from The Internationalist, International Institutions and Global Governance Program and Council of Councils

The Fate of the Ocean: Our Ocean Conference

A school of swirling jacks near the Indonesian island of Bali on May 14, 2011. David Loh/Reuters

With much of the world’s attention fixated on climate change, the Our Ocean conference is a great opportunity to address the health of the oceans and garner commitments to save it from the scourges of pollution, overfishing, and transnational crime. 

October 26, 2018

A school of swirling jacks near the Indonesian island of Bali on May 14, 2011. David Loh/Reuters
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The following is a guest post by Gilang Kembara, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Indonesia.

The year 2018 has become the pivotal time for climate change action. In just the last few weeks, the recipient of the economics Nobel and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented new evidence that urgently calls for climate change policies to be integrated into all areas of public policy. The world can no longer look to the future without factoring in the colossal cost of climate change.

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Oceans and Seas

Global Governance

Climate Change

Energy and Climate Policy

Energy and Environment

Worsening climate change has a disproportionate effect on the oceans. Not only is marine life threatened with extinction, but the livelihood of those who rely upon the seas and the oceans will be ruined. Increasing poverty and displaced populations will only be the beginning of a wave of security issues, exacerbated by rising sea levels and food shortages. Unless more attention is given to the underlying causes of climate change, humanity will experience a painful adjustment to an inhospitable Earth in the near future.

The fate of the oceans will be front and center on October 29–30, when Indonesia hosts the fifth annual Our Ocean conference on the island of Bali. The gathering, christened “Our Ocean, Our Legacy,” will convene representatives of governments from across the world, as well as hundreds of participants from civil society, the private sector, and the scientific community. At the heart of their agenda will be saving the oceans—which cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface—from the devastating effects of climate change, as well as from the scourges of pollution, overfishing, and transnational crime. 

The 1.5°C Cap

The recent IPCC special report on global warming indicated that the planet could experience a 1.5°C temperature increase from pre-industrial levels as early as 2030 if global greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate. Initial predictions put a crucial threshold of a 2°C temperature increase as the acceptable figure for a climate-safe world. However, the IPCC report raises doubts about this hypothesis, saying the world could experience extreme environmental conditions even between the 1.5 and 2°C levels. The IPCC report recommends preventing temperatures from rising above the 1.5°C cap by attaining a “carbon neutral” world by 2050. The world needs to implement drastic measures to reduce carbon dioxide and other global greenhouse gas emissions in order for levels to decrease after reaching a peak in 2020.

The thinking is that the damage caused by a 1.5°C increase will be less severe and more reversible than a 2°C rise. Even so, the repercussions for our seas and oceans will still be dire, as waters continue not only to warm but also to acidify, as they absorb ever larger quantities of carbon dioxide. The report states that a 2°C increase will lead to a sea-ice-free Arctic once every ten years, whereas a 1.5°C rise will cause one every one hundred years. A 2°C increase would also see a 99 percent decline in reefs, while a 1.5°C rise will “only” see a 70 to 90 percent decline. Moreover, a 2°C increase could lead to a decline of three million metric tons in potential global catch for marine fisheries, as opposed to a 1.5°C rise causing a loss of “just” 1.5 million metric tons.

Aside from environmental degradation and habitat loss, the report also emphasizes that climate change will hit hardest those who are already impoverished. Populations dependent on agricultural and coastal livelihoods are most at risk. Fishermen currently living at the margins will need to cope with dwindling catches, a devastating prospect for an archipelagic country like Indonesia. Beyond depriving communities of food and livelihoods, as well as tourist income, the destruction of fisheries and coral reefs could endanger the social fabric of many coastal villages. Global warming will also expose coastal populations to dramatic sea-level rise and more extreme, and often deadly, weather events.

More on:

Oceans and Seas

Global Governance

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Energy and Climate Policy

Energy and Environment

Tapping into Renewable Energy

In the face of this global crisis, one might expect the Earth’s inhabitants to take dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, humanity continues to rely disproportionately on fossil fuel as the primary source of energy, to the detriment not only of the world’s oceans but also the wellbeing of billions. As the number of middle-income families increases across the world, so too does the demand for energy, goods, and services. Instead of tapping into renewable energy sources, governments have met this increased demand with an increased supply of massive coal, gas, and oil power plants. Proponents of fossil fuel argue that renewable energy cannot meet ever-growing demands—only fossil fueled-power plants can do that.

But this pursuit of short-term energy needs courts long-term disaster. On the heels of the IPCC study, the Oxford Sustainable Finance Program reported that 84 percent of Southeast Asia’s planned and existing fossil fuel power plants are incompatible with the 1.5°C cap. Indeed, 18 percent of existing and 47 percent of planned power plants are even incompatible with the more disastrous scenario of a 2°C cap. As the Oxford report underscores, it is impossible to balance commitments to reduce carbon emissions with an overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels to meet growing energy demand. Emerging economies must seek to tap renewable energy resources, including the potential that lies underneath, within, and on the surface of our seas and oceans. Investment in such resources promises not only to reduce carbon emissions but also to create new jobs, promote economic growth, and enhance social welfare. Indonesia, as the largest archipelagic nation on Earth, possesses an immense potential for renewable energy. Experts calculate that it could generate up to 18,000 MW from sea currents, 60,000 MW from wind power (onshore and offshore), and 200,000 MW from solar power (onshore and offshore). Although other countries might not have this same natural advantage, most countries have the potential to meet their growing energy demand through more responsible and cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar.

Reducing global greenhouse gases and tapping into renewable energy to stay below the 1.5°C cap are herculean tasks that require immense global action. The IPCC report estimates that the world needs to invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 to meet the cap.

Sustainability and Prosperity

While plans for this energy transition must get underway, the world cannot afford to ignore other existential challenges to the ocean. A priority should be to address the unsustainable exploitation of the world’s fisheries. One area of low hanging fruit should be to reduce illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and institute restricted maritime zones. Progress can be made on both of these action items at the Our Ocean conference.

At this stage, we must seriously consider that every human being has a responsibility to protect our maritime environment. We have always thought that resources under the ocean (e.g. fish) are almost infinite, and will always replenish themselves. Yet this is not true. As fish stocks dwindle [PDF], fleets have to sail further into the open ocean to maintain their level of catch. This brings forward an array of problems. First, rising costs may cause fishermen to experience a drop in revenue, as they are required to invest more in fuel, equipment, and manpower. Second, domestic and even international competition from other fishermen could lead to violent confrontation over limited fish stock. Third, as fishermen need to travel further for their fish, they face the risk of entering foreign waters and being caught by the local maritime law enforcement agency.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s most recent annual survey, nearly one third of global fisheries are currently exploited beyond sustainable levels—and the vast majority of commercial species are fished at maximal levels. All coastal states experience forms of IUU fishing. A 2009 report estimated that worldwide annual losses—in revenue, depleted fish stock, and damage to marine ecosystems—due to IUU fishing are between $10 billion and $23.5 billion, which represent between 11 and 26 million tons of fish caught worldwide. Although CSIS research has found that states are bolstering their support for increased maritime law enforcement to help prevent IUU fishing from escalating further, many national governments lack the resources (and sometimes will) to manage their exclusive economic zones.

Today, only 4 percent of marine and coastal areas are protected by law, less than half of the 10 percent target to be met by 2020 under both the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity and the Sustainable Development Goals. Even more worrying is that less than 1 percent of these marine and coastal areas are fully enforced. National governments and private industry should use the Our Ocean conference to secure more ecosystem protection commitments and the necessary economic resources, technical capacity, and participation to enforce them.

One way forward is to designate and expand existing marine protected areas (MPA), or zones where maritime habitats would be free from the threat of human activity. Governments could establish a short-term MPAs, designating certain areas as “no catch” zone for a certain period, as well as create permanent MPAs, prohibiting any commercial activity within the area indefinitely. Another option is to establish temporary moratoriums on harvesting particular species to allow fish stocks a chance to replenish. Finally, governments can create “catch share” systems, which restrict the amount of fish that may be harvested by particular operators.

Reverse Before It Is Too Late

The situation may seem dire, but hope is not lost. At this stage, many challenges are still reversible, given enough political will. Thus, governments must find it within themselves to preserve the livelihoods of many of their people. National policies should be aligned with the IPCC report recommendations and Paris agreement commitments to prevent further carbon emissions. Developed countries and multinational organizations must also enact stringent clauses that current and future projects should be consistent with sustainable and environmental priorities. Instead of constantly cleaning up problems that have washed up from the ocean, like so much flotsam and jetsam on the beach, governments and societies must tackle headlong the sources of ocean degradation, beginning first and foremost by reducing their carbon emissions to sustainable levels. Hence, the Our Ocean conference in Bali could not be better timed. With much of the world’s attention fixated on global climate change, it is imperative that action plans also address the health of the world’s oceans, and that these be systematic, practical, and most importantly, attainable.

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