It’s June, which means the world is officially celebrating our biggest ecosystem: our oceans!
A global observance that takes place every June to raise awareness about the importance of the world’s oceans and promote sustainable practices to protect and conserve them, World Oceans Month provides an opportunity for individuals, communities, organisations, and governments to highlight the significant role the ocean plays in our daily lives. This includes the impact on climate regulation, biodiversity, food security, transportation, and recreation.
For the past two years, this month has held special significance as it slots neatly into the “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.” Officially proclaimed by the United Nations for the period of 2021 to 2030, the UN hopes to galvanize ocean research to improve our understanding of the marine environment.
By fostering science-based solutions for sustainable ocean management, supporting policy development, and enhancing public awareness of the significance of oceans, World Oceans Month is crucial in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One key thing that has been on the mind of our global community is how we can advance sustainable development and conservation efforts for the benefit of present and future generations. Considering that 85% of Australia’s population lives within 50 kilometres of the coast and that the country has more than 30,000 kilometres of coastline, why doesn’t Australia lead the way by transitioning towards a sustainable ocean economy?
Although we still do not fully understand the ocean, we do know that it is the planet’s largest carbon sink. A number of marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass meadows, and salt marshes, sequester carbon dioxide underground, typically in low-oxygen sediments where decomposition is extremely slow. If left undisturbed, this buried carbon – blue carbon – can be much greater than that found in terrestrial ecosystems.
By sequestering and storing carbon, coastal ecosystems help to mitigate the impacts of climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They act as ‘carbon sinks’ that can help offset the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Not only that, but they are also among the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth, providing critical habitats for a wide range of plant and animal species, including commercially important fish and shellfish.
Protecting and restoring these ecosystems not only protects coastlines (from erosion, storm surges, and sea-level rise) and preserves biodiversity, but also supports sustainable fisheries and contributes to the resilience of coastal communities. By providing these various goods and services (fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and water purification), these ecosystems contribute to sustainable ‘blue economy’ activities and enhance the livelihoods of coastal communities that depend on these ecosystems.
The ‘blue economy’ term refers to the sustainable use and management of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and the conservation of the marine environment. It encompasses various sectors and activities that rely on the oceans and their resources, including fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, maritime transport, renewable energy, biotechnology, and coastal development.
The concept emerged from the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio 20+), based on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit initiative to develop a green economy that enhances human well-being while reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.
In the past few decades, a blue economy and ocean resources have become increasingly popular as terrestrial resources have become scarce. It’s been reported 9 in 10 institutional investors are interested in financing a blue economy, recognising the immense economic potential of the oceans while emphasizing the importance of responsible and sustainable practices.
It requires a great deal of multilateral collaboration and political coordination for the jurisdiction of marine resources to be resolved in geopolitical terms, especially in contested territory. Not only that, but it’s also essential to redirect capital away from environmentally harmful activities (such as unsustainable fishing) to more sustainable ones (such as offshore wind farms or zero-carbon ships).
Sustainable ocean management can, however, strike a balance between economic and environmental priorities. The greatest extent of mangroves and seagrasses occurs across the Indo-Pacific region, notably in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
For these coastal and Indigenous communities, restoring marine ecosystems contributes to a higher level of biodiversity and food availability. “They are also among the most extensive and valuable coastal ecosystems across the Indo-Pacific, providing benefits directly linked to sustainable livelihoods, and climate resilience and adaptation,” says Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy.
The CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, agrees the country would benefit from protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems: “Restoration of the historical extent of blue carbon ecosystems, together with protection of threatened coastal ecosystems, could help mitigate Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing the other benefits that these ecosystems provide.” The CSIRO collaborated with several universities between 2012 and 2015 to provide the largest initiative undertaken in Australia to assess blue carbon’s climate mitigation potential and understand how it stores and sequesters carbon, outlining potential solutions in the Emission Reduction Fund.
In Australia, the CSIRO Blue Carbon collaboration cluster has produced arguably the most comprehensive estimates of blue carbon sequestration. This body of work has been used to inform policy development for national reporting and emissions and is in the process of protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems throughout the Indian Ocean region via the IORA Blue Carbon Hub. CSIRO partnered with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and Google Australia in late 2022 to map coastal ecosystems in the Indo-Pacific. “Australian, Fijian and Indonesian researchers will work together to develop sophisticated techniques for gathering data about biodiversity and habitats,” explained the Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic. “The information can then be used to inform national policies and climate change action.”
But coastal blue carbon ecosystems are declining worldwide due to unsustainable coastal development. Australia is considered a global ‘blue carbon hotspot,’ with about 12% of the world’s blue carbon ecosystems, which hold about 7-12% of global carbon stock.
But even as Australia is planning the first national ocean ecosystem account, with a focus on coastal blue carbon ecosystems, and is one of only a few countries to progressively include coastal wetlands in international carbon accounting, these ecosystems are under threat here. These losses not only prevent their ability to sequester carbon but can cause release of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
The ocean economy is becoming more and more real but it must be based on decoupling economic activity from environmental and ecosystem degradation.
To facilitate the transition towards a blue economy, governments will need to establish appropriate policies and market structures at the national and multilateral levels. And businesses that follow suit will have significant growth opportunities in the blue economy. “Good information guides good policy – we need the right evidence to help us protect vital ecosystems and address the challenge of climate change,” the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, the Hon Dr Andrew Leigh, says.