Oceans and sustainable development

© Tara Expéditions

The ocean – our global home

Among the many environmental issues concerning the world’s oceans, those that draw the most public attention are the iconic endangered species such as whales, dolphins, turtles or coral reefs. Issues related to the preservation of certain natural paradises in the Pacific or the Arctic have also entered the “green consciousness.” The exceptional beauty of these marine sanctuaries awakens in people an almost immediate attachment to the environmental cause, and inspires important campaigns to save individual species or specific places. But not many people make the connection between the ocean, and human and social issues – even though we know that the ocean remains man’s main source of protein, and plays a vital role in regulating the climate and the cycle of water, directly impacting the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The ocean, blue lung of the planet, can get sick!

The Earth’s atmosphere is breathable thanks to the ocean, which plays an essential role by capturing carbon and producing oxygen. Plankton – the multitudes of drifting organisms forming the base of the marine food chain – capture CO2 through photosynthesis, producing oxygen and sequestering carbon in the deep ocean. The ocean is the blue lung of the planet, producing half of the oxygen we breathe. It’s important to remember however that this “carbon pump” functions not because of the ocean as a body of water, but thanks to the diversity of living organisms that constitute marine fauna and flora. This means that a rapid decline in marine biodiversity could threaten the very ability of the ocean to provide functions essential for the global ecosystem.

In addition to its role in the carbon cycle, the ocean is an important element in the global climate system via the underwater currents that distribute heat and regulate climate. Today, it seems that significant changes in temperature, acidity and salinity can cause changes in the movements of currents. As a result, ecosystems could be directly affected, ultimately impacting the marine food chain, and consequently the coastal populations dependent upon marine resources for their livelihood.

What will happen if the oceanic ‘climate machine’ breaks down? Can we predict the effects of a sharp decline in the population of certain kinds of plankton? For example, how would a decline in the population of diatoms, or certain protists in the Arctic, affect marine ecosystems? In the last few decades we’ve seen the emergence of  “dead zones” – entire areas of the ocean with zero or very little oxygen. More time and funding are needed for researchers to answer these questions. Given the lack of political decisions and funding for basic research today, we would like to adopt Nietzsche’s famous phrase, once applied to philosophers: biologists, oceanographers, researchers – all aboard!

The Tara Oceans project and global study of plankton

Tara Oceans is an international research expedition that traveled the world’s oceans for 4 years studying plankton. The project was sparked by the urgent need to understand biological relationships and interactions between planktonic organisms in the ocean. Given that plankton constitutes almost 95% of the bio-mass in the oceans, it’s surprising that the Tara Oceans project is the very first global study of plankton. After collecting plankton samples around the planet for several years, the Tara Oceans expedition’s first results show that we know only 5% of the DNA of the organisms collected. This vast unknown territory may contain answers and alternatives for energy, food and medicine in this period of ecological transition. We believe so, but not by separating preservation of species and marine areas from the rest of the development agenda. The ocean should be considered an essential resource within the “blue society” as a whole.

Blue ecology

The sustainable management of the ocean is far from being a priority for our governments and international institutions. For a long time, people believed that the immensity of the ocean could absorb all the pollution produced by man. It was not until the late 20th century that the UN finally adopted some policies for management of the seas: The Convention on the Law of the Sea (nicknamed “Montego Bay”) on the management of international maritime areas was approved in 1973, but then it took 20 years to be enforced. Today the Convention manages only the exploitation of the seabed and not the water column. The high seas – that represent more than half the planet – have no organization for managing biodiversity! As for the management of fishing, in the early 1980s people finally realized the seriousness of the problem of overfishing, and the risk of disappearance of certain species such as cod and bluefin tuna. Gradually, Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) have been created – under the auspices of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) – to try to limit catches and maintain ‘stocks’.

Despite these advances, and the important role of the FAO and RFMOs in managing fisheries according to principles of food security, the ocean has remained on the fringes of the global development agenda. In 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro marked the first time our society provided a way to think globally – at the highest level – and develop international policies to deal with ecological problems. The creation of UN commissions to address issues related to biodiversity, climate change, and the definition of “Millennium Development Goals” are historical processes that contributed to the consolidation of the concept of sustainable development. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, we have begun to address very visible and mobilizing issues such as access to drinking water, conservation of tropical forests, and food security – the “ Millennium goals.”
But questions about the health of marine ecosystems have remained invisible or fragmented, with no direct influence or impact on defining a new agenda for so-called “sustainable” development.

Agenda for Development: Goals for Sustainable Development and the Ocean

In 2012, faced with increasingly compelling scientific evidence of the need to build a new model of development, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development – known as Rio+20 – opened a new round of negotiations to define objectives and solutions for the “post-2015” period. This time (unlike in 1992) we can’t afford to make the mistake of forgetting – that life on Earth depends on a healthy ocean. Creating a goal for sustainable development of the ocean is therefore a major objective.

The ocean – conspicuously absent from current climate negotiations

Although the objectives of sustainable development are extremely important – especially as an incentive and symbolic measure – they are not accompanied by obligations and measures to restrain the states. This is why in the ongoing multilateral processes, priority must be given to negotiations for a new climate treaty. The negotiations, aimed primarily at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are now actually part of adaptation to climate change, i.e., how to deal with extreme weather events, rising sea levels, droughts and migrations, which are already a reality. The transition to renewable energy and funding of compensatory measures for the most vulnerable populations are also on the menu of the UN Convention on Climate Change. The battle is far from won, but after a period of considerable decline – after the failure of the COP15 in Copenhagen – states are trying to regain the momentum to succeed at the Paris Conference in 2015 in adopting a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Decision time for the ocean

We have entered a period of important decision-making for the ocean: Deadlines are approaching – for the climate treaty, and the definition of sustainable development goals. In addition, negotiations are taking place concerning governance of the high seas and measures to achieve the Aichi goals for marine protected areas. Climate, development, adaptation, innovation and blue economy – the ocean, source of life, climate regulator – must be at the heart of our concern for tomorrow’s society.

 by André Abreu (Tara Expeditions, head of advocacy)