This month, in Katowice, world leaders negotiated the implementation of the Paris Agreement. We collectively pledged to stop climate change before it would become too dangerous. No one will deny that since then, times have changed. They have become even more uncertain. Extreme weather events have occurred in 2018 across all continents, often with devastating effects: forest fires in California in autumn, typhoons in Japan and Indonesia, extreme drought in many parts of Europe... The reality of climate change is closing in.
At the same time, however, global carbon dioxide emissions have hit a record high in 2018, largely due to increased fossil fuel consumption. Decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions is not happening fast enough. Why? When we are afraid, it is normal to turn to the ones that tells us everything will be all right. But in this case, the only right reflex is fight, not flight.
We may perhaps want to fool ourselves, but we cannot fool the physical laws that determine the reaction of the environment, including our oceans, on our actions. The North Pole is our ‘canary in the (proverbial) coal mine’. This summer, we have had heavy wildfires raging in the Arctic. Already 70% of the volume of summer ice, compared to three decades ago, has disappeared. The potential gains we may get from this (new maritime routes, new fisheries, and access to unexplored natural resources) do not outweigh the negative consequences. Global warming of 1.5°C to 2°C, which is our best-case scenario, will eventually lead to up to 7 meters of sea level rise, affecting coastal areas around the world including low-lying lands and islands in Europe. Looking at it from a human time perspective that sea level rise is irreversible.
Consequences of ocean warming go well beyond sea level rise. They affect one of the most fundamental responsibilities of global governance: feeding the world population. Almost 30% of the population is in one way or another dependent on fisheries for their livelihood. Warming ocean temperatures drive fish stocks away from equatorial locations, exactly those areas where food insecurity is highest. This while still today, some 800 million people are suffering from hunger. Our responsibility for not taking sufficient action is enormous.
However, I strongly believe that if we act today, we will not have a problem looking our children and grandchildren in the eye. We have to stand firm to our commitment from Paris and Katowice to flesh out our ambitions. And the EU is leading by example.
On 28 November, we have adopted our strategy to achieve a climate-neutral economy by 2050. This sounds ambitious but it is what is required from all major economies to avoid the worst-case scenario. So it is not ambitious, it is the only option.
The good news is that we are certain we can achieve this, without sacrificing the livelihoods of Europeans. In fact, it will even give a fresh impetus to the European economy. And the ocean plays a very important role.
Take energy, for example. The global clean energy market is worth € 1.3 trillion already today. Ten years ago, offshore wind was still a heavily supported, high-risk industry. Today, it is self-sufficient and it provides more employment than our fishing sector. Meanwhile, tidal and wave energy are moving from demonstration projects to production. Also ocean thermal energy conversion (exploiting the temperature difference between the ocean’s upper layer and cooler waters beneath) is a promising technology. Estimates of its total potential range between 30,000 and 90,000 TWh/year. If we consider that total electricity consumption is about 24,000 TWh/year, then the business case is clear. We are at the beginning of an important revolution, but can only do so if governments allow these industries to grow in the same way as has happened for wind and solar power.
Also in terms of food security, the ocean comes to the rescue. Oceans account for almost 50% of new plant and animal biomass produced annually on the planet. However, food from the ocean provides on average only 2% of our daily calories and 15% of protein intake in the world. The EU’s group of chief scientific adviser has calculated that aquaculture production can increase at least between three and four times the current level in the next twenty years. This can also include the production of algae and other new sources of nutrients. The productivity of low trophic level species such as algae and shellfish in terms of protein and calories per unit area for food and feed is higher than on land while the greenhouse gas footprint is much lower. Sustainable aquaculture can therefore take some of the pressure off the EU’s scarce land resources.
Our ocean can be a strong and reliable partner in our efforts to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change. But this requires healthy oceans. That is why the EU, and I personally in my capacity as Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, advocate for strong international ocean governance, including governance of the high seas. That is why the EU has made the fight against plastic pollution and the development of a circular economy one of its top priorities. Why we are working with partner countries to restore and effectively manage marine ecosystems. And we are not alone. Just this October, countries representing 75% of the global economy have shown how to take advantage of Arctic melting responsibly, by agreeing on a fisheries moratorium until we know how to do it sustainably. At the Our Ocean Conference in Malta 2017, hosted by the EU, and this year’s edition in Bali, hundreds of companies, organisations, and institutions rallied behind the same objective and have made very tangible, measurable commitments.
When we all manage to agree on the way forward, we can focus our energy and resources on the task ahead. It is big, but not insurmountable. So far, our global economy was focused on growth, more output, lower prices. We have become very good at that, perhaps too good. I am sure that soon we will also excel at creating an economy that works for society and the environment, for the individual and the whole planet, and that beats climate change.
Karmenu Vella is the European Commissioner for environment, fisheries and maritime affairs