Time to protect our oceans
Editorial first Published on 11 May by Antara, the Indonesian news service
By Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
Manado, 12 May 2009 - As more than 120 nations gather in Manado, Indonesia for the World Oceans Conference the issue of climate change should be high on their minds.
The world's oceans and seas are now understood to be the biggest sink of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels.
Indeed experts now estimate that up to 40 per cent of the C02 entering the atmosphere is being cycled through the marine environment, thus playing a crucial role in moderating climate change.
But experts are warning that the marine realm cannot continue to soak up man-made pollution forever without consequences.
Many marine living creatures, from corals and crabs to plankton at the base of the food chain, need seawater that is alkaki to build their skeletons.
The average pH of water at the ocean's surface has now fallen from 8.16 to 8.05 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution?small falls, but with potentially huge impacts if this continues.
Faced with this rapidly emerging science, the question is then what to do.
Firstly, governments must affirm their determination to 'Seal the Deal' in Copenhagen at the UN climate convention meeting in order to begin steering the world onto a low carbon course.
Secondly, we have to improve the health of our oceans.
They have to be as fit and resilient as possible, so that they can cope with the climate change burden- so they can continue to provide us with food and the myriad of other economically-important services.
This means governments have to urgently address the multiple challenges weakening our seas, from land based pollution and discharges from ships up to overexploitation of the globe's vital fisheries, fuelled in large part by perverse and wasteful subsidies totalling up to $35 billion a year.
Currently somewhere around 12 per cent of the land is held in protected areas, but less one per cent of the marine environment enjoys such status?so this needs to change, and to change fast too.
Meanwhile pollution levels, 80 per cent of which come from factories, cities and farms on the land, also need to be cut.
More than 60 countries have now developed national action plans under the voluntary UNEP initiative called the Global Programme of Action (GPA) for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources and we have 18 Regional Seas agreements now operating across the globe.
It is a start, but to date the magnitude of the global response still fails to reflect the challenge as evidenced by the growing number of 'dead zones'?de-oxygenated areas of sea linked with fertilizer and sewage-run alongside emissions from cars and shipping that now number 200...
Ways of boosting the health of the oceans should be a key issue in Manado in recognition of the importance of our seas in buying humanity much needed breathing space with respect to climate change.
Indeed perhaps it should now be pay back time. Firstly, investments in adaptation should not end at the shoreline-investing in the rehabilitation, rejuvenation and resilience of coastal ecosystems, from mangroves to coral reefs and wetlands, can generate significant returns in respect to climate-proofing economies.
These include protecting vulnerable communities against storms surges and sea level rise while also helping to soak up greenhouse gas emissions; filter pollution and improve the health of fisheries.
And perhaps, just over the horizon, there is an even bigger prize?a way to make the oceans part of the carbon market options.
Consider the history of forests. The suggestion that developing countries should be paid for not cutting down trees was dismissed over ten years ago as flawed.
But in Copenhagen there is a good chance that part of the deal will include forest payments to tropical nations including Indonesia. Eventually other land-based ecosystems may also be considered from peat lands to soils.
The oceans' play a vast role in countering climate change ? they are our 'blue' forests.
Rewarding countries that sustainably manage them to boost their climate combating role and productivity would seem well worth exploring-Manado is an opportunity and the forum to float such ideas.
Time to combat change is bubbling away fast. We need all hands on deck to turn this climate ship around from investments in energy savings and low, and zero carbon technologies to markets that promote healthy ecosystems?forests for sure and perhaps our oceans and our seas too.