"The ocean provides us with every second breath."
As the world celebrates World Ocean Day, Marisa Drew, CEO Impact Advisory and Finance at Credit Suisse speaks to Karen Sack and José Maria Figueres, two prominent ocean conservation activists and Ocean Unite founders on why there is no life on Earth without a healthy ocean and how market-based instruments can help.
Credit Suisse: Ms. Sack, can you share your views on the impacts of the coronavirus crisis on conservation efforts?
Karen Sack (KS): It's too soon to even envisage the impact that the coronavirus crisis will have on national and global efforts to curb climate change, meet the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, or boost ocean health. There are reports that the pandemic – temporarily – reduced China's carbon emissions by one-quarter and is set to cause the largest ever annual fall in global emissions. But these trends are unlikely to be lasting, and in fact we are on track for 2020 to be the warmest on record despite the virus-induced emissions "hiatus." Others point out that the pandemic is more likely to have a negative impact on the climate emergency by draining money and political will away from climate action. Also, so much conservation work involves people physically getting together. All of that has ground to a halt.
As you point out, there is some ecological upside to the pandemic.
KS: Yes, we have been given the gift of time. Time to recognize how much harm we have been doing to our planet, and to literally see skies clearing and hear birds chirping more loudly. Time, also, to recognize how many of the threats surfaced by the pandemic are harbingers of the threats that the climate and biodiversity crises will bring if we don't take action to address them now.
Do you think the world will care more or less about environmental and climate issues after all this?
José Maria Figueres (JMF): That remains to be seen. But there is no "either or" between planetary health and human health. We must fight for both, and to achieve both, we need science and solidarity. Humanity is placing too many pressures on the natural world. 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they spread from animals to people.
What drives this spillover from animals to people?
JMF: Our destruction of biodiversity and habitats creates the conditions for these new viruses and diseases to proliferate. Deforestation is causing animals to be forced from their natural habitats and interact more with humans, sowing the seeds for future potential pandemics. As leaders begin to think about a post-coronavirus world, we all need to make sure that the opportunity to move forward means prioritizing investments that quickly drive us forward to a net zero carbon world.
Together with Richard Branson, you founded Ocean Unite (OU) in 2015. You are pushing the target of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. How close are you to that goal?
KS: What is exciting is that since we started working on this, the ocean community has united around this "30x30" goal, and we are seeing accelerating action on the water. About 70% of our Earth's surface is ocean. But despite the declaration in 2016 of the world's largest marine reserves in the Antarctic and the Pacific, and a number of countries like the Pacific Island nation of Palau strongly protecting 80% of their waters, only about 5% of the global ocean is currently protected in some way. And only 2.5% is strongly protected from human development – compared to about 15% of the world's land. A further 3% of the world's oceans have been proposed as marine protected areas (MPAs). Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do to even meet the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goal of protecting 10% of the ocean by 2020, let alone to achieve the scientifically agreed target of highly protecting 30% by 2030 – a critical benchmark to regenerate ocean life and rebuild its resilience, but momentum is growing.
How confident, then, are you that you will reach 30% by 2030?
JMF: We are optimistic, because the area of ocean that is being protected, while still small, has grown exponentially over the past decade. OU is working to build support for our science-backed goal and bring it into the mainstream of environmental debates. We are also pushing for concrete mechanisms to establish MPAs that reach beyond national jurisdictions like huge areas of Antarctica's Southern Ocean. All would be global game-changers.
What effect does climate change have on ocean ecologies?
JMF: The ocean and our climate are critically intertwined Earth systems. Though most people do not think about it this way, because of the close links between the two, the ocean has borne the brunt of the climate crisis. As a gigantic natural carbon sink, the ocean has already absorbed about one-third of the additional carbon dioxide we have put into the air. It has also absorbed about 90% of the excess heat put into the atmosphere by carbon emissions. All of this comes at a significant cost to ocean health and planetary resilience. If these impacts are allowed to continue unabated, dangerous tipping points will be reached, with serious consequences for rising sea levels, ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation, and accelerating the destruction of fish populations and coastal habitats.
Mr. Figueres, you support market-based solutions to climate change.
JMF: When it comes to the environment, I confess I am a tree-hugger. Yet I recognize that unless we make protecting the environment a good business opportunity, we won't attract the capital or the entrepreneurial talent to reinvent the global economy in such a way that we decouple development and wellbeing from carbon emissions.
Are such market-based instruments applicable to the ocean?
JMF: When it comes to the ocean, there is something more important than economic value. The ocean is the most important ecosystem in our lives. It produces 50% of the oxygen on Earth, or in other words, it provides us with every second breath. Hundreds of millions of people obtain their principal source of protein from fish. We need to take care of our ocean because of its intrinsic value – without a healthy ocean there is no life on Earth, full stop.
You have always advocated technological solutions to environmental problems. Can technology be the main focus in addressing climate change?
JMF: I'm a great believer in technology. When it comes to the environment, we have seen tremendous technological advances in renewable energy, water management, transportation, and many other sectors. But winning the battle against climate change is not primarily about mastering a technology issue. It is a political issue. Governments need to promote what is good for life on Earth, namely lower carbon emissions, by sending markets the correct signals through regulatory frameworks and interventions to decarbonize the economy. Industries will react accordingly, innovate, and continue to enhance their bottom line.
OU is a founding partner of The Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA), which is designed to drive investment into "coastal natural capital" as a market-based solution. How attractive is that to investors?
KS: Investing in nature can offer extraordinary returns and is cost-effective. We are working with partners to create a pioneering multi-sector collaboration bringing together governments, insurers, banks and civil society organizations to build resilience to change through developing ground-breaking finance products that incentivize blended finance and private sector investment into coastal natural capital. Our goal by 2030 is to create a new marketplace by driving $500m of investment into innovative and scalable finance products that increase coastal resilience and reduce ocean risk for the most vulnerable communities around the world. Increasing ocean risk hazards like extreme storm events, rising sea levels, habitat degradation and pollution require action, particularly for the most exposed communities, including women and girls in developing countries and Small Island States. By working together, we can reduce ocean risk and build resilience to change.