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Oceans are inextricably linked to human development

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OceanOceans are linked to our health, economy and wellbeing on the planet. Photo: UNDP Namibia

Oceans are inextricably linked to human development – to our health, economy and well-being on the planet.

Three-fourths of our blue planet is covered by oceans, containing 97 percent of the earth’s water and representing 99 percent of the living space on earth by volume. They serve as the world’s largest source of protein for over 2.6 billion people. They are a major source of jobs, transport, energy and tourism. They regulate critical nutrient and climate cycles and they generate half of all oxygen produced on the planet. Oceans contribute around US$3 trillion to the global economy each year through fishery and aquaculture, international shipping, oil and gas extraction and coastal tourism.

But despite the many benefits we derive from the oceans, they face a number of serious threats, many of which are accelerating. As much as 40 percent of the oceans are considered ‘heavily affected’ by human activities.

80 percent of fish stocks are fully or overexploited. Thousands of invasive species travel the globe on ships and wreak havoc in new environments.  Carbon dioxide emissions are causing the acidification of oceans at the fastest rate in 30 million years, threatening the survival of countless species along marine food chains.

Despite the availability of policy, economic, management and other tools for ocean sustainability, we continue treating our oceans like a toilet and a trashcan. 80 percent of marine pollution is from land-based activities. Pesticide and manure run-off from agriculture, municipal sewage, and the 8 million to 20 million tonnes of plastic that reach the ocean every year are all causing significant environmental, economic, and social impacts. And the estimated global costs of ocean degradation go up to hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

International cooperation on oceans is needed more than ever and this has been recognized in the new Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework. SDG 14 aims to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development, with targets to reduce pollution from fertilizer, wastewater, and plastics; restore and protect ecosystems and fish stocks; and strengthen ocean research and international Law of the Sea.

At UNDP, our Ocean Governance Programme recommends the following actions towards a truly sustainable ocean economy:

  • Support all countries and industry to commit and take action on the Convention on Ship’s Ballast Water to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species
  • Strengthen incentives for efficiency, recovery and reuse of nutrients from agriculture, wastewater, and industry
  • Strengthen regional and national fisheries institutions, eliminate harmful subsidies, and expand protected areas, to promote more sustainable fisheries
  • Scale up successful practices and policies to recover and recycle plastics before they reach the ocean
  • Slow down and reverse ocean acidification by putting a proper price on carbon emissions and removal of fossil fuel subsidies

As reasonable as these may sound, some solutions will be easier to address than others. Our relationship with the seemingly boundless oceans is the product of a broken economic model that does not consider the essential value they provide to us.

When we can pollute or exploit the oceans for free, how can we be made to care or change the way we do things, even if they hurt us in the long run?

To fulfill SDG 14 it will be necessary to dramatically shift this model - making conservation efforts more economically attractive and putting a price on harmful activities. This may require a major reshuffling of incentives and governments will need both the political and technical support necessary to take on this ambitious agenda. 

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