Plastic pollution and oil slicks, flooded coastlines and shrinking fish stocks: when people think about environmental issues and the ocean, the images are invariably negative. But instead of thinking of the ocean as the victim, perhaps we need to see it as the potential solution. This idea is what informs the work of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which involves 14 serving world leaders. Together, their countries account for 30% of the world’s coastlines, 30% of the world’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs), 20% of the world’s shipping fleet and 20% of its fisheries. They focus on building momentum towards a sustainable ocean economy where effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity go hand-in-hand.

How to achieve this new vision for the ocean was the question behind a webinar featuring several experts affiliated to the Ocean Panel, moderated by WRI president, Andrew Steer. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle,” said Dr Steer, introducing the Ocean Panel’s work. He noted that it was partly about learning and gathering knowledge, but also about establishing a narrative that links the ocean and the economy.

“Five years ago, people thought there was a trade-off between climate and the economy,” he said. “We now know that smart climate action leads to more economic efficiency, new technologies, it lowers risks. Combined, these lead to a better economy, more jobs. Exactly the same applies to the ocean.”

The question of why we ought to strive for a sustainable ocean economy was entertained by Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean. The consequences of continuing as we are now, he said, would be escalating frequency and severity of environmental disasters with immense implications for human security. But, he said, we have the ideas and resources to tackle this — the only “wobbly element” is political will.  

That’s where the Ocean Panel comes in. Converting ocean knowledge to ocean action has been elusive. The ocean community largely agrees on what needs to happen, but this has not readily converted into political will. The Ocean Panel aims to fix that. One of its priorities has been commissioning a comprehensive assessment of ocean science and knowledge that has significant policy relevance.

One example is the latest Ocean Panel-commissioned Blue Paper, “The ocean transition: what to learn from systems transitions.”

“The way the ocean is currently governed is weak and fragmented,” said the Paper’s co-author, Mary Ruckelshaus of Stanford University. She argued that three things need to change: people’s relationship with nature and the ocean; our relationships with each other, and how we use information to collaborate rather than compete for dwindling resources; and the relationships between nations, which need to work more within a multilateral system.

“Politically it’s a challenge,” said Vidar Helgesen, the Norwegian Special Envoy for the Ocean, speaking in the webinar. “We don’t live in the ocean so political leaders often tend to have their back to the ocean.” He said the Ocean Panel’s work is vital in changing this narrative, explaining the great opportunities to be gained if people took better care of the ocean.

The results of dealing with these issues would be worth it. Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University said it is not just about habitats, fish stocks and building more resilient coastlines. She said that the ocean has the potential to achieve 21% of the carbon emission reductions that will be needed to get to the 1.5 degree warming target by 2050.

“That’s huge,” she said, listing the areas where the benefits could be gained: renewable energy, greening shipping, protecting blue carbon ecosystems with nature-based solution and shifting diets to include more seafood. “All are significant, and all add up.

Listen to a shortened version of the webinar on the WRI Podcast here, and listen to the full length webinar below:  

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