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Source: Greenpeace New Zealand

As the world responds to the Covid-19 crisis, we must safeguard the resilience of the largest ecosystem on the planet.

The ocean is one of our greatest allies in the fight against climate breakdown.  Aside from being home to millions of creatures – from the charismatic giants of our seas to the undiscovered mysteries of its depths – the ocean is also a heat and carbon sink, one without which we’d already be in far hotter water.

According to a study from the University of Oxford, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the heat gained by planet Earth between 1971 and 2010. It also absorbs about 40% of the carbon dioxide we emit.

In short, the ocean has been buffering us from the worst of climate change for years. As Josh Willis, oceanographer for NASA puts it: “the ocean is delaying our punishment.” If it wasn’t for big blue, we would already be in even deeper climate shit.

In September 2019 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) dedicated a special report to the Oceans and Cryosphere, bringing together thousands of scientific studies on how climate change is affecting our oceans and frozen regions. The report was a bleak read. 

It showed how the ocean’s efforts in sucking up all that carbon and heat has come at a steep price, with the sea now experiencing extreme heat waves and increased acidity, and is less hospitable to species like kelp and coral. 

Schooling fish swim over a coral reef. Once having the highest income per capita in the Pacific, Nauru’s economy and environment collapsed after decades of phosphate mining had been depleted. With virtually nothing more to trade, the island nation is staking its hopes on protection of fisheries in its waters and the nearby international waters.

And as these vital species die off, with them go the oceanic communities that found homes within their branches. The fish and the crustaceans, the mammals that feed on them in turn.

That’s a problem because marine life can help us tackle climate change, and in fact has been doing so all along. It naturally absorbs and stores carbon, locking it away deep in the ocean. 

Plants in coastal areas, such as mangrove forests and seagrass meadows, trap carbon in underwater sediment and soil. Sea creatures capture it in the food chain, most of which eventually sinks to the deep ocean seabed in the bodies of dead animals. 

But if we mine and disturb our ocean, if we overfish, pollute and dredge it – we prevent the ocean being able to perform its vital climate mitigation work to its best ability. At a time when we need carbon sinks more than ever, the largest one on the planet has been compromised by human activity. 

Humpback whales, enjoy the waters of the Pacific ocean, Tonga.

Covid-19 has tested all our systems for their resilience. The majority of them have been found lacking. 

But amid the misery of this crisis, we have learnt some important lessons. One of them is that nature cannot continue keeping things like viruses or climate change at bay if we don’t give it the space to do so.

While we strive to rebuild a green and peaceful future for the post Covid world, it is imperative the natural systems that balance us are protected too.  Without these natural systems, we won’t have much hope of controlling the climate rollercoaster we’re already on, even with a clean energy revolution tomorrow.

The hour is late when it comes to saving the ocean, as it is for the rest of the climate fight. Alarm bells have been ringing – unanswered – for as long as I’ve been alive. 

Because we’re so late in tackling this, piecemeal adaptation is not going to cut it. What we need is a rapid decarbonisation of our economy, and for thriving, functioning ecosystems to be at the heart of decision making on ocean management. 

Dolphins seen swimming in Alboran Sea. Two thirds of the sea and ocean water (half of the planet in absolute terms) are international waters in which, surprisingly, there is no regulation on the protection for the biodiversity. Greenpeace wants to underline the need to globally agree on a Treaty on the Oceans that promotes the creation of Marine Reserves, where the protection of the species that inhabit there is guaranteed.

Putting a third of the global ocean into sanctuaries – free from human interference – is one of the core pieces of work that needs to happen now. Scientists agree that protecting 30% of the ocean is what’s needed to allow them to build resilience and safeguard biodiversity. 

The UN expanded this goal even further by stating that 30% of the entire planet – both on land and at sea – must be safeguarded to ensure a habitable Earth for the future.

Ocean sanctuaries have a proven track record of success. There are many stories about how fish populations have thrived, at-risk species have returned, entire communities been restored, simply by putting areas of ocean off limits.

Rolled out on an international scale, sanctuaries could allow the seas to recover and thrive as they once did, and recent research shows we wouldn’t have to wait long to see results.  A recent scientific review from Nature concluded that not only is ocean recovery possible, it’s doable within the next three decades.

A Global Ocean Treaty with the power to do this has been on the table at the UN for over a year. This could be a framework for ocean sanctuary creation across the globe, if we get it right.

Gentoo penguins at the Argentinian research base, Esperanza. Where the hottest temperature ever in Antarctica was reportedly recorded with the station thermometer reading 18.3C.

When this year began, I was full of hope that in 2020 we would get this Global Ocean Treaty across the line. Along with three million individuals worldwide, Greenpeace has been campaigning hard to get the strongest Treaty we can, for the well-being of both people and planet. Doing this would be nothing short of historic.

Onboard the final leg of the Pole to Pole tour — a voyage devised to raise awareness of the need for this Global Ocean Treaty — I allowed myself a small pang of hope: perhaps in a few months we’d be celebrating something incredible.

The mission felt all the more urgent because on that final morning of our Pole to Pole voyage in February, before we left Antarctic waters and headed back to civilisation, we stopped by the Esperanza science base. The previous night we had heard via radio communication that the base had recorded the highest Antarctic temperature ever of 18.3C.

As we huddled on the deck of the Arctic Sunrise that night, watching our final Antarctic sunset as icebergs slipped out of view, I felt something I only later learned the word for. It was an anticipatory sense of loss. A feeling that if I were to ever return here, this place would likely be irrevocably changed for the worse.

Delegates from across the planet were due to meet in April to negotiate the terms of this vital Global Ocean Treaty, but as with so many things, Covid has forced this to be postponed.

I hope that when they do meet again one thing is front of mind: that we cannot allow Covid-19 to let this historic conservation opportunity pass us by. Instead, we must ensure ocean protection is part of the global rebuild towards a more green and peaceful future for all.