When you consider the fact that the world’s oceans make up 97% of all the water on Earth, and cover 70% of the Earth’s total surface area, it is both surprising and disappointing that the topic of “ocean health” gets so little attention in our discussions of global environmental issues.
After all, as the United Nations pointed out in the run-up to the 2022 Ocean Conference (UNOC), the ocean is “the planet’s largest biosphere, and is home to up to 80 percent of all life in the world. It generates 50 percent of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, and captures 90 percent of the additional heat generated from those emissions.” The ocean also sustains the livelihoods of some three billion people worldwide, most of them in developing countries.
The UN established its Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, in 2015 as a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all,” including SDG 14: Life Under Water. The main objective of SDG 14 is “to conserve and sustainably use the world’s oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.” To further the pursuit of this goal, the UN also proclaimed this decade (2021-2030) as “the decade of ocean science for sustainable development,” with the aim of reversing the cycle of degradation and beginning the process of regeneration.
However, despite its clear importance to the health of the planet and the global economy, the ocean has generally been given short shrift as an environmental priority, at least if we take funding flows as our leading indicator. Of the 17 SDGs, SDG 14 is by far the most undervalued in terms of global aid allocations, receiving less than 1% of total aid (~$2.2 bn) as of 2019. Compare this with SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, which received some 7% of total aid (~$24.9 bn). (See chart.) It is this lack of attention that led the UN Secretary to declare at the opening of the UNOC that “sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ‘Ocean Emergency.’”
Of the 17 SDGs, SDG 14 is by far the most undervalued in terms of global aid allocations, receiving less than 1% of total aid (~$2.2 bn) as of 2019.
The European Union defines the “Blue Economy” as a sector of the overall economy, including “all economic activities related to oceans, seas and coasts. It covers a wide range of interlinked established and emerging sectors.” This would include both the ocean economy (i.e., the extractive, renewable, non-renewable, and operational sectors) and those on-land industries and activities that also indirectly pressure the oceans, such as agricultural runoff and discharges of municipal and industrial waste.
About half of the world’s population lives within 100 km of a coastline, and while this population is by nature the most dependent on the ocean, its activities also have the heaviest direct impact on the ocean’s overall health. We see the results of these activities in a variety of ways, including overfishing, plastic and chemical pollution, and outbreaks of harmful algal blooms (HABs) as a result of increasing nutrient pollution from industrial, urban, and agricultural outflows that accelerate the eutrophication of coastal waters.
At the close of the UNOC on July 1, all 193 member states unanimously adopted a political declaration renewing their commitment to strengthen ocean protection, proclaiming that they are all “committed to halting and reversing the decline in the health of the ocean’s ecosystems.” However, the conference unsurprisingly resulted in few concrete agreements or obligations to address the major challenges on the agenda, such as regulation of deep-sea mining or limits on plastic pollution.
On the funding front, the Protecting Our Planet Challenge, a coalition of philanthropic organizations that includes Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Foundation, committed to invest at least $1 billion toward marine protection by 2030, which would make this single commitment roughly equal to all philanthropic giving for marine protection over the past decade.
The outcome of the conference once again made it clear that if we are to make real progress to reduce the continuing man-made pressures on ocean health, it will require significant changes in our current way of doing business across a number of sectors. We in the water and resource recovery industries are ideally positioned to make real contributions in addressing the threats posed to ocean health by marine pollution, including litter and plastics, from marine or land-based sources. By taking local steps to develop and implement established best practices in areas such as wastewater treatment, stormwater management, efficient irrigation, recycling and waste management, we can drive real and dramatic impact in ocean health from a number of angles, moving toward the World Bank’s goal of a Blue Economy that sees “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”
This shouldn’t be positioned as a false choice between conservation and the economy: Properly implemented programs of conservation, protection, enforcement and preservation can actually support long-term economic health by putting the conditions in place to regenerate the oceans and restore abundance. And despite the bleak assessments at the outset of the UNOC, it is not too late to turn things around with regard to ocean health.
In 2020, a landmark study led by scientists at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) concluded that marine life can be rebuilt by 2050, if committed measures are undertaken on a broad global basis. The researchers found evidence of the remarkable resilience of marine ecosystems and documented a shift from steep losses of marine life during the 20th century to a slowing down of losses—and in some cases even actual recovery—over the first two decades of the 21st century.
By doing our part and working with our clients and partners to clean the world’s waters, we are excited to play a role in rebuilding marine life and creating the conditions needed for long-term resilient oceans and a healthy, sustainable Blue Economy.