Protecting and conserving life below water

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Protecting and conserving life below water

The impacts of our actions and threats across the globe, as a result of rising levels of reckless consumption, are a stark reminder that human society needs to urgently change course, if we wish to preserve ecosystems

An important conference was organised in June by the United Nations to focus on the state of the oceans. Calls for protecting the oceans, including marine systems and marine life, have been raised for several years now, but little has been done by nations, coastal communities and the international community at large to deal with the escalating crisis affecting the earth’s ocean resources.

The United Nations’ Ocean Conference, which was the first ever UN event to focus on this subject, ended with a global agreement to reverse the decline in the health of the oceans, and more than 1,300 participants pledged actions for protecting what was termed as “The Blue”. The conference was co-sponsored jointly by Fiji and Sweden; both nations are heavily dependent on the state of the oceans for their economic well-being.

A consensus adoption of a 14-point call for action resulted from the conference, where participating heads of states and Governments and senior representatives decided to “affirm our strong commitment to conserve and sustainably use our oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. 

The main points in the political document from and the deliberations held in the conference were considered by the UN high level political forum on Sustainable Development at its meeting held in July. This is the UN’s apex body for monitoring and reviewing the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in September 2015. 

The UN Oceans Conference itself was attended by 6,000 participants including Governments, businesses, civil society and the research community.  Among the SDGs, goal number 14 is focused on ‘life below water’ in all its aspects. Topics discussed in the conference ranged from plastic pollution in the oceans and seas to ocean acidification and illegal fishing. The most pathetic case of plastic pollution can be highlighted with the condition of two islands in the Pacific, Henderson Island and Midway Island, on which video films have been made and are available on YouTube. 

It is shocking that these islands, thousands of kilometres away from human habitation, are littered with plastic waste, including plastic buckets and toothbrushes. In the case of Henderson Island, it is estimated that 40 million pieces of plastic waste have been dumped on this island after being carried by the oceans from locations far away in South America. The irony of the condition of this island, which is seldom visited by human beings, is that it has been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation  (Unesco) as a world heritage site. But polluters far away are oblivious of the impacts of their consumption of plastic products and their mockery of this unique heritage site with their dumping of tonnes of waste into the ocean.

One major problem associated with the state of the oceans relates to the serious level of acidification which has taken place since the beginning of industrialisation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report estimated that 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted through human activities since the beginning of industrialisation has been absorbed by the oceans.

Climate change has also resulted in a serious level of warming of the oceans, and it was projected that the global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century, with the strongest ocean warming projected for the surface in tropical and Northern Hemisphere subtropical regions.

At greater depths, the warming will be most pronounced in the Southern Ocean. At the same time, year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice are projected under all scenarios of emissions of greenhouse gases. If the world does little to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in the coming decades then by September of 2050, the Arctic Ocean is likely to have no ice cover. This would have serious implications for ocean currents linked with the Arctic region resulting from changes in salinity gradients. The effects of reduced or no ice cover on the Arctic is likely to have impacts at large distances away from this region.

The UN Conference and the recommendations that it came up with would be implemented only if national policies across the world brought about major changes not only in direct activities related to the ocean and the resources derived from it, but also in bringing about a sharp reduction of non-degradable waste, such as plastics.

Most countries thus far have made little effort to move in this direction and a good example of that is India itself where the use of plastics and our inability to curb proliferation of dumping of plastic waste all over the country is quite pathetic. It is not unusual today to see large quantities of plastic waste being littered on the mountain slopes of the Himalayan range. The ugly sight of mountains of plastic is commonplace along the highways of the country and even railway lines beginning with a journey at the main stations of New Delhi itself. 

With large numbers of people living in coastal areas, it is inevitable that growing quantities of all forms of waste will continue to be dumped into the seas across the globe, thereby threatening life below water as well as on islands and low-lying coastal regions. The Government of Norway in its recently issued white paper has not only committed action to deal with this complex challenge in Norway itself, but also through development assistance which would help other nations to reach similar goals.

The terrible impact of human activities on remote islands like Henderson Island and Midway Island only emphasises the reality best expressed in ourbelief in vasudhaiva kutumbakam, which means the universe is one family. I had the privilege of invoking this phrase while delivering the acceptance speech at City Hall, Oslo, 10 years ago at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

The impacts of our actions and threats across the globe, as a result of our increasing levels of reckless consumption, only provide a stark reminder that human society needs to urgently change course, if we wish to preserve the ecosystems which support all forms of life. Business as usual would create insurmountable challenges for our children and grandchildren.

In actual fact we do not have to wait for an unacceptable risky future for humanity, because the growing negative impacts of damage to the earth’s fragile ecosystems are already with us. What we need to do is to open our eyes and use all our intellectual and material resources to bring about change in the right direction with a sense of urgency for this the only planet we can live on.

(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)

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