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Is this the most important decade in history? Radio Davos talks climate change and the ocean

The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science unites partners around ocean priorities relating to knowledge gaps, infrastructure, capacity development, and behaviour change

The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science unites partners around ocean priorities relating to knowledge gaps, infrastructure, capacity development, and behaviour change Image: Sebastian Pena Lambarri on Unsplash

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

  • In order to avoid climate catastrophe and reach net-zero goals by 2050, we have to prioritise protecting nature in the marine environment.
  • The UN's Decade of Ocean Science is dedicated to addressing marine issues such as climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution.
  • Through the REV Ocean Initiative, marine biologists, like Nina Jensen, are involved in a dramatic upscaling of research capabilities to understand the realities facing our oceans.

"We have entered what is probably the most important decade in the history of humankind."

IKEA Chief Executive Jesper Brodin's gentle Swedish tones did not undermine the enormity of his message, delivered at 'Climate Breakthroughs: The Road to COP26 and Beyond'. The event brought together governments, businesses, scientists and civil society to address climate change ahead of the COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow in November.

"Ours is an existential crisis that will impact every person, every business. Acknowledging that leads to a lot of despair and fear," Brodin said, adding that, "with the right actions and leadership we can resolve this situation – and we will."

Have you read?

In the same week, the World Economic Forum also hosted the Virtual Ocean Dialogues to look at how we can protect our seas from over-fishing, plastic pollution, and the effects of global warming.

With contributions from US Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry, the head of the International Energy Agency, and the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, Radio Davos listened to these meaningful discussions, with the help of marine biologist - and Friend of Ocean Action - Nina Jensen.

She reminded us that another reason this is such a crucial decade for the environment is that it is officially the UN Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

'James Bond meets marine science' - the REV Ocean, still under construction
'James Bond meets marine science' - the REV Ocean, still under construction Image: REV Ocean

Links to things mentioned in this episode of Radio Davos.

The letter to the G7 by more than 70 big business leaders.

The International Energy Agency's report Net Zero by 2050, and this succinct analysis.

The Race to Zero campaign of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change)

John Kerry's session at Climate Breakthroughs. Watch here.

Uplink Blue Food Challenge:


Climate change and the ocean: In conversation with Nina Jensen

Robin Pomeroy: In November, governments from around the world will meet in Glasgow for COP26, the climate summit, where they'll have to set out credible plans to get us on track for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Joe Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, was one of the speakers at a World Economic Forum event called Climate Breakthroughs: The Road to COP26. In the same week, the Forum hosted the Virtual Ocean Dialogues. This looked at threats posed to the marine environment, including climate change, and how the ocean can play an even greater role than it already is in helping us combat global warming. To talk through these issues, I spoke to marine biologist Nina Jensen. Here's our conversation with her. Am I saying that right, Nina? And you're in Oslo?

Nina Jensen: That is correct. Yes.

Robin Pomeroy: And you are the CEO of REV Ocean. I'm really excited to hear about this. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? And share more about REV Ocean – it sounds amazing.

Nina Jensen: It sounds and is amazing. I'm happy to do so. I'm a marine biologist by training and ocean enthusiast by heart. I decided, from an early age, that I wanted to spend my life saving life in the ocean. I was with the WWF for more than 15 years, but recently started up the REV Ocean Initiative. This is together with the Norwegian billionaire Schillinger Raka. Its sole purpose is creating healthy oceans. We're currently building the world's largest and most advanced research and expedition vessel. This will be a free platform to scientists and ocean experts from all over the world to come out with us and create the solutions that the ocean so desperately needs.

Robin Pomeroy: My idea of a marine biologist is Jacques Cousteau on an inflatable, you know, flipping over backwards with his fins on his feet. This is going to be a bit different. Tell us more about what will be on this ship.

Nina Jensen: Well, this is kind of like James Bond meets science, in a way. It's not just one ship. It is more like four ships in one. So, it's the most advanced research vessel. It's also an exciting expedition vessel. It's a super yacht and a highly advanced trawler. We're able to take samples from 6,000 metres. We're hoping to have face recognition technology of fish that will help us get the samples we need.

We also have a specialised vacuum system or pump in the trawl that allows us to bring live samples from the ocean right into the lab.

Robin Pomeroy: When will you launch this?

Nina Jensen: That is the million dollar question. We were supposed to be out sailing now, but unfortunately the ship is delayed. We're still waiting for an updated timeline from the yard in terms of when the ship will be ready. We're hoping that it will be in the not too distant future.

Robin Pomeroy: What would you say is the biggest threat to the ocean?

Nina Jensen: Overfishing is the biggest threat to the ocean. But of course, climate change and plastic pollution are big contenders as the top problems too. All three are posing major threats that we need to resolve for the ocean's sake.


Robin Pomeroy: Let's hear our first clip from the virtual ocean dialogues. You mentioned overfishing. This is an interesting one from Peter Thomson, who's the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean. Here he is talking about food being fashion:

Peter Thomson: Food is fashion. What we eat today is not what our parents ate and certainly not what our grandparents ate. I'll give you a practical example. I opened the Fiji Embassy in Tokyo in the early 1980s and first discovered sushi then. Sushi was only eaten in Japan. Then a revolution took place in the late 1980s. Now, from the Congo to Alaska, you find sushi shops, right? This happened within the space of a few decades.

Robin Pomeroy: That was the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thompson on discovering sushi. Here is the head of the Global Environment Facility, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Echandi on how we must change our attitudes to the ocean:

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi: Humans still behave like we used to behave 15,000 years ago. We act like hunters and gatherers with regards to the ocean. We need to generate a new kind of social contract based on an understanding of how we manage those ocean resources. The Constitutions and legal frameworks of most nations must have a kind of social agreement on how we manage resources and how we wish to develop the ocean. We must have that.

Robin Pomeroy: That is Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi's agenda. He's the chief executive of the Global Environment Facility and former environment minister of Costa Rica. So, Nina, big question, I suppose if you're saying that overfishing is the number one threat to the ocean, should we just stop fishing entirely or is there a way that we can exploit, for want of a better word, the ocean, in a sustainable way?

Nina Jensen: Obviously, the answer is we should not stop fishing. Seafood and food from the ocean form an essential part of the solution going forward. We need to manage our resources much better and in a more holistic way. We need to restore the depleted fish stocks and set aside increased areas for marine protected areas. We also need to combat illegal fishing. Having said that, I would much rather choose seafood over a lot of the land based food sources that are currently the dominant part of our food system. Moreover, at least two billion people rely on food from the ocean for their essential proteins.

The answer is we shouldn't stop fishing. Seafood and food from the ocean form an essential part of the solution.

Nina Jensen

Robin Pomeroy: Let's hear this clip now from M. Sanjayan, the chief executive of Conservation International, talking about the idea of large scale ocean conservation:

M. Sanjayan: We are finding that countries are willing to think about large-scale ocean conservation. Back when I was in grad school, that wasn't on the table. And then you had a couple of conservation areas being developed around the world. You started seeing this shift, this idea that very large protection of countries is easy. It is really possible.

Robin Pomeroy: That's M. Sanjayan of Conservation International saying that it is possible for us to do large scale ocean conservation. Do you agree with that?

Nina Jensen: Absolutely. And history has shown us exactly that. We have been able to bring back depleted fish stocks that have completely collapsed and maybe even been gone for 25 to 30 years. And some of them are now booming. You know, two examples hereof is the spring spawning herring in Norway that had completely collapsed 30-years ago and that rebounded as a result of improved management and listening to scientific advice. And another example from Norway is, we had completely lost bluefin tuna along our coast. It was gone since the 1960s, I believe. It's now making its way back and we're slowly starting up a sustainable fishery for it. So, it is possible, we should be moving in that direction. We should be able to harvest more sustainable seafood in the future.

Robin Pomeroy: Well, let's stay in Norway. This is, and you can help me with my Norwegian pronunciation here, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ina Eriksen Søreide.

Nina Jensen: Søreide. I think you did a brilliant job.

Robin Pomeroy: Thank you. Talking about not one of the species you mentioned, talking about:

Ine Eriksen Søreide: Cod, back in the early 80s, the Arctic cod stock was almost extinct. What we did was, together with Russia, we entered into a very precise and knowledge-based management system. So, we have a Joint Fisheries Commission working very well on a daily basis. What we see today is that the Arctic cod stock is maybe the most healthy cod stock in the world. It generates an income of around $1.2 billion a year on each side.

Robin Pomeroy: Ina Eriksen, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, talking about the recovery of cod stocks. So, is that is that another success story?

Nina Jensen: Absolutely. I mean, there are over 23 cod stocks globally. But the Barents Sea cod is one of the few that's harvested sustainably. That is a result of listening to the science, combating illegal fishing, and having a holistic management plan. This is between the different countries that are sharing the resource. So, a great example of a success story and also how fish stocks should be managed sustainably.

Robin Pomeroy: Well, let's hear from Ine Eriksen. Sorry, that again, I'm risking it my pronunciation by saying it three times, answering the question that I ask kind of early on in our conversation of whether we can use the ocean sustainably. And the minister's opinion is:

Ine Eriksen Søreide: It is an under communicated message that we can actually make use of the oceans in a sustainable way. We can have more food, more nutritious food and take care of the state of the oceans healt. We can also use it as a way of, as I mentioned, boosting our economies.

Robin Pomeroy: So Nina, let's move from Norway to my home country of England. Zac Goldsmith, Minister for Pacific and the Environment. He is an environment minister in the UK government, and he calls marine protection a magic cure.

Zac Goldsmith: We can get depressed looking at the figures of destruction when it comes to the natural world: We're losing 30 football pitches worth of forests every minute, a million species face extinction, and other figures I mentioned earlier. But protecting nature in the marine environment does work. We know that marine protection is almost like a magic cure. You look at any marine protected area in the world that's been set up and you see within a matter of 3, 4, or 5 years, the catch for local fishing communities goes up outside of those protected areas because they become nurseries. So, the more protected areas we create, the better. Quite often they're controversial when they're starting, particularly with fishing communities. But after a few years of being established there, they're embraced pretty much by everyone. It's a win-win.

Robin Pomeroy: That was Zac Goldsmith, Minister for Pacific and the Environment of the UK. Nina, tell us how to properly protect the ocean.

Nina Jensen: We should, first and foremost, designate marine protected areas for 30% of the ocean by 2030. That has been proven to be a miracle cure and recipe for success. It not only protects the species that are found within the marine protected areas, it also have positive spill-over effects to the areas around it. It allows for the replenishing of fish stocks and makes the ocean healthier overall. So, that is definitely a key part of the success. We also need to dramatically increase our knowledge and understanding of the ocean. So, this decade ahead of us is a critical one. It's the UN Decade of Ocean Science where we need to get the science to create the ocean that we want. So, improving our knowledge and then, most importantly, fast tracking the necessary solutions based on that knowledge, allows decision-makers to take decisions based on facts. So too, it will make knowledge available for technology providers, innovators, start-ups and established industries so that they can scale-up their sustainable solutions. We can work on developing ocean energy, the restoration of important corals and fish stocks, or even developing new exciting initiatives in carbon capture, shipping or kelp restoration.

Robin Pomeroy: That brings us beautifully to our next clip. This is Waldemar Coutts, Director for Environment and Oceans at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chile.

Waldemar Coutts: Research shows that ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass meadows, and salt marshes are 10-times more effective at sequestering carbon dioxide annually on a per area basis than boreal, temperate and tropical forests. This is a point that I want to highlight, because, until now, the UN has focussed on forests, which is good. But, we also have to centre the attention of the UNFCCC on what the oceans can do to tackle the climate change issue.

Robin Pomeroy: While Democrats director for environment and oceans at the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UNFCCC is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that he was referring to the NINA. He's saying that the ocean can sequester carbon in a way that we think of forests doing, but we often forget that the ocean does even better. Is this a good thing, do you think?

Nina Jensen: Absolutely. And I think this is one of the most promising solutions that the world is looking at, both in terms of important restoration of the ocean and as a natural carbon capture mechanism. For so long, we've always been looking to forests for capturing CO2, when the ocean actually has a much bigger potential through mangroves, seagrass and kelp forests. This would also be a very important solution in terms of providing important habitats for fish and other marine life to regenerate. The same forests can also be a very important part of future food consumption. Biofuels, medicines and a lot of other products and industries that we haven't even thought of yet.

Robin Pomeroy: You're listening to Radio Davos with me, Robin Pomeroy, talking with Nina Jensen, marine biologist in Oslo. We've just been talking about the recent virtual ocean dialogues event. Now, we'll move on and talk about another event, actually whic happened in the same week: Climate breakthroughs: The Road to COP26. Nina, as we were just mentioning before the break, the ocean has a massive role in sequestering carbon dioxide. Also, the ocean is potentially going to be massively affected by climate change. What are the risks to the ocean from the effects of climate change?

Nina Jensen: Well, we're already seeing some of the impacts, of course, because as far as we know, the seas have so far absorbed more than 90% of all the warming that has taken place in the past 50 years. This does not come without an effect. We're seeing melting glaciers, rising sea levels, bleaching corals and fish stocks on the move. And we do not yet have the full view of what the negative effects on the ocean will be. But, of course, we are heading towards at least a 2 degree warming of the ocean. And of course, the other effects of the increasing CO2 emissions is increasing ocean acidification. This will hugely impact all the lower levels of the the food chain and everything that is building a skeleton from calcium carbonate. Basically, corals, plankton and a whole range of other marine organisms.


Robin Pomeroy: It's much harder for them to build those structures if the water is more acidic. Is that right?

Nina Jensen: That is absolutely right. And it's basically like imagining having a cookie in your hands and crushing it, that's the same kind of sensation. It's just the structure doesn't hold, basically.

Robin Pomeroy: Let's listen to our first clip from Climate Breakthroughs: On the Road to COP26. COP26, as we all know by now, is the conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That's happening in November in the UK and Alok Sharma is the chair of that event. And this is what he had to say:

Alok Sharma: The time we have left to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach is diminishing fast. If we're to keep the 1.5 degree limit alive, we must halve global emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century. And this requires rapid action across the real economy, so it's really fantastic to see the momentum building throughout the whole of the corporate sector. Today, we have well over 2000 companies and 130 investors signed up to the Race to Zero campaign. This is the gold standard of climate action which requires both a net-zero commitment and short term targets, based on the science, to get there.

If we're to keep the 1.5 degree limit alive, we must halve global emissions by 2030.

Alok Sharma

Robin Pomeroy: Alok Sharma, president of COP26 in the UK Government of the UK, hosting this climate summit in November. Nina, you mentioned how this decade is very important. Here is the chief executive of IKEA. I don't know how you feel about Sweden from Norway. Do you look at them fondly or are they rivals?

Nina Jensen: It's like a love-hate relationship, I think it's always competitive but a friendly spirit.

Robin Pomeroy: Wonderful. Well, that's the spirit we like here. So, this is the chief executive of IKEA, Jesper Brodin:

Jesper Brodin: I think we all can recognise that we have entered what is probably the most important decade in the history of humankind. And we stand before an existential crisis that will impact every person and every business. And acknowledging that, of course, leads to a lot of despair and a lot of fear. But what we are after is, what type of actions and leadership that we need to put forward because there is an opportunity for us to resolve the situation.

Robin Pomeroy: Jesper Brodin, the head of IKEA. And he said this is the most important decade in the - get this - history of humankind. I mean, that's a big claim, isn't it?

Nina Jensen: It is a big claim, but he's absolutely right. You know, we've done such tremendous harm to the planet in a very short time frame of the planet's existence in the past 40 years. We've lost more than 40% of life in the ocean. We know that climate change is escalating and we're losing nature by the minute. So, what we do and don't do this decade, will decide the future of mankind.

Robin Pomeroy: Here then is the head of the International Energy Agency. The energy industry is one of the most important emitters of greenhouse gases. Here is Fatih Birol, talking about the race against time:

Fatih Birol: Race to zero. It is important to understand that the race is not between the nations, but the race is against time. And we should also acknowledge that some governments, some countries, are starting this race in front of the others. And that's what is very important. Especially rich countries should support the efforts of developing nations to finish the race together.

Robin Pomeroy: Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency. Isn't it interesting that Norway, a very wealthy country, much of it is built on energy? Is Norway also now leading the way forward in the energy transition? Is this something you're aware of there, Nina?

Nina Jensen: Well, we are in many ways leading the way in the energy transition, but we're still also a dominant oil and gas player. The initial response to the IEA report was that Norway will continue to develop its oil and gas resources, despite the fact that the IEA is now saying what environmental activists have been saying for decades - we have to stop developing fossil fuels. So, as a Norwegian, I find that quite embarrassing. I think we, more than anyone, should take the responsibility of transitioning completely away from fossil fuels and into 100% percent renewable energy. The transition is going to be slow. We're cutting our emissions too slow, and we really need to put our money where our mouth is if we promise net-zero or even a carbon negative future.

Robin Pomeroy: This brings us very clearly to potentially the star guest at the climate event. John Kerry, who is the US president's special envoy on climate change. He was saying very much what you are about new oil and gas exploration.

John Kerry: Even if we got to net zero by 2050, we still have to suck X-number of billions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere in order to prevent the long term damage that's already up there. The IEA tells us that we cannot afford to be engaging in any new fossil fuel enterprises. In other words, no new mines, no new coal fired power plants, no new major gas infrastructure. These will be stranded assets in the next 20 to 30 years. We have to be really smart about what we're going to do here.

Robin Pomeroy: John Kerry, the US presidential envoy on climate change. Let's hear a little bit more from him because it's very interesting, isn't it, Nina? What you were saying on governments' making the right noises about climate change and then pushing ahead with the extraction of fossil fuels? I think we see it everywhere. It's going to be very interesting to see what this new US administration does because they're talking the talk. Here's John Kerry about what he calls happy talk:

John Kerry: But let's be clear, because I hear an awful lot of happy talk about what people are currently doing or are going to do. The reality is that even if we did everything that was promised in Paris, the Earth's temperature would still rise by 3.7 degrees, not 1.5, not 2, but 3.7. Because we're not doing everything we set out to do, we're actually headed to 4 degrees or 4.5, according to some scientists. I don't want it to be, and it's not worth the full debate of whether it'll be 3 or 3.5. Anything over 2 is pretty catastrophic and anything over 3 is genuinely catastrophic. And by the way, all of the damage we're seeing today, everything that's happening in terms of the renewed intensity of storms, fires, the intensity of fires, warming of the ocean, the changing of the chemistry of the ocean more than in millions of years - all of this is at 1.2 degrees increase in Earth's temperature since the industrial age.

Robin Pomeroy: John Kerry there. You can see all of what he had to say at the climate breakthroughs event. I'll put a link to the session in the blog that accompanies this episode. But let's hear one more from him talking about why COP26 in Glasgow could be even tougher than Paris in 2015. The conference, which gave us the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

John Kerry: Paris, was easy compared to what we have to do in Glasgow because in Paris, every nation wrote their own plan, basically according to what they were willing to do. In Glasgow, knowing what we know now, seeing the evidence mounting, seeing the level of damage we're paying for, the interruption of business, all the consequences of the accelerated climate transformation taking place - there is a real crisis. Seeing all of that, we have to go to Glasgow and we have to write the plans that we have to write. Not that we want to or aren't satisfied, but we have to. In Glasgow, I think its really the last best hope we have to be able to pull ourselves together and not get everything done because nobody's going to get everything done in a matter of a few months. We need to be set on clearly definable, understandable, achievable, transparent tracks which will lead us to the goals we're pursuing. People ballyhoo fairly frequently. We need net-zero by 2050.

We need to be set on clearly definable, understandable, achievable, transparent tracks which will lead us to the goals we're pursuing - we need net-zero by 2050.

John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

Robin Pomeroy: That was John Kerry. Since the climate breakthrough event, the World Economic Forum has brought together more than 70 global chief executives of major multinational companies to write an open letter to the G7 summit, calling for much greater government action on climate change. This includes putting a price on carbon emissions as a way to incentivise the transformation away from fossil fuels and removing subsidies to fossil fuel sectors. To tell us about that, here's Dominic Waughray, head of the World Economic Forum's Centre for Global Public Goods.


Dominic Waughray: We're facing three challenges. We're facing a climate challenge which has been well-documented. We know we have to be on track for a net-zero world by 2030. We know that we have to get going right now. So, the next two or three years, we need that mobilisation of investment technology innovation to get us on track first. Second, we have the COVID-19 challenge. It's still rippling around the world. It's a tragedy in terms of human and economic cost, and this means that many governments don't have much money to spend on other things, for example, climate change. So, to open up the possibility of private sector finance to help transition the economy is super important. And that's what this letter and the CEO message to G7 leaders is saying. It's an invitation for cooperation change. Some policy bring down some risks. There's an awful lot of money and innovation and technology ready to be deployed. The third issue which we face is just literally the scariness of not doing anything. And a report by Swiss Re suggests that if we just do nothing here, we're going to face 18% of global GDP being eroded over the next 30 years. That's far bigger than the horrendous impacts that we faced from COVID. So we have to do something. We have to do it very quickly, and we have an opportunity through the tragedy of the COVID pandemic to learn about how partnerships helped scale up action, like with the vaccines. Also, on tackling climate change, public private cooperation is necessary to fix the problem. 78 CEOs, if you add them up, It's about just over $2 trillion, about the GDP of Italy. So in the G7, which is why we released it just before the meeting, that would be a seat at the table.

Robin Pomeroy: Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum. Here you'll find that letter to the G7 to supercharge public-private efforts in the race to net-zero. Nina, big companies are talking the talk but do you have any confidence in a real willingness to do what's needed?

Nina Jensen: I absolutely do, and to be honest, I'm putting more of my faith in the corporate sector and big industry than I am in politicians. Politicians have talked for way too long. We are at COP26 and we still have a Paris agreement that really does not take us to the goalpost. So, we have to rely on the corporate sector to do this. And we are seeing increasingly that they are not just owning up to these responsibilities, we're recognising opportunities. We're seeing an increased level of finance and investments moving in a greener direction. We're seeing very exciting initiatives pop-up, relating to offshore wind, green shipping, hydrogen batteries, ammonia and carbon capture. So, when we have that magical mix of responsibility with ambitious climate targets, while recognising the opportunities and putting money toward it – that's where miracles happen.

Robin Pomeroy: Just before I let you go, could you tell us more about UpLink, as a platform of the World Economic Forum, where the Forum invites people to submit great ideas for new ways of doing things. It's a way of networking and seeking contacts, potentially funding. And there's a challenge at the moment, particularly about the ocean. Is that right?

Nina Jensen: UpLink and Friends of Ocean Action recently launched the Blue Food Challenge. This seeks out new ideas to boost sustainable seafood. This competition and the submissions are open until the 22nd of June. The best 10 to 20 submissions will be invited to a six month accelerator programme by Friends of Ocean Action to help scale and advance their impact. So, of course, this is a very exciting opportunity both for innovators out there and to advance blue food solutions. So I hope if you're listening and you have a great idea, you'll submit it.

Robin Pomeroy: Yes, I'll put a link to that in the blog that accompanies this episode as well. Nina, it's been delightful to have you on the programme. I hope we get to speak again, particularly once you launch this magnificent ship to discover everything we need to know about the ocean. But for now, we're going to have to leave it there. Nina Jensen, CEO of Red Ocean, thank you very much for joining us.

Nina Jensen: Thank you, Robin. It was a pleasure.

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