June 8, 2021

World Oceans Day 2021 — One Ocean, One Climate, One Future

World Oceans Day is a day that reminds us of the importance of our oceans. We rely on our oceans everyday, no matter where we are: they generate the oxygen we breathe, clean the water we drink, provide us with food, and help control the climate. But our oceans are changing, they’re being impacted by climate change, and they need our help. This year, we can help protect our oceans, and planet as a whole, by supporting and spreading awareness of the 30×30 initiative.

The ocean is of utmost importance for our planet

The world’s oceans are where life began, where life is sustained, and where most life will continue to live–as long as we work to continuously improve the way we grow across the world. 70% of our planet’s surface is covered by oceans and they significantly impact our climate and weather on a local and global scale. Our oceans absorb lots of the solar energy that reaches earth and they can slowly release that heat over many months or years. Additionally, our oceans store carbon dioxide. But as greenhouse gases capture more energy from the sun, the oceans absorb more heat. This leads to an increase in ocean temperature and changes currents, resulting in alterations in climate patterns around the world.

What is the 30×30 initiative?

30×30 is the first step of a bigger plan called the Global Deal for Nature (GDN) which accompanies the Paris Agreement. While the Paris Agreement was a great start in global cooperation against climate change, it isn’t enough to prevent the effects of climate change on its own. It sets global goals, provides an outline for financial support, and supports bottom-up efforts; but it doesn’t have any measures for protecting biodiversity or conserving Earth’s fragile ecosystems, that’s where the GDN comes in.

30×30 is part one of the GDN, with the goal of protecting 30% of the Earth’s land and waters by 2030. But why 2030?

To understand the solution, it’s important to understand the problem

Earth’s leading climate scientists agree that we’re approaching a tipping point. If our current trends of habitat conversion (clearing natural lands) and emissions continue to peak after 2030, it will be impossible to keep average global warming below 1.5°C. If we allow that to happen, we’ll pass the “point of no return” and countless species will go extinct, and ecosystems will unravel. The consequences of this will be grave for humans as well, triggering public health threats, a climate refugee crisis due to lack of access to clean drinking water, reduced irrigation of crops, and more extreme weather patterns.

That all sounds very bleak, but there are clear paths out of this situation. The GDN outlines steps to conserving 50% of Earth’s natural ecosystems by 2050, asserting that we need to get to 30% by 2030 first in order to avoid reaching the point of no return. To put this into perspective, currently 14.9% of land is protected, and 10% of the ocean.

The solution

The GDN has 5 goals, listed below, as outlined by Dinerstein, et al in “Global Deal for Nature: Guiding Principles, Milestones and Targets”

  1. Represent all native ecosystem types and successional stages across their natural range of variation—or “representation”
  2. Maintain viable populations of all native species in natural patterns of abundance and distribution—or “saving species”
  3. Maintain ecological function and ecosystem services
  4. Maximize carbon sequestration by natural ecosystems and
  5. Address environmental change to maintain evolutionary processes and adapt to the impacts of climate change

There are three main strategies that can be used in tandem to accomplish these goals: protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and avoiding threats.

Protecting biodiversity

Plainly speaking, conserving areas of high biodiversity will also aid the natural decrease of greenhouse gases. It’s no coincidence that areas rich in different species are also carbon-sinks, meaning they sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Natural forests are especially important; these carbon-rich ecosystems made up of predators, pests, pollinators, decomposers and pathogens take carbon out of the air.

Research is also indicating that fully protected areas are the most effective for restoring biodiversity. For example, marine protected areas (MPAs) have an average of 21% more biodiversity and 6x the biomass of fish as areas nearby without protection. These more robust and diverse ecosystems, while not immune to the effects of climate change, are more resilient to its effects.

Mitigating climate change

This theme continues to highlight the importance of carbon sinks, and shows that some ecosystems are disproportionately important for mitigating climate change. For example, the GDN aims to conserve 85% of forest coverage in areas like the Amazon which are crucial for absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and function as a “weather machine” for the planet.

This theme ties in with policies in the Paris Agreement regarding indigenous people’s lands. The GDN could help keep indigenous lands intact, give rights to indigenous peoples, and result in lower rates of deforestation, increased biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

Reducing major threats

Major threats described by the GDN include land conversion, industrial fishing and poaching of animals. As already discussed, decreasing land conversion is crucial for keeping warming beneath 1.5°C. Fortunately, if we redirect cropland expansion to degraded lands and reduce food waste, the 2050 food demand could be met without clearing any more natural land.

The world of industrial fishing remains largely unregulated, spanning more than half of the ocean surface. From an economic perspective, protecting more of the ocean and in doing so, preserving and spurring more biodiversity could actually increase profits in the seafood industry. Marine reserves could also be more beneficial monetarily than fishing in many areas.

On land and sea, the continuing enforcement and patrolling of areas affected by poaching and illegal trade in animals and plants remains of utmost importance. Many of the species targeted by poachers are also threatened with extinction, and their ecosystems would be tipped out of balance without them.

Additional Sources:
World Economic Forum
United States Environmental Protection Agency
NASA Science

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