Troubled oceans take center stage at major UN meeting

A long-delayed UN conference on how to restore the faltering health of the global oceans begins in Lisbon on Monday, with thousands of policymakers, experts and advocates on the case.

Humanity needs healthy oceans. They generate 50% of the oxygen we breathe and provide essential protein and nutrients to billions of people every day.

Covering more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, the seven seas have also softened the impact of climate change on life on land.

But at a terrible cost.

Absorbing about a quarter of CO2 pollution – even as emissions have increased by half over the past 60 years – has made seawater acidic, threatening aquatic food chains and the ocean’s ability to reduce carbon.

And absorbing more than 90% of the excess heat from global warming has generated massive marine heat waves that are killing off precious coral reefs and expanding oxygen-deprived dead zones.

“We’re just beginning to understand the extent to which climate change is going to wreak havoc on the health of the oceans,” said Charlotte de Fontaubert, the World Bank’s global leader for the blue economy.

To make matters worse, there is an endless stream of pollution, including the amount of plastic in a garbage truck every minute, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

On current trends, annual plastic waste will nearly triple to one billion tonnes by 2060, according to a recent OECD report.

– Stocks of wild fish –

Microplastics – found in Arctic ice and fish in the ocean’s deepest trenches – are estimated to kill over a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals each year.

The solutions on the table range from recycling to global limits on plastic production.

Global fisheries will also be in the spotlight during the five-day UN Oceans Conference, originally scheduled for April 2020 and jointly organized by Portugal and Kenya.

“At least a third of wild fish stocks are overfished and less than 10% of the ocean is protected,” Kathryn Matthews, chief scientist at US NGO Oceana, told AFP.

“Destructive and illegal fishing vessels operate with impunity in many coastal waters and on the high seas.”

One of the culprits is nearly $35 billion in subsidies. Small steps taken last week by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to reduce donations to industry are unlikely to make a difference, experts said.

The conference will also see a push for a moratorium on deep-sea mining of rare metals needed to build electric vehicle batteries.

Scientists say poorly understood deep-sea ecosystems are fragile and can take decades or more to heal once disrupted.

Another key focus will be “blue food”, the new watchword for ensuring that marine crops from all sources are sustainable and socially responsible.

– Protected areas –

The rising yields of aquaculture – from salmon and tuna to shellfish and seaweed – are on track to outpace wild marine crops that have been declining since the 1990s, with each producing around 100 million tonnes a year.

If managed properly, “wild ocean fish can provide a climate-friendly micronutrient source of protein that can feed a billion people a healthy seafood meal every day – forever,” Matthews said.

The Lisbon meeting will see ministers and even some heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, but it is not a formal negotiating session.

But attendees will push for a strong oceans agenda at two critical summits later this year: the UN COP27 climate talks in November, hosted by Egypt, followed by the long-delayed COP15 biodiversity talks recently moved from China to Montreal.

The oceans are already at the center of a draft biodiversity treaty tasked with stopping what many scientists fear is the first “mass extinction” event in 65 million years.

Nearly 100 nations support a fundamental clause that would designate 30% of the planet’s lands and oceans as protected areas.

For climate change, the focus will be on carbon sequestration: increasing the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2, either by increasing natural sinks such as mangroves or through geoengineering schemes.

At the same time, scientists warn, a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases is needed to restore ocean health.

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