Environment: Four actions to help the oceans help us

Jul 16, 2022
Yacht with red spinnaker at full sail on blue ocean with clouds
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Our seas are already seriously threatened and more dangers are emerging but four marine strategies will deliver for human health, the environment and the economy. A circular economy in the food and agriculture industry will dramatically reduce biodiversity loss.

Fifteen emerging coastal and marine issues

It’s well known that coastal and marine habitats are facing multiple threats from, for instance, overexploitation, habitat loss, climate change and pollution but what about emerging and lesser known dangers? And while we may know some of the threats, how well do we know their consequences?

Thirty scientists, policymakers and conservationists from a range of disciplines have collaborated in a horizon scan to identify fifteen global issues that are likely to have a significant impact, positive or negative, on the functioning and conservation of marine and coastal biodiversity over the next 5-10 years.

The fifteen issues fell into three categories:

  1. Ecosystem impacts – for instance, the impacts of sediment and chemical runoff from wildfires on coastal and marine ecosystems; warmer waters inducing a poleward shift of equatorial species, creating less resilient marine ecosystems and less secure livelihoods for coastal communities; and ‘coastal darkening’ due to a range of factors that reduce the penetration of light into the sea and impede photosynthesis by plankton, algae and seagrasses.
  2. Resource exploitation – for instance, harvesting of collagen from sponges, jellyfish and sharks for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; disruption of the biological ocean carbon pump by fishing for deep-sea species; and the unknown effects of extracting lithium from deep-sea brine pools.
  3. New technologies – for instance, ensuring that the impacts of co-located marine activities such as windfarms and aquaculture are properly assessed and regulated; the increasing contamination of coastal sediments by metals and trace elements used in green technologies; and the potential of new underwater tracking systems to study non-surfacing animals, but also the potential of the tracker to influence the animal’s behaviour.

The paper presents a visual summary of the issues which is very helpful but won’t reproduce clearly in P&I.

The big question now, of course, is whether identifying these issues will actually lead to any research, policy development or action to prevent or mitigate the threats and consequences.

Helping the ocean help humans

According to the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group of sixteen serving world leaders including Albanese, Macron and Biden (who knew??), “The ocean gives us life. It feeds us, entertains us, connects us and inspires us, and powers our success. Our well-being depends on a healthy ocean. Putting a healthy ocean at the heart of decision-making is essential so that effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity go hand-in-hand to benefit people, nature and the economy.”

According to the Panel, four ocean strategies can deliver the trifecta: good for human health, good for the environment (including climate change and biodiversity), and good for the economy (creating jobs and delivering at least $5 in benefits for every $1 invested):

  1. Conserving mangroves has enormous benefits including increasing the productivity of fisheries, avoiding property damage from storm surges, carbon sequestration, reducing coastal erosion, increasing biodiversity and supporting tourism. Every dollar invested in looking after existing mangroves yields benefits worth $88. Restoring degraded mangroves (globally we’ve lost about a third of mangrove forests over the last 50 years) provides the same benefits but has a much lower investment:return ratio.
  2. Scaling up offshore wind energy production can reduce premature deaths from poor air quality, reduce the harms to health and assets from climate change, reduce ocean acidification, and create jobs and livelihoods for local communities. There are, however, risks to marine habitats and species that must be properly assessed and managed.
  3. Decarbonising international shipping requires significant investment to shift fleets from very dirty bunker fuel to clean energy such as hydrogen and batteries. Again though, lower air pollution and reduced global warming will generate benefits for the health of humans and the environment.
  4. Increasing sustainable food production by reforming fishing and increasing sustainable aquaculture (the emphasis being on ‘sustainable’) can help meet the increasing demand for protein (and help take the pressure off agricultural land and water use), improve human health and provide higher incomes for fishers. One dollar invested here can deliver $10 in benefits.

I’m not sure if the Panel had seen the horizon scan but let’s hope that as serving heads of countries they put their fine words into rapid action.

Trivia quiz

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Circular economy can halt biodiversity loss

In nature, nothing goes to waste; everything gets recycled endlessly. Not so in human societies; we extract, process, use and then discard to landfill, the oceans or the atmosphere the unwanted debris of a lot of the products we use. So, the theory goes, if we want to be environmentally sustainable we need a circular economy. Simples!

A Finnish study has for the first time quantified the potential of a circular economy to halt the staggeringly high rate of biodiversity loss. They examined the four sectors which have the largest impact on biodiversity loss and in which circular interventions could have a large impact: food and agriculture, buildings and construction, textiles and fibres, and forests. Rather surprisingly, the researchers found that ambitious but plausible circular economy actions involving governments, the private sector and consumers can halt land-based biodiversity loss and return biodiversity to its 2000 level by 2035 even if  no other action is taken. That seems like a pretty implausible claim to me but let’s not jump to conclusions.

The largest contribution to halting the loss (about three-quarters) comes from the food and agriculture sector (see graph above; BAU = Business As Usual). Three big shifts in practices, all of which would also reduce the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, are involved:

  1. Develop substitutes for animal proteins: 85% of the land-related loss of biodiversity is related to the extraction and processing of biomass – food, wood, textiles, etc. Meat and dairy production uses three-quarters of agricultural land and the single most important action for halting the biodiversity loss is to diversify protein sources away from animal-intensive proteins. Reducing meat consumption by a half and dairy by two-thirds would free up 350 million hectares of agricultural land (a little less than half of Australia).
  2. Reduce food waste: Over a quarter of farmland produces food that is lost or wasted somewhere along the chain from field to processor to shop to plate to mouth. Interventions to cut the waste are available all along the line and could free up another 146 million hectares of agricultural land.
  3. Regenerative farming: The first two actions reduce the demand for agricultural land and could allow the freed-up land to be returned to nature. Regenerative agriculture would help the land that is still needed for cultivation contribute to rather than damage biodiversity. Regenerative farming practices include no-tilling, rebuilding topsoils, keeping nutrients in the fields, crop rotation, biological pest control, animals and crops sharing the same land, local food production to reduce food-miles, and application of the principles of agroecology.

The recommendations of this study all seem eminently sensible but the problem I have with the concept of a circular economy in general is not that I disagree with the principles or the potential benefits but rather that I’m sceptical that it can be rolled out at sufficient scale and with sufficient speed to deliver the gains that its proponents advance. There seems to be too much inertia in industry and among consumers to make it happen on a grand scale. We struggle to recycle plastic – only about 10% is currently recycled – and that looks like a piece of cake by comparison. So, yes, let’s ‘circularise’ but don’t let’s think it’s a panacea for all our environmental woes.

Bee balling

“A rare moment captured up close: Diadasia rinconis (Cactus Bees) swarming together in a mating ball, each male eager to become companions with a female. Native to America, these bees are considered solitary species, meaning they live without the hierarchy and structure of their European counterparts – though they still work to pollinate cacti and help plants in the American [i.e. the USA] southwest thrive.”

This intriguing apian behaviour was captured by photojournalist Karine Aigner, and won the Grand Prize of the 2022 California Academy of Sciences Big Picture: Natural World Photography Competition.

The photo below, taken by Nayan Khanolkar, won the ‘Coexistence With Predators’ category. It shows the junction between Sanjay Gandhi National Park and urban Mumbai where it’s not uncommon to see a leopard in the city and where a careful coexistence between human and non-human animals has been actively created.

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