Legendary marine biologist, Chair and President of Mission Blue, and National Geographic Explorer, Dr Sylvia Earle explains what it will take to restore the health of our oceans after decades of deep decline.
If we want to meet the Paris Agreement, we must overhaul how we manage the ocean
For too long the ocean has been left out of vital policy discussions on climate, viewed solely as a victim of the crisis rather the solution.
But the tide is turning. The ocean is fast becoming recognized as a priceless key which is vital in unlocking a decarbonized and resilient world.
Not only does it absorb 93% of the additional heat from rising manmade CO2 emissions, it absorbs 25-30% of these emissions that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere and increase global warming.
It is the world’s most abundant ecosystem, a living, breathing bounty of activity, that gives us 50-80% of the oxygen we breathe. It is home to nature-based solutions to the climate crisis such as mangroves, tidal marshes, coral reefs and seaweed that are both climate mitigators and adaptors. Not only can they sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests, they can help safeguard coastal cities, communities and businesses from the impacts of a changing climate.
Moreover, it’s been discovered that just four ocean-based activities, if incorporated into country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), can contribute to more than 20% of the emission reduction needed to keep the world on a 1.5℃ pathway. According to the report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), these include the protection of blue carbon coastal ecosystems; well managed oceanic and coastal fisheries; ocean-based renewable energy; and decarbonized ocean-based transport.
The recommendations complement the work of UN High Level Champions, who in May released a cornerstone document for ocean-climate action in the same four areas. The report plots a pathway of milestones for ocean stakeholders to abide by in order to deliver a 1.5°C resilient world by 2050.
Both reports point to the enormous potential for offshore wind energy production. Installed capacity estimates range widely in the period up to 2050, but the World Bank Group reports over 71,000 GW of offshore wind potential globally using current technology, while the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that offshore wind could generate 18 times the world’s current electricity demand.
Managing the oceans
If we want to use the ocean in a way that both maximizes its potential and – most importantly – protects it, we must rapidly improve how we manage it.
Marine space has become an increasingly attractive and competitive space for a range of stakeholders who are eyeing the oceans as a seemingly limitless source of space and resources that land cannot match.
The demand for ocean space is rising with a combination of both new and established users, from fishing, tourism, military and shipping, to offshore renewables and aquaculture. Over the next two decades, more users will undoubtedly emerge; plans for floating infrastructure such as tunnels and airports as well as new pharmaceuticals, for example, are already in the pipeline.
So how do we do this? All coastal countries need marine spatial planning (MSP). Encouragingly, more and more countries are introducing it. The latest figures suggest over 70 countries worldwide already have, or are in the process of developing, MSPs. Countries are recognizing the economic and social benefits of a sustainable ocean economy and a well-managed ocean.
Most importantly, better ocean management can provide ripple effects for coastal communities, from better coastal planning and management – leading to more resilient fish stocks for small-scale fisheries, to new blue jobs when linked to a thriving sustainable ocean economy.
Efficiency and balance
However, a step change is needed in the way ocean planning is undertaken if we want to ensure that the climate agenda does not negatively impact biodiversity and food security.
We must have a sustainable, equitable and well-managed ocean, aligned with climate goals and biodiversity targets, to provide the necessary space, regulatory frameworks and predictability for sustainable ocean activities.
To realize this potential, it is vital firstly that marine users are able to coexist. For example, we need to plan for a world where offshore energy areas are co-located with other marine industries, or areas important for nature conservation, in order to unlock the maximum benefit of the ocean for society.
Social innovation will also be important. Industry should seek out novel and collaborative partnerships with other ocean users. The offshore renewable industry, for example, can enter in trusting partnerships with the fishing industry, discussing co-benefit sharing programmes.
But industry-based ocean activities should not come at the expense of nature. Although there are biodiversity impacts associated across the various phases of developing offshore wind (OWF) farms, for instance, their establishment can also create opportunities for conservation and enhance marine biodiversity if developed in a nature-positive way.
Some businesses are already beginning to prove they can do this. Two EU-backed Dutch companies, for instance, have created the first offshore solar and seaweed farm in the North Sea, making solar energy production and seaweed cultivation possible in the same space.
Ørsted is currently piloting projects to explore the potential for co-locating protected marine areas and offshore wind farms. At our wind farm off the coast of the island of Anholt in Denmark, for instance, we stacked boulders within the wind farm to create stone reefs across the wind farm and restore a previously existing rocky reef habitat that had been lost due to other human-induced impacts before we entered the area.
These projects are part of our broader goal to deliver a net-positive biodiversity impact from all new renewable energy projects that are commissioned from 2030 at the latest.
This means, when we develop new projects, we’ll ensure that we implement initiatives that deliver an overall net-positive contribution to biodiversity of ecosystems, habitats, and species linked to Ørsted’s new renewable energy projects.
We need innovative MSP to identify test sites for industry and science to pilot blue innovation and co-location to ensure the future ocean is well managed. MSP must be adaptive to enable the testing of the innovation and tech we will need for the future.
Safety will become an even more important part of managing risk factors as ocean activity increases. Good MSP will incorporate development and use of leading safety standards that will protect human activity, investment and our oceans. Embedding safety as a bedrock in the process will increase ocean stakeholder trust and cooperation.
We also need enhanced cooperation between governments, science and industries as well as cross-industry collaboration in the short to medium term. Governments, moreover, must provide the enabling environment to realize the development of ocean-based climate solutions, such as offshore wind.
As we head towards COP26, governments need to recognize the importance of the ocean in delivering the Paris Agreement. A well-managed ocean can reconcile ocean industry productivity and growth alongside other global goals, such as biodiversity protection and future job creation.
Governments should incorporate holistic frameworks in NDCs they bring to COP. They should consider sustainable multi-use of sea space areas and infrastructure, supported by ocean science and observation.
Time is scarce, and we can’t negotiate with the planet to get more time to tackle climate change. Thus, I want to stress the importance of governments quickly working with relevant stakeholders to implement sound marine spatial planning solutions as soon as possible.
I am optimistic for COP26. But in order to succeed, governments should consider the Glasgow summit as Blue, as well as Green, to ensure that the necessary ocean solutions can be placed firmly at its heart.
Legendary marine biologist, Chair and President of Mission Blue, and National Geographic Explorer, Dr Syliva Earle explains what it will take to restore the health of our oceans after decades of deep decline.
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A coalition of public and private partners has launched the Global Fund for Coral Reefs (GFCR) with the ambition to mobilise USD$625 million for coral reef conservation over the next decade.