Why it’s time to give back to the ocean
By helping the ocean to recover, we can create a healthier, more sustainable and prosperous future for all, explains Marco Lambertini, Special Envoy to WWF International.
The ocean is a vital part of our planetary life-support system, covering 71% of the Earth’s surface and producing half of the oxygen we breathe – it makes the planet habitable. It also provides 3.3 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – with almost 20% of their annual protein needs, vital for global food security and nutrition.
But the world’s ocean has experienced dramatic change over the past century, with unsustainable fishing driving declines in wild fish populations in every region of the world. The effects of overfishing on the ocean are compounded by coastal development and habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification.
It’s time to change the way we see the ocean – from a place where we take what we want and dump what we don’t, to a source of vast social, economic and environmental benefits.
Ocean health is a key pillar to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals
Developed in 2015, the goals address the most fundamental aspects of human well-being: no poverty, no hunger, health, education, equality. And in that mix – recognized as a core element of human and planetary well-being – is the ocean. SDG14, Life Below Water, sets out ambitious targets for the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean.
Preserving and restoring the ocean requires transitioning the entire economy toward a more sustainable model. The recent report, ‘Navigating Ocean Risk’, found that investors in 66% of listed companies are collectively at risk of losing US$8.4 trillion due to declining ocean health and climate change if business as usual continues. But potential losses can be reduced by over US$5.1 trillion by meeting the Paris Agreement targets and transitioning to a sustainable blue economy.
Key to this is also the millions of livelihoods the blue economy supports, from fishing and aquaculture, coastal tourism, renewable energy, transport and coastal protection among many others. In 2018, the blue economy generated US$300 billion for the African continent, creating 49 million jobs in the process. Ensuring the ocean can continue to support these livelihoods far into the future will play a key role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
A healthy and resilient ocean is humanity’s essential ally as we address our combined nature, climate and biodiversity crisis. Fortunately, the recent adoption of two historic agreements marks a turning point in global awareness and momentum for securing a nature-positive future for the ocean.
The first is the adoption in December 2022 of the Global Biodiversity Framework – which includes a commitment to protect, conserve and equitably govern at least 30% of the world’s land, water and ocean, while recognising and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to their territories and waters. Countries also committed to ensuring that at least 30% of marine and coastal ecosystems are under effective restoration, as well as other targets critical to securing ocean health.
The second is the new global ocean treaty agreed in March 2023 that allows for protection and more effective management of the high seas, which comprise more than two-thirds of the ocean and are currently severely underregulated and widely exploited. When in force, the treaty will enable the creation of high seas marine protected areas – a prerequisite for meeting the global 30% ocean protection target – and other conservation measures helping to restrain harmful activities on the high seas.
A separate treaty on plastic pollution is under negotiations, with the potential to address another growing pressure on marine wildlife, ocean ecosystems, as well as people’s livelihoods, local economies and human health.
Strengthening ocean governance and investing in the protection and resilience of the ocean are essential to secure national economies, advance ocean-related mitigation and adaptation solutions to climate change and support the delivery of the Paris agreement, the Global Biodiversity Framework and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Investors must reject harmful practices and incentivise a Sustainable Blue Economy
We know that when done right, investment in healthy ocean habitats contributes substantially to national economies. Mangrove restoration alone could save an estimated US$65 billion a year in terms of storm and flood damage, with the Mangrove Breakthrough being a promising joint initiative trying to revitalize 15 million hectares by achieving an investment of US$4 billion by 2030. In Spain, the Medes Islands Marine Reserve saw fish biomass recover by some 500% over the course of a decade in comparison to nearby unprotected areas.
We want to encourage reinvestment of that economic value back into protecting and restoring the ocean’s natural assets. To help guide financial institutions to do this, WWF and partners developed the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles. The principles, and the guidance that goes with them, provides a framework to assure an equitable and sustainable blue economy, protect and restore marine and coastal ecosystems and build the resilience of vulnerable coastal communities.
The guidance and guardrails outlined in the principles are timely and necessary because we’re in the midst of a “blue gold rush.” There’s a surge of global interest in the potential of blue carbon ecosystems, which has led to a growing interest in mobilizing finance to secure the effective protection, management and restoration of these ecosystems. Yet there are risks that poorly planned projects could fail to deliver climate benefits, infringe on people’s rights or have other unintended consequences.
Restoring the ocean will make the planet more resilient to climate impacts
The important role of the ocean in mitigating climate impacts is also starting to get the attention it deserves in international forums; last year COP27 recognised the role of marine and coastal ecosystems in climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience. In 2023, we must see ocean protection, effective management and restoration acknowledged as part of integrated solutions to climate change, and not simply an add-ons.
If we’re to harness the true power of the ocean as our ally against climate change, support resilient coastal communities and accelerate progress toward the SDGs, we must consider the cumulative impacts of all marine activities. Overfishing, for example, doesn’t just deplete the target species, but has a cascade effect on the entire ecosystem undermining its effective functioning. And the idea that we would start a new extractive industry to mine the deep sea under the guise of transitioning from fossil fuels is a nonstarter. We must not, once again, try to solve a problem while ignoring predicted consequences that could make the original problem even bigger. “Future-proofing” policies are the sensible choice, and the window of opportunity is still open.
Marco Lambertini is WWF International Special envoy and outgoing Director General (2014-2022), having first worked with WWF as a youth volunteer in his native Italy. He sits on the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) chaired by the Ministry of Environment, was appointed by UN Secretary-General Guterres as member of the UN Global Compact Board, sits on the Steering Committee of the Global Commons Alliance, was an international ambassador of the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), a founding member of the Nature Action Agenda and Friends of Ocean Action of the World Economic Forum (WEF), co-Focal Point for UN DESA’s Community of Ocean Action on Marine and Coastal Ecosystems, an International Gender Champion, and a Strategic Advisory Board Member of the CEMS Global Alliance of leading business schools.