endorsed by governments from 195 countries suggested that although unlikely this century, there is a chance of low-probability high-impact tipping point outcomes, such as abrupt changes from AMOC ('Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation') shutting down, Antarctic ice shelf collapse, or Amazon dieback. These should be part of risk assessments.
COP26, formerly and finally (while COP25 was the Blue COP) included the ocean in the UN climate negotiation process. Most submissions received as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change annual ocean and climate dialogue meeting highlighted the close relationship between society and the services the ocean provides, from fisheries to carbon sequestration.
They also highlighted the many intersections between climate adaptation and mitigation and respective policies. This included nature-based solutions, such as restoring mangrove forests to enhance shoreline protection from storms and promote healthy fisheries, and blue carbon, capable of trapping more carbon per unit area than forests. Human rights issues and the importance of transparent, inclusive, fair governance were also mentioned. According to Sarah Seabrook of the New Zealand National institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, “the ocean has been buffering the impacts of climate change since the industrial revolution, but we are now reaching the limits of this capacity. Integrated ocean-climate policy is a crucial part of our fight against the code red for humanity”.
Terence Jeyeratenam is an advisor in sustainability, climate change, social impact and health, safety and environment working to help grow private sector clients and provide solutions to government and non-profits by addressing their sustainability value propositions, and integration into their core business.