What comes to mind when you think of the ocean? Maybe you see the planet’s last great wilderness, the wonders of which are still more of a mystery than the surface of the Moon?
Or a rich source of food and minerals, capable of meeting the energy and nutrition needs of billions worldwide? Perhaps a complex geophysical system that plays a central role in moderating our climate and replenishing the air we breathe? Or maybe something more recreational: days out on the water or sunning yourself by the shore?
The truth, of course, is that our ocean represents all these things and more – and the more uncomfortable truth is that every one of these roles is currently under threat from escalating, human-driven pressures.
Consider fisheries, for example – responsible for providing the main source of dietary protein to as many as three billion people worldwide, and yet in 90 per cent of cases being pushed close to collapse by over-exploitation. Likewise, the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on our precious coral reefs, not to mention the insidious effects of microplastic pollution and a host of other industrial threats.
Put simply, the ocean is approaching breaking point. The implications could be grave not only for those who rely directly on the seas for their wellbeing, but indeed civilisation in general. I expect this challenge to become even more visible with the publication of the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. As with previous IPCC reports, the scientific rigour and global reach of this study should focus attention on the plight of the ocean like never before.
So, what needs to change? The irony is that many of the same ecosystems currently under attack also represent some of most powerful tools in our arsenal, as we seek solutions to the wider challenges of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. As one of the world’s largest environmental organisations, The Nature Conservancy is developing innovative solutions that bring together key policy, finance and community actors to bring coastal ecosystems back to health.
Take sustainable aquaculture – the commercial farming of fish, shellfish and seaweed – and a perfect example of this thinking. Traditionally the sector’s reputation has been tarnished by examples of poor environmental management, but we remain resolute believers that – done right – this industry has enormous potential to meet societal needs for sustainable food while also delivering a host of benefits for everything from marine biodiversity to coastal protection. We recently published a report to this effect alongside Encourage Capital, which we hope will attract more impact investment into the most sustainable forms of aquaculture and help this sector really deliver on its potential.
Other nature-based solutions that combine powerful potential to mitigate climate threats with true win-win outcomes for both people and wildlife include mangrove forests and coral reefs. Mangroves not only help to protect vulnerable, low-lying coastlines from sea-level rise and extreme weather events, but they also store more even carbon than terrestrial forests and play a crucial role as fish hatcheries.
Similar claims can be made for seagrass meadows and tidal saltmarshes. Instead, threats including unbridled coastal development continue to strip away our natural coastal defences, right at the time we need them most. This needs to change urgently, and the work we’re doing with AXA XL to develop Blue Resilience Carbon Credits, which will for the first time put a tangible finance value to the carbon and climate resilience value of coastal wetlands, will hopefully help.
No discussion of ocean-based solutions to the climate challenge would of course be complete without mentioning coral reefs. As marine biodiversity declines and powerful storms continue to lash vulnerable island countries like the Bahamas most recently, it bears repeating that coral reefs aren’t just vital for marine wildlife, but for humanity too. They support our fisheries, protect our coastlines, provide economic opportunities and reduce the risks from extreme weather events. And yet, they are incredibly sensitive to minute shifts in sea temperature, currents and acidity.
Corals need our help like never before, and we need theirs too. For our part, we’re devising and piloting innovative solutions like the reef insurance that very recently went live in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state. We worked alongside partners including the local government and Swiss Re to develop an innovative trust fund that has been used to purchase an insurance policy that will be triggered when severe storms hit the area.
None of this work is possible without money, of course, especially as so much of our shared ocean wealth is concentrated in developing countries where conservation funding is scarce. I’m particularly excited about the ground-breaking ‘Blue Bonds for Ocean Conservation’ project we launched earlier this year, which builds on the original debt-for-nature blueprint The Nature Conservancy piloted in the Seychelles to free-up potentially billions of dollars for conservation purposes across more than 20 countries.
Furthermore, we are also thrilled to be a member of the new Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA), a multi-stakeholder initiative that, among other things, aims to build coastal resilience in Small Island Developing Sites (SIDS) and developing countries through the delivery of innovative finance products and investments in nature-based solutions.
At a time when the challenges facing our precious ocean are so complex and troubling – isn’t it reassuring to think that Mother Nature herself holds so many of the potential solutions? It simply falls to the rest of us to ensure she gets the support she deserves.
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