Rio+20: Put the Ocean First (By Catherine Leland)

Our ocean matters. It is the lifeblood of the planet, covering 72% of the Earth’s surface. It keeps the planet at a livable temperature and creates storm systems that allow fresh water to flow in our rivers and streams. The ocean creates 50% of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 25% of the CO2. Its organisms provide food to eat, its coral reefs protect coastlines from destruction, its mineral resources provide energy sources for industry. We would not exist without the ocean. This is what we do know. What we don’t know is vast – the ocean is the least-explored place on earth.

Today, the ocean is dying. Fish stocks are depleted and many species linger close to extinction. By 2003, the large fish population had fallen to an estimated 10% of its pre-industrial population. Ocean acidity has increased over 30% in the last 250 years and is set to more than double by 2100, threatening coral reefs and the shell-formation of pteropods (tiny marine creatures). Marine pollution has formed dead zones off of once-pristine coasts.

At Rio+20, the ocean is listed as the sixth of seven areas that need critical attention. I argue that it should be first. Most global sustainability problems impact the ocean, from carbon emissions to trash to deforestation to hunger. The health of the ocean measures our health as a global society. The ocean is the barometer of our progress in creating a sustainable world. Unfortunately, as seen at Rio+20, the ocean rarely finishes first in policy forums. Instead global leaders address crises as they emerge in piecemeal fashion, instead of creating a sustainable, long-term solution. The ocean “can wait” has long been the perception by generations of humans unable to see the cumulative impact of their actions.

At Rio+20, even many of the major environmental NGOs in the United States have focused their efforts elsewhere, or combined ocean advocacy with other issues – splitting their time and valuable resources. An expert from a leading American environmental advocacy group whom I spoke to acknowledged that the conference’s major problem was its lack of focus. There has been no agreement on key priorities, even among NGOs.

Meanwhile, the United States’ Rio+20 submission offers only weak ocean policy recommendations. For instance, to address the problem of ocean acidification, the U.S. supports “monitoring.” To resolve overfishing, the U.S. supports reduced fishing subsidies, “increased transparency” in fisheries regulation, management, and enforcement,” and “implementing and sharing” sustainable aquaculture practices. Without timeframes and more specificity, these recommendations will do little to curb the ocean’s major threats:

Acidification: The Natural Resources Defense Council calls it the “other CO2 problem,” as it is a byproduct of the stark rise of CO2 in our atmosphere. The CO2 mixing with salt water forms carbonic acid. In large quantities, this acid can increase the acidity of the ocean, which could result in mass depletion of everything from coral to pteropods that form the base of the ocean’s food chain.

Effective solutions require global acceptance of a climate change agreement. Economically efficient solutions would include a carbon tax or international emissions trading scheme. See Professor Rob Stavins’ blog for more information about the economics of climate change responses.

Overfishing: Overfishing has resulted in more labor and equipment intensive harvesting practices for less fish captured overall. It has resulted in limited food stock, species extinction, polluted waters and coastlines, and poor labor practices. Strongly enforcing fishing regulations, instituting fishing permit systems, and investing (carefully) in global sustainable aquaculture will ensure a sustainable food supply, better labor practices, and cleaner environments for coastal communities. This helps to clean the ocean and address global hunger.

Marine Pollution: Marine pollution stems, in large part, from onshore waste mismanagement, including: industrial waste, electronic waste, agriculture runoff, poorly managed consumer waste (e.g. plastics), inadequate sanitation systems, and noise. This waste not only impacts the ocean, but the quality of life and health of the world’s poorest who are most prone to live near waste streams. Collective agreements to fix broken systems within certain timeframes, and share best practices can help curb waste. Expansion and stronger enforcement of international agreements regulating electronic waste exports should also be part of any proposal.

Restoring the ocean environment requires resound global action, including a strong climate change agreement, investment in sustainable aquaculture, expansion of permit trading systems to curb fishing to sustainable levels, and collective agreements with enforceable timeframes to curb marine pollution. These policies are challenging to implement, but critical for the future of the planet. Putting the ocean first can provide a clear roadmap towards creating a sustainable world. Let the ocean be sustainability’s champion at Rio+20.

Catherine Leland is a 2013 Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School, where she is studying environmental policy and the Middle East. Her background is in politics and public administration in Southern California.

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