The Ocean as Solution, Not Victim
The Ocean Panel is a group of 14 countries looking to protect 100% of their ocean areas by 2025. Pictured: a coral reef in the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Jim Maragos, US Fish and Wildlife Service, CC BY-NC 2.0)
The oceans are facing serious and growing threats, including climate change, overfishing, plastic pollution and more. But a group of 14 world leaders called the Ocean Panel is committing to transform the ocean from victim to solution, by sustainably managing 100% of their ocean areas by 2025. Jane Lubchenco is the Deputy Director for Climate and Environment for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as a co-chair of the Ocean Panel Expert Group that helped ground this vision in research. She joins Host Aynsley O'Neill for more about the Ocean Panel and its vision.
O’NEILL: Putting the oceans to work by catching some of the wind offshore is part of the Biden Administration’s plan to blunt climate disruption and reduce dangerous pollution. And the oceans are also getting a champion in the White House. Jane Lubchenco is the former Administrator of NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She recently co-chaired a panel of experts advising 14 world leaders on how to transform the ocean from victim to a solution, with 100% sustainable management by 2025. She is now a senior member of the climate and ecology brain trust that President Biden has assembled at the White House, serving as Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Before she took her White House job she spoke with us about the vision and work of the Ocean Panel. Jane, welcome back to Living on Earth!
LUBCHENCO: Thanks, Aynsley, it's a delight to be here.
O'NEILL: Now, when we look at how we currently manage the oceans, why does the world need this total transformation in management?
LUBCHENCO: The ocean is incredibly important to all of life on Earth. It's important to livelihoods, it's important to help mitigate climate change. And yet the ocean is under serious threat from a wide range of activities: climate change, pollution, overfishing, just to name a few. The current trajectory that we are on is really not good. And the question is, how can we address these underlying challenges? And part of the answer is that we need to do so more holistically than we have done in the past. We've treated a lot of these problems, issue by issue. And part of the message that the Ocean Panel leaders heard is the need for integrated solutions that consider the whole suite of human activities. The other major thing that I think they heard was that a smart future is not just doing more of the same. It's actually doing things differently, being much smarter about how we fish, much smarter about how we produce energy, much smarter about how we transport goods around the world. And so much of what is in their new, exciting Ocean Action agenda is doing things smarter, more effectively, more efficiently, and also doing things more holistically.
O'NEILL: Now, Jane, what are some of the most important ways that a sustainable ocean economy connects with climate change?
LUBCHENCO: That's a great question. In September of 2019, we had a new report that came out from the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There was a special report on the ocean and the cryosphere, and it painted in very depressing detail, all of the ways that the ocean has been massively affected by climate change and ocean acidification. And it was clear from that report that the ocean is indeed a victim of climate change. It's not just the changes in the weather patterns, and the extreme heat, and the droughts, and the megastorms that we're seeing on land. But the impacts of climate change to the ocean have been very, very significant. But the same week, the Ocean Panel unveiled a report that it commissioned that asked the question, what is the potential for the ocean to provide solutions to help mitigate climate change. And before that report, when people thought about climate change in the ocean, they either thought about the impacts that I just referred to, or they thought about the ocean being important for adaptation. But very rarely has the international policy community focused on climate mitigation thought about the ocean. The report that the Ocean Panel commissioned, looked at a variety of ocean based activities and asked simply, what is the potential for mitigating climate change, and they found enough data at the global scale to analyze five categories of activities. And when they added up how much they could get from each of those five, they came to the astounding conclusion that it might be as much as 1/5 of what we need, by way of carbon emission reductions to achieve the 1.5 degree centigrade target of the Paris Agreement by 2050. So that's huge. You know, a lot of those activities weren't even on the table. And here, we find that they actually could play a very significant role in helping to turn things around in terms of climate change.
O'NEILL: So Jane, you mentioned five ocean based activities to help mitigate climate change. Could you go through those for us, please?
LUBCHENCO: So the first one was increasing renewable energy from the ocean, and that's a big one. Most of that is going to likely be wave energy, but it might also be tidal, it might be current, it might be thermal, depending on what part of the world you are in. The second category was making shipping less polluting. So 90% of the goods that are traded globally travel by ocean and currently, that's pretty polluting. It's dirty fuels, they contribute significantly to greenhouse gases. But it is technologically possible to decarbonize shipping, and that could have a huge benefit. Number three is focusing on what we call blue carbon ecosystems. So these are coastal and ocean ecosystems, such as mangroves, salt marshes, or seagrass beds, that are little carbon engines that are just sucking carbon out of the atmosphere like crazy. Those habitats; mangroves, sea grasses, salt, marsh beds, can not only remove but then sequester as much as 10 times as much carbon as an equivalent area of forest, for example. And we've currently lost about half of them globally. So here is an opportunity to actually protect the remaining ones, but also to restore those that have already been degraded. The fourth area for ocean based activities to mitigate climate change comes from focusing on a little bit greater efficiency with aquaculture, mariculture operations, a little bit greater efficiency, with fisheries. But the big one in this category is really shifting diets globally, away from animal protein on the land, and including animal protein from the sea, instead of that animal protein from the land. And then the fifth category was simply sequestering carbon on the seabed. And the panel who looked at these five categories, said that the first four, they felt completely comfortable recommending that they be pursued aggressively. Smartly, yes, but aggressively. This fifth one, carbon storage in the seabed has a lot of questions still about technical and environmental impacts. And so they recommended further study for those. But that's another deep dive, if you will, into the potential of the ocean, to not just be thought of as a victim of climate change, but as a solution to climate change by providing as much as 1/5 of the carbon emission reductions that are needed to get us to the 1.5 degree target by 2050.
O'NEILL: To what extent is it important to frame this vision as an opportunity, as opposed to a sacrifice for the countries involved?
LUBCHENCO: You've really hit the nail on the head, Aynsley. This is really the secret sauce here. There has been a lot of focus on the ocean as doom and gloom. And there are a lot of problems. There's no sugarcoating that. There are a range of very serious challenges underway to the ocean right now. However, we also see looking around the world, some amazing solutions that have come to light, that have developed in this community, or that country, or this industry. And those solutions are bright lights. Collectively, they aren't at the scale that's needed. They aren't at the pace that's needed. But we have the benefit of a huge range of potential solutions that if they were adopted and implemented, could actually transform how we think about and how we use and how we benefit from the ocean in ways that are truly opportunities. So this is not really sacrifice. It's being smarter about doing things. I think people are familiar with the concept of greater efficiency when we think about energy. You know, much of the focus for mitigating climate change has been focusing on how do we use energy more efficiently. And there have been tremendous advances in energy efficiency of our appliances, of our automobiles, of our transportation systems. That same concept of being more efficient, is what underlies a lot of the transformative actions that are in the ocean action agenda. So yes, this is an incredible opportunity. And it's my belief that these 14 nations that have embarked on this journey of discovery and now journey of action will have such success with what they are proposing that others will say, oh my gosh, I want some of that too. I want to join forces because what they are doing is exactly what the world needs.
O'NEILL: Jane Lubchenco is a co-chair of the Ocean Panel expert group. Jane, thank you so much for taking the time with me today.
LUBCHENCO: It's been great. Ainsley. Thank you so much.
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