Health and Healthcare Systems

UN chief: Our global recovery must include a plan for the ocean

A worker contracted by British Petroleum scrapes oil from a beach after it was inundated by the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Celano (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER BUSINESS ENERGY) - GM1E65O0FYX01

Saving ocean life is outline in the 14th sustainable millennium development goal. Image: REUTERS/Lee Celano

Peter Thomson
UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action
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Restoring ocean life

  • UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean's Peter Thomson makes the case for ensuring a 'blue-green' recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.
  • This would ensure, not only prioritising the environment but also the health of the oceans.
  • It's predicted that if oceans warm by just 2C, the ocean would loose most of its coral reefs, home to 30% of its biodiversity.
  • He urges governments and organisations to usher in sustainable era of circular economies when rebuilding from COVID-19's economic and societal upheaval.

If there were ever a tide in human affairs that should be taken, this is it. A pitiless pandemic has befallen us, bringing sadness and sacrifice around the world. But when we raise our eyes, we see that skies are free of jet-stream scars, city air is clear and clean, sweet birdsong echoes down our streets. And those long-recommended modes of cyberspace office-work and meetings have become the norm.

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The 2018 IPCC warned that we would need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Image: IPCC

In 2018, a special report on global warming from the IPCC told us that, "limiting global warming to 1.5 [degrees Celsius] would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". Back then, achieving unprecedented change in the short term may have seemed a tall order but not so today. And while pandemics are not the prescription for mitigating climate change, they do demonstrate possibilities.

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Amid the COVID-19 crisis, our chief responsibility lies in the pursuit of the common good: caring for those around us, heeding the strictures of our authorities, and supporting the heroic efforts of our essential services and health workers. But these dark times will soon end, and we will find ourselves stepping out on the road of recovery.

When we do, it is the high road to a sustainable world that we must take, not the low one returning to planet-polluting single-use plastics, profligate burning of fossil fuels and wanton denigration of nature. Human security demands that we build back better - the recovery road to a blue-green future lies ahead. The blue element of this recovery is that of a sustainable ocean economy; for the ocean covers 70 percent of the planet, is our greatest buffer against climate change, providing us with everything from food to energy, from medicine to employment, along with the oxygen of every second breath we take.

In the face of COVID-19 restrictions, to progress momentum in favour of a healthy ocean, the first week of June will witness a major global online event, the Virtual Ocean Dialogues. This series of inclusive digital convenings is being designed and hosted by the World Economic Forum and Friends of Ocean Action, with a view to producing actionable solutions in favour of conserving and sustainably using the ocean's resources. The best interests of people and planet alike demand that commitments and action for a healthy ocean are not held back.

Perhaps the greatest risk resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic would be that we lose sight of the most fundamental challenge facing humanity, namely that of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will keep global warming below 1.5C. Venture above that figure and we will be placing the wellbeing of future generations in great jeopardy.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were on course for global warming of more than 3.5C by the end of this century. Once crossed, the dreaded line of 2C warming would witness the ocean's loss of its coral reefs, home to 30 percent of its biodiversity. What would that mean for the health of the ocean? At this stage the truth is we don't know; but let's at least agree that it would not be good. That is an existential reality, for without a healthy ocean, we know we cannot have a healthy planet.

Thus, those global warming greenhouse gas emissions are our common enemy. They are the cause of the ocean's falling oxygen levels and rising levels of acidity, both trends exacerbating and both stressing life under the waves. Our escalating greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of the warming of the ocean, by which coral is bleached, ecosystems lost, extreme weather events fomented, and sea levels made to rise ever upwards.

And so, when this cursed pandemic retreats and we enter into the inevitably tough times of the recovery phase, the self-interest of our species demands that central to building back better must be unprecedented reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Only then will we reverse the decline of the ocean's health and best protect our own.

We have a universally agreed plan to save life in the ocean - SDG 14. This is the fourteenth goal of the United Nations' 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, setting out a series of targets aimed at conserving and sustainably using the ocean's resources.

We will need a compass to guide our recovery course and we have a reliable one in the form of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, coupled with the Paris Climate Agreement. Through these, we can ensure that short-term recovery solutions are in accord with long-term development and climate action objectives.

The vision of a blue-green post-pandemic recovery fully accepts the priorities of fostering economic development and creating employment, at the same time promoting greater social equity and welfare. In the energy sector's transition to renewables, for example, it foresees innovative energy storage, the installation of flexible power grids, electric vehicle charging systems, green hydrogen and multiple other energy development technologies. All these will mean jobs, jobs and more jobs.

The blue-green recovery road will take us through economic weigh-stations and environmental agreements that will bring human systems and natural systems into a new harmony based on respect and balance. This must surely be the hallmark of the forthcoming UN ocean treaty conference on biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions, so that we will soon live in a world in which at least 30 percent of the ocean is protected under effective and well-managed conservation measures. Think only of the fact that every second breath you take comes from the ocean, and you will find good reason to welcome that prospect.

We have always known that humans and nature are part of one connected system, with nature providing us with our water, air, medicine, food and so many other benefits. Lately, we have been riding over nature's benefits roughshod, taking too much for granted, disguising greed in our finest costumes of profit and progress. On the blue-green recovery road, we will set out to put that right.

We will move from linear exploitation of finite planetary resources into a sustainable era of circular economies. We will advance into sustainable food systems, resilient cities and rapid transition into renewable energy systems. And we will safeguard the biodiversity of nature upon which our lives ultimately depend.

In the interest of the oceans' health, when we say we will plant a trillion trees, we must ensure this includes the restoration of mangroves, seagrass and kelp, in the knowledge that they sequester four times more carbon than their terrestrial cousins.

Blue-green recovery foresees an end to the unconscionable levels of pollution and waste for which we have of late been responsible. It demands an end to harmful subsidies distorting such sectors as oil, gas and fisheries. It demands an end to the international scandals of illegal fishing, over-fishing and modern slavery at sea. What it expects of governments around the world is to look beyond the short-term and put in place equitable policies and investment decisions that are in harmony with a sustainable future.

In the long run, the survival of our kind may be intrinsically linked to the fate of coral. Thus, the course of blue-green recovery must steer us well away from the dreaded territory of 1.5 to 2C global warming. If we love our children and theirs, if we love this planet, if we love life itself, then staying true to that course is the ultimate obligation. Returning to our old ways will but resume a course towards devastating hurricanes, flooding coasts, vast wildfires, a proliferation of famines and wars, massive displacement of populations and the recurrence of global pandemics.

A blue-green recovery has faith in the genius of our species - our powers of innovation and our ability to share ideas and resources, with empathy in adversity. We must take these currents while they serve, for through the fog of all the sadness, trauma and sacrifice this pandemic has brought upon us, we catch glimpses of the ways ahead. The joy of birdsong and the tolling bells of logic tell us to take the one that leads to a blue-green future.

I am looking forward to participating in the Virtual Ocean Dialogues, June 1-5, to help produce the solutions we need for sustainable food supplies from the ocean, for renewable energy transitions, for stemming the pollution tide, prioritising ocean protection, and securing the data and ocean science we require to secure us the healthy planet that we all need and desire.

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