Healthy oceans play a vital role in sustaining life on our planet, by providing a source of food for billions of people, and helping to regulate the climate.
But this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report containing stark scientific evidence that confirms our worst fears – the climate crisis is an ocean’s crisis.
The carbon dioxide humans are pumping into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is warming our planet. This is causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt at an alarming rate and sea levels to rise, threatening to displace millions.
This carbon dioxide is also absorbed by ocean water. This is bad news; it makes the ocean more acidic and harms unique ecosystems, like beautiful warm-water coral reefs.
Why does this matter? Marine life can help us; it naturally absorbs and stores carbon, locking it away in the ocean. Plants in coastal areas, such as mangrove forests and seagrass meadows, trap carbon in underwater sediment and soil. And sea creatures capture it in the food chain, most of which eventually sinks to the deep ocean seabed in the bodies of dead animals.
We can’t rely on this natural process to tackle climate change alone – we need to halt carbon emissions too. But it’s vital that we protect areas where carbon is stored, and the wider ocean, or the climate crisis will become even worse.
Beyond the threats of the climate emergency outlined by the IPCC report, the ongoing impact of destructive human activities such as overfishing, offshore oil and gas drilling and plastic pollution is causing further devastation. All of this affects our oceans’ ability to cope with and soften the blow of climate breakdown.
Thankfully, among all the bad news, this year there is a huge global opportunity to protect the oceans. Governments are currently negotiating a Global Ocean Treaty at the UN. If a strong treaty is agreed, it could pave the way for a network of ocean sanctuaries, making at least 30% of our oceans off-limits to human activity by 2030.
Such widespread protection would have a profound impact on ocean health, helping marine life recover from human pressures and thrive. Healthy, resilient oceans will continue to slow climate breakdown and support life on earth.
Last month, governments completed the penultimate round of treaty negotiations. Although many countries are supportive of the process, too few are displaying enough ambition to secure an agreement that will really count.
Today’s report is a wake-up call – the UK Government need to prioritise negotiations, and demonstrate this by sending a senior minister to New York next year to personally secure a bold Global Ocean Treaty.
At the same time, political and business leaders need to address the root cause of the oceans crisis. Efforts to transform energy systems away from polluting fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy must accelerate, and deforestation has to stop.
Reducing carbon emissions will ease climate pressure on our oceans, helping the benefits of a network of ocean sanctuaries to be fully realised, allowing marine life to get back to health.
There’s never been a better time to demand decisive action from our leaders, starting with the Global Ocean Treaty. Add your name to over 200,000 people in the UK calling for a strong Global Ocean Treaty. If we look after the ocean, it will keep on looking after us.