Two-thirds of the globe lie under water and the future of our planet is inexorably tied to what happens at sea.
With today’s UN World Environment Day themed around Beat Plastic Pollution, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why we need a healthy ocean – and why we must urgently ramp up action to end the environmental pressures they increasingly face.
More than half of the oxygen we breath is produced by tiny ocean-dwelling phytoplankton, sustaining all life on earth. Sea waters play an integral role in the water cycle, forming the clouds and rain that nourish forests and land. The ocean acts as an enormous ‘carbon sink’ and has absorbed more than 90 per cent of all the heat humans have added to the planet since the 1950s.
Fisheries provide a critical source of nutrition and livelihood for millions of people around the world. Indeed, the ocean provides a significant source of wealth, with a 2015 study estimating the blue economy is worth over $24 trillion. The true value of the ocean, however, cannot be captured in monetary terms.
Despite being our life-source, humans treat the world’s ocean as a rubbish dump. The emissions and pollution we generate are putting unprecedented pressure on ocean life.
Perhaps the greatest existential threat is that posed by climate change. Rising sea levels could result in two billion climate refugees by 2100 if drastic action isn’t taken to reverse spiralling levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Already in the past 200 years, sea waters have become 30 per cent more acidic due to these harmful gases.
The impacts of climate change are quickly unravelling natural systems in place for millennia, with the Artic experiencing heat waves that scientists describe as ‘crazy’. If we are to avoid reaching a point of no return, it is imperative to limit global temperature rises to well below 2°C, aiming for 1.5°C. At current emissions, we will blow this carbon budget in just eight years.
Plastic pollution is now widely recognised as a major risk to the marine environment. Haunting pictures of seabirds and whales with stomachs bloated by plastic caps and bags are becoming a regular fixture in the news. Each year, eight million tonnes of plastics enter the world’s oceans from land – a figure that could quadruple by 2050. More than 800 marine species are known to have ingested or been entangled in marine litter and over 90 per cent of items encountered are plastic.
Other forms of pollution are less visible but just as deadly. Chemical pollution has played a major role in cetacean population declines across Europe and, potentially, globally. Noise pollution presents another menace to sea life. Whales and other marine species use acoustics to communicate, locate prey and predators, and to navigate their way across vast ocean distances. Massive increases in vessel and sonar activity seriously incumber these necessary functions and have been linked to mass strandings of animals on beaches around the world.
Unsustainable fishing practices are pushing some fish stocks to the verge of collapse. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is fast depleting the marine resources that millions of people around the world rely on as a critical source of nutrition. Bycatch in fishing nets kills hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins and porpoises each year.
The danger of bycatch has had a tragic impact on the vaquita porpoise, driven to the brink of extinction due to illegal fishing in Mexico; with fewer than 30 individuals left on the planet, the vaquita is the most critically endangered animal on the planet.
Our response to this crisis demands a major break from business-as-usual. Reversing current trends in greenhouse gases will require keeping more than 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, with businesses also clamping down on other major sources such as powerful HFCs found in air-conditioners. And we must urgently break our addiction to plastic if we are to shift away from the toxic throwaway culture that is turning the ocean into a plastic soup.
Policy-makers, corporations and financial actors have a major role to play in shaping the future and must take responsibility for advancing ambitious solutions. But we shouldn’t wait around for others to act – there are changes we can all make that collectively add up to a huge difference.
Some 13 billion plastic bottles are used every day in the UK. Replacing these with reusable alternatives could prevent millions of tonnes of plastic waste each year. Swapping pre-packaged fruit and veg for items sold loose is another easy way to reduce your plastic footprint. Eating less meat and dairy can substantially decrease greenhouse gas emissions, as can switching to a renewable energy supplier and ensuring your savings are invested in an eco-friendly bank account or pension fund.
We can also demand that big businesses take more responsibility. You could ask your workplace whether they’d pledge to go 100 per cent renewable in their energy supply, or even switch to using electric vehicles.
Write to your regular supermarkets and tell them to stop selling pointless plastic, following the lead of Iceland which recently committed to go plastic-free across its own brand range by 2023. Ask them to introduce refillable systems to curve the tide of single-use packing; Morrisons has already started allowing customers to use their own containers for fish and meat – and there’s no excuse why other major retailers shouldn’t do the same.
The ocean sustains not just life below the waves but life on land too. With so much to be done, the time for action is now.