Why is the ocean important? The ocean covers three quarters of the Earth’s surface and plays a crucial role in supporting an enormous variety of life. The ocean helps regulate the climate by absorbing excess carbon dioxide and heat. The ocean is also important for the global economy. According to the OECD (2016), its economic contribution was valued at US$1.5 trillion in 2010, a contribution that could increase to 3 trillion by 2030. Nevertheless, the ocean is facing a crisis due to increased levels of chemicals, solids, heat, nutrients, carbon, and bio‐invasions as well as reduced oxygen levels. One of the causes of this crisis is that, despite the ocean’s economic, biological, social, and climatic importance, policymakers around the world have adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude when dealing with such problems (Environmental Audit Committee, 2019). Specifically, empirical evidence shows that governments around the world have been slow to establish and implement effective ocean management conservation policies (Halpern, 2012; Pauly & Zeller, 2016; Webster, 2015). As a result, the international conservation agenda has focused more on terrestrial conservation than oceans. For example, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change contains only a single brief reference to the ocean, whereas several articles call on parties to take conservation actions related to land.
One of the main reasons for this “sea blindness” approach in public policies is that most of the ocean problems are covered by its vastness, making them difficult to perceive, sense and measure. However, in recent years, one of these problems—pollution from plastics and other solid waste—has become extremely visible, driving countries’ attention towards the ocean. Such attention has helped initiate strong social and political movements to raise awareness. However, the fundamental weakness of these movements is that they have focused their efforts and policy agendas mostly on plastics. This emphasis cannot distort public perception through an unclear message that translates into plastic pollution being the foremost and even only problem affecting the ocean.
Plastics are indeed a sizeable problem, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Focusing on this problem should not distract people and governments from dealing with other problems affecting the ocean, especially those that are more serious and urgent, such as chemical pollution (from fertilizer and sewage runoff) and overfishing; the effects of which are exacerbated by the global problem of our times, climate change. The UNDP (2012) estimated that the economic cost of “dead zones” due to ocean chemical pollution range from US$200 to US$800 billion every year. This cost is 15 to 60 times greater than the economic impact of plastic pollution. Moreover, dead zones have quadrupled in size, and they have increased in number tenfold since 1950 (Breitburg et al., 2018). According to scientists, if this trend continues, marine ecosystems are likely to collapse, which could ultimately cause irreversible social and economic damages. On the other hand, unsustainable commercial fishing is a significant driver of marine biodiversity loss around the world; that not only affects the health of marine ecosystems, but also produces significant economic losses. According to the World Bank (2017), approximately US$83 billion is lost each year due to the mismanagement of fisheries around the world. That amount is six times higher than the economic loss from the plastics pollution of oceans.
In summary, plastic pollution is a serious problem that, due to its visibility, has finally attracted efforts of governments and the general public to protect the ocean. However, this renewed interest in the health of the ocean has been confined mostly to plastics while there are large-scale systemic changes needed to address other environmental concerns related to the ocean. Then, it is our recommendation not to neglect other serious problems for the ocean that dwarf the impact of plastic pollution. Even more, we should take advantage of the fact that the plastics problem has generated a large enough ‘wave’ to attract the attention of the public and governments, making them to overcome their “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with respect to the ocean. Nevertheless, we warned that like all waves, this one also has a limited life. Therefore, it is imperative not only to act, but also to do so immediately so as to not to lose both the public interest and the political will of governments to address all the problems and protect the ocean.
Winds of change are perceived that allow us to be optimistic about the future of ocean protection actions. For instance, Chile which is going to be the host nation of the COP 25 UN climate conference is calling the COP as a ‘Blue Cop’. Also, the IPCC, is planning to release a report in September on Climate Changes and Oceans. Then, it is possible that in the near future, international agenda will be aligned to take action for protecting the lifeblood and the lungs of our planet and humankind, the ocean, but hopefully beyond plastics.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Photo by Comunicacion Inecc
This blogpost is part of the IDB Group’s COP25 Campaign. COP25, under the Presidency of the Government of Chile, will take place from 2 – 13 December 2019 in Madrid, with logistical support from the Spanish government.