Oceans represent 71% of the planet’s surface and 97% of its water. But what do we really know about them? The oceans are so huge, so deep, and so impenetrable that they are still mysterious to us today. It’s increasingly urgent to become better acquainted with this ocean world we still know so little about.
In fact, while our attention is elsewhere, the oceans are suffering the brunt of humanity’s excesses, such as CO2 emissions, plastic pollution, overfishing, melting of the ice caps, and oil spills. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report on the oceans. It highlighted both the oceans’ importance in the climate equilibrium as well as their fragile condition. Now, the alarm bells are ringing.
OCEANS ARE KEY CLIMATE REGULATORS
Oceans are our invisible yet indispensable allies against climate change. They dissolve some of the excess carbon coming from the air – more than 25% of our CO2 emissions. They also absorb nearly 93% of excess heat caused by the greenhouse effect. Ocean currents like the Gulf Stream also play a crucial role in the distribution of heat on the planet’s surface.
But for how much longer? Climatologists are warning us that oceans lack the capacity to continue storing so much carbon dioxide and heat in the coming years—or might not be able to store anymore at all! They’re also alerting us to the consequences such absorption is having on marine equilibrium, with increasingly warm and more acidic surface waters becoming poor in nutrients and oxygen.
AFD is taking part in the effort to combat greenhouse emissions, by financing activities that are 100% compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement. Our project financing of €5.2 billion in 2020 is working to help mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas and to adapt to climate change in countries at risk.
But that’s not all. “Coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and seabed grass have a carbon-capture capacity seven times greater than a tropical forest,” says Romain Chabrol, Biodiversity Task Manager at AFD. “Conservation and restoration of these ecosystems are a powerful but still too-little used tool for both mitigation and adaptation.”
OCEANS ARE HOME TO UNEQUALLED BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
From phytoplankton to whales, the oceans are home to nearly 13% of the living species identified to date. But this relatively low figure is misleading, as scientists estimate that 91% of the species that live in the oceans have yet to be discovered! So it’s no exaggeration to say that oceans remain the world’s largest ecosystem.
But ocean biodiversity faces several threats from humankind. The first is overfishing, which affects one third of the world’s fish stocks. Added to that, is pollution from plastics (8 million tons end up in the oceans every year), as well as pesticides, hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and antibiotics. As if that weren’t enough, our greenhouse gas emissions cause acidification and the warming of water, affecting aquatic life.
To address this issue, AFD Group is financing several large-scale programs, such as the Clean Oceans Initiative, carried out with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the German development bank KfW. This initiative supports 35 projects aimed at preventing pollution produced on land from reaching the sea.
OCEANS PROVIDE US WITH CRUCIAL RESOURCES
Oceans supply us with food (including 20% of the animal protein we consume), provide us with sources of energy, and enable us to transport nearly 90% of the world’s goods.
“Oceans are a foundation for essential economic activities and are essential for many sustainable development goals,” says Romain Chabrol, “but they’re under a lot of pressure, which could jeopardize the services it provides us.” That pressure includes overfishing, which is currently an obstacle to the renewal of fish stocks worldwide; degradation of surface waters, which threatens aquatic life as well as the modification of ocean currents, which could jeopardize offshore energy projects.
So what’s the solution? “We must systematically ask ourselves how the various sectors of our economy impact our marine ecosystems, and look for the best possible balance,” says Romain Chabrol. This is why, he says, AFD is encouraging a “sustainable blue economy.”
See also: Preserving Oceans: four AFD initiatives
OCEANS PRODUCE HALF OF THE PLANET’S OXYGEN
As in the case of terrestrial vegetation, oceans produce oxygen through photosynthesis. For oceans, however, this process is carried out mainly via phytoplankton, a gigantic mass of unicellular organisms, micro-algae, or cyanobacteria, floating on the surface of the oceans.
Now, however, the oceans are producing less oxygen, according to the IPCC special report released in September 2019, And a recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined that the oceans lost 1% to 2% of their oxygen between 1960 and 2010, leading to an increase of hypoxic areas (dead zones) for aquatic fauna. This phenomenon will only worsen with the warming of waters.
See also: “The Ocean: It’s time to consider its true worth” - Hélène Gobert
Not only must we tackle our greenhouse gas emissions, but we must also address human activities such as overfishing and plastic pollution that heighten pressure on marine ecosystems. One solution – albeit partial – is to establish marine protected areas that can be a refuge for aquatic fauna.
...AND BECAUSE 2022 CAN BE DECISIVE
There are nonetheless some reasons for hope. This year, for example, will see several international gatherings on ocean protection. First on the agenda is the One Ocean Summit organized by France and held in Britany, from February 9 to 11, when new announcements and coalitions are expected.
It will be followed at the end of February by the possible start of negotiations on a treaty on the use of plastics, at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5-2). March could see progress on the UN negotiations on biodiversity in the high seas. Next, the 7th International Conference “Our Ocean” will be held in Palau, in the Pacific Ocean, in April, prior to the first major UN conference on the oceans, which will be held in Lisbon at the end of June. The oceans will also be a cause defended at COP 15 on Biological Diversity, to be held in China in July, and then at COP 27 on Climate in November.
“This year could be decisive," says Romain Chabrol. "These international gatherings are unique opportunities to turn the tide and better reconcile human activities with ocean preservation. Of course, the success of these events will depend on the level of mobilization of both public and private stakeholders.”
Further reading: All you need to know about the Clean Oceans Initiative