Crustacean excrement is doing more to stop climate change than our own Government.
It might not sound plausible, nor particularly pleasant – but the reason is quite simple. The Antarctic Ocean is home to swarms of krill that collectively weigh almost 400 million tonnes. After feeding, these creatures release tiny, carbon-rich droppings that sink into the ocean’s depths. This all adds up; about 23 million tonnes of carbon gets locked away each year. Meanwhile, the UK cut emissions by just half that last year!
There are countless other ways oceans help combat climate change. But climate change in return presents a serious threat to our oceans, and it’s high time we helped the oceans to help us.
As we pump greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, making the seawater acidic and hostile for shellfish and corals. As the oceans get hotter, corals also become heat-stressed and expel the algae that live on their skeletons, resulting in coral bleaching events that can wipe out entire reefs. This destroys the habitat that supports a quarter of all marine life. Global warming of 2°C may see coral reefs decline by 99%.
Thanks to David Attenborough and Blue Planet 2, we’ve become aware of the damage to our oceans from plastic pollution. We now know to use textile shopping bags instead of plastic, reuse coffee-cups and refuse polystyrene ones, and avoid plastic straws when ordering a drink at the bar. The Government are finally recognising the need to conserve oceans. That is a good thing.
But stopping some damage is not enough. We must commit to a positive programme of ocean recovery to combat the effects of climate breakdown, and boost our oceans’ capacity to tackle climate change. Stocks of species – like Antarctic krill – that store vast quantities of carbon within the deep, need space to recover. We need a comprehensive network of marine protected areas, including reserves that totally exclude exploitation. Action to protect the marine environment is as vital as action on renewable energy. And we need it now. This month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report couldn’t have made it clearer: in just 12 years it could be too late to avert climate catastrophe.
The scale of the challenge demands more of our oceans to be covered by properly-enforced marine sanctuaries. Currently, 3.5% of the world’s oceans are ‘designated’ as such, but only 1.6% are actually fully protected from fishing and other harmful uses. Labour supports proposals to create marine protected areas spanning 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. However, no country can do this on its own. It demands international cooperation to save the High Seas: those international waters beyond any country’s jurisdiction that cover a bigger area than all the land continents combined. Because no one owns them, because everyone currently has an equal right to exploit them, it will take a new international treaty to create marine reserves there. We need a Global Oceans Treaty to save the high seas from exploitation through activities such as over-fishing and deep-sea mining.
Negotiating this is proving difficult. Countries like Russia, Australia and the US are dragging their anchors. We saw how fiercely some countries oppose ocean conservation just last week, when Russia, Norway and China blocked proposals to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in the Antarctic. The UK must show leadership if we are to avoid the current trajectory: our oceans acidified, coral reefs bleached, fish stocks depleted and the marine ecosystem unable to help slow dangerous climate change.
We should be a leading voice on the global stage to rally others behind the 30% target. This month’s UN biodiversity convention in Egypt is a key opportunity to do that. Brexit deals may be at the forefront of environment secretary Michael Gove’s mind, but deprioritising ocean conservation at this moment would send a terrible signal to the world about what post-Brexit Britain stands for.
The UK must also ensure that these zones don’t end up as ‘paper parks’. The science is clear. The better managed a marine reserve is, the more resilient it becomes. We can’t afford to repeat what’s happened in our marine sanctuaries – lines on a map that do little to safeguard wildlife, where overfishing, drilling and dredging continues.
This summer, the Government promised a new international oceans strategy. To be credible, it should set out exactly how the UK will deliver our share of the 30% target. Moreover, it needs to be compatible with our international obligations to limit global warming to 1.5°C, with concrete promises that protected areas will be well-enforced and off-limits to all commercial activities.
Labour know that global influence comes from domestic credibility. Our Climate Change Act was world-leading when passed with near unanimous support in Parliament a decade ago. Now it’s the model used by governments worldwide and was the template for the Paris Agreement.
The time has come for the UK to lead again. The Global Oceans Treaty and the Government’s international oceans strategy are a golden moment for us to do just that. If this Government takes its eye off the prize and fails to negotiate a robust new treaty, then — as with the Brexit negotiations — generations to come will never forgive them.