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By Jane Fiona Cumming and Toby Radcliffe

Last year’s COVID-19 induced curtailing of shipping resulted in quiet oceans, sparking reports of whale song and a rush of scientists studying the effect of quieter oceans on marine wildlife. So why does this matter?

· The ocean produces over half of the world's oxygen and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.[1]

· The ocean absorbs over half the heat reaching the Earth from the sun – transporting this heat from the equator to the poles, regulating our climate and weather patterns.[1]

· The ocean is an integral part of the water cycle with water evaporating from the ocean surface, rising into the atmosphere as water vapour and condensing to form clouds and rain.[2]

· Marine macrofauna such as whales act as marine ecosystem engineers, providing nutrients to other ocean life, including microscopic phytoplankton which generate half of the oxygen we breathe.[3]

Given this critical role, we believe it is important to re-frame how we think of the ocean, from just a distant expanse of water to that of our greatest ally in the fight against both climate change and biodiversity loss. In reframing how we think of the ocean - we wanted to share a summary of a powerful paper which offers a new narrative for the oceans (by Jane Lubchenco and Steven Gaines).[1]

For most of human history, people have considered the ocean so large and resilient that it was simply impossible to deplete or disrupt it. The oceans, and everything within them were in effect an unlimited resource. The overarching narrative for centuries was simply “The ocean is so vast; it is simply too big to fail.”

However, the scientific evidence of depletion, disruption, and pollution of our oceans has shown the flaw in the logic of this narrative. Evidence of the ocean failing has become ever more obvious – through ocean acidification, habitat destruction, overfishing, and nutrient, plastic, and toxic pollution.

With the realisation that the ocean is on life-support, a second narrative emerged – the ocean is too complex, no one is responsible for the ocean and, as a result, everyone continues to make demands on its resources. Despite being fatally depleted and disrupted, this second narrative declared “The ocean is simply too big to fix.”

However, as we look at the next decade, the importance of the ocean must not be ignored. The ocean is central to the functioning of the planet and human well-being. Furthermore, many ocean solutions could bring substantial co-benefits to other sustainability challenges:

· Incorporating ocean actions into the climate agenda is essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate disruption

· Sustainable fishing can help restore ocean ecosystems and reduce impacts of climate change, whilst also enhancing food security, job creation, and poverty alleviation

As Lubchenco and Gaines set out, this gives rise to the need for a new ocean narrative that says, “The ocean is so central to our future, is too big to ignore and too important to neglect.”

ARTICLE 13 VIEWPOINT - What does this mean?

From our latest Planetary Limits and Social Thresholds research, whilst the majority of companies are now measuring their performance and setting targets relating to climate change, none of the companies tested setting a target regarding ocean acidification. If you look at change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity), there were a handful of targets set but none of these were at scale with what the planet needs. We found negligible evidence overall of companies setting targets to improve the health of our oceans.

The ocean is central to our ability to live within our planetary limits and ensure all basic social thresholds are met. As such, business and government must commit to measure our full impact on the planet’s resources (including our oceans) and base reduction targets on what the world needs them to do. To see a snapshot of our latest research, click here.

If you would like to know how Article 13 can support you to measure your impact on Planetary Limits and Social Thresholds, get in touch.



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