How we messed up ocean protection

Unless you live near the coast, you probably think about the ocean more as a destination for a nice beach vacation as anything that directly affects you. To put it bluntly: even if you don’t eat fish, hate swimming, and the idea of the beach disgusts you: the ocean affects you, too. Every single person on this planet is affected by the health of the ocean. Every. Single. Person.

We’ve long used the ocean for food, travel, and shipping, but we also rely on the giant blue for our climate. Tens of millions of humans rely on marine fish and seafood stocks to meet their food needs . Many more millions earn a living in the fishing sector or industries that rely on those industries.

But, the role of the ocean in climate regulation is likely the one that most people think way too little about.

Despite the incredible importance of the ocean for humanity, the ocean is at risk from two detrimental crises affecting every single one of us: the climate and biodiversity crises. And that’s the rabbit hole I’ve spent the last months falling into to write my thesis about marine protection in reality and public perception. It was an interesting but frustrating ride, and now, you get to go along on some of that same ride in this video series on marine protection. Lucky for you, I already did the most annoying parts like reading way more than a hundred papers or talking to one of my least favorite people in an interview to get the “other side.”

Let’s unpack all that. Well, almost all of that: shipping will gets its own video in the context of animal vessel collisions, so I’ll focus on food and climate for now. Speaking of the climate: you know how everyone is talking about planting trees? If we could, we should be planting oceans instead. And that’s only partially a joke, as we’ll see in the next episodes.

The ocean has absorbed between a quarter and a third of human-made carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution and buffered about 90% of the added heat we created through greenhouse gasses. And while it’s hard to say how warm it would be without the ocean, it would definitely be a lot less livable.

The deep sea is our largest store of organic carbon and the ocean is thought to be our only net-sink of carbon. Yes, only. That means, in total, there were more emissions from trees and wetlands than carbon absorbed by them. That, of course, isn’t nature’s fault, as nature couldn’t plan for the rampant destruction caused by humanity. It is getting easier to find peat-free soil for my balcony garden, so people seem to be waking up to that fact, but there is still endless deforestation, drying of marshlands, and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, temperatures have been rising. For the last few years, the entire globe has felt the effects. Studies have shown that warming affects everything from genes to entire ecosystems, but also that the warmer temperatures will increase economic inequality, duck with human health, and lower global economic output. A business-as-usual approach is estimated to lead to a reduction of economic productivity of 23% by 2100 and widen the gap between the wealthier and poorer individuals and nations. But sure, let’s ignore that, shall we?

Chapter 1: The history of climate action

This whole mess started long ago. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the first global agenda was formed. The thing was called ‘Agenda 21’ and decribed as “a comprehensive plan of action to build a global partnership for sustainable development to improve human lives and protect the environment” according to the United Nations and has been seen as the basis for future accords.

Two years later, the first version of the resulting framework went into force, though not legally binding at that point. Since then, the member states of this thing meet regularly for so-called Conferences of the Parties (COP).

Nothing was legally binding though, until the Kyoto Protocol was signed during COP3, so the third meeting, in Japan with an aim to lower emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels.

And, I guess, this is where the story of making grand, global promises, and then not keeping them really started…

In 2007, negotiations for a second version of the Kyoto protocol started at COP13 in Bali, Indonesia. They finished this thing at COP15, but it was again non-binding. This time, the parties agreed that global warming shouldn’t reach 2 degrees.

In October of 2010, at COP16, they revised and updated their strategy plan for the 2011 to 2020 period. This updated plan included the Aichi Biodiversity Targets which span five major areas. They were supposed to be met by 2020.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change was signed by 196 parties with the main goal to limit global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius.

The Paris Agreement set increasingly ambitious goals on five-year intervals. By 2020, countries were supposed to submit updated plans for climate action, so-called NDCs or nationally determined contributions, but the Climate Action Tracker (2020) found that none of the large emitters met the deadline.

Over the past years, governments and companies have made huge promises. Net-zero by 2050 or later are popular choices. China intends to reach net-zero by 206 which–assuming they’d meet it– would lower global warming estimates by 0.2-0.3 degrees Celsius alone.

Assuming they are met…

The problem is that most of these goals are far-off and non-binding, vague promises in the far future. Few of the large emitters have even set 2030 goals to stay on track. And even if all the goals for far-off dates are indeed met, they would put us on track for 0.8 degrees more than the 1.5-degree target.

1.5 plus 0.8 would be 2.3, if my math holds up. At 2.5-3.0 degrees, studies are estimating a reduction in per-person economic output of 15-25%. That means, every single person would be 15-25% less efficient at their work. Reaching 4 degrees would even lower output by a third.

Last year, at COP 27, little progress was made. The largest outcome of COP 27 seems to have been an agreement to compensate poor and vulnerable countries for climate change effects, but as the details remained undecided, I’d just add that to the list of vague promises at this point. To make matters worse, the goal to reach peak emissions by 2025 was removed.

In general, progress towards these goals has been too little and none of the targets for 2020 were fully met, sometimes the situation was even worse than in 2010.

Speaking of goals: there is a second set of similar goals, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which came into effect in 2015 with 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and an annual platform to follow up on the progress. Unfortunately, here, too, progress is far from where it would need to be.

The practice of making promises, waiting for the deadline to pass, and setting new targets for a later date seems prevalent.

Chapter 2: A stressed ocean

The ocean taking up a crabton of carbon for us has kept temperature rise at a minimum but that comes at a cost: carbon dioxide taken up by the ocean does some chemistry stuff and leads to more acidic waters. The more the ocean buffers our emissions, the more acidic it gets.

If left alone, the ocean is ducking good at balancing it’s own pH (a measure of how acidic something is; a high pH is a low acidity and vice versa). But we’re attacking the buffering mechanisms. For example, mangroves keep the pH balanced in their ecosystem, but they can’t do that if they are getting chopped down to make room for a hotel or agriculture. Migrating fish and teleost fish (almost all fish you might have heard of are teleost, we’ll get there in the Climbing the Tree of Life series very soon) carry minerals through the water and help keep things balances–again, which they can’t do if they are fished out for human consumption.

As a result, the ocean is not only getting warmer but also more acidic, a combination that stresses marine life and the climate.

And things are looking grim for the ocean, even if we pull off the miracle of a 1.5-degree temperature limit. Well, at that point, we stand to lose 70-90% of warm-water corals, so that super biodiverse nature hotspot people like making documentaries about. At 2 degrees of warming, we’re looking at 99% of the warm-water corals lost. As you can see, we’re in dire straits and action is needed right ducking now.

Add issues for calcifying organisms at the basis of the marine food web and stocks already struggling as populations decline, and solutions to curb overfishing and protect nature are clearly needed.

Instead of protecting the ocean, we are exploiting it. Annually, an estimated 100 million tonnes of marine fish and invertebrates are caught.

We will talk more about the stressors of the ocean and how everything connects in the next episode. For now, let’s move on to what’s being done about it.

Unfortunately, despite all these stressors, marine protection is following similar paths as general climate action. The equivalent to National Parks and reserves on land, MPA are widely seen as the most effective type of ocean conservation—if done right. And that’s where the problems really start, crab hits the fan, and everything gets complicated: when reality meets science.

Next time, on this series, we’ll talk about exactly where we stand on marine protection, before we get into the why and how of protecting the ocean to save ourselves.



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