Invest at the Source

Report from the Acceleration Dialogues event, held during Monaco Ocean Week 2019

Ocean resilience starts upstream.

The challenge of solving climate change and achieving sustainable development for the long-term, for all nations, demands we build an economy that is capable of securing ocean health and resilience — a blue economy.

On Wednesday, 27 March 2019, at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, the Acceleration Dialogues partners convened a working session with a select group of leaders and experts in finance, economics, policy and law. The focus was to begin mapping a series of upstream activities that are significant contributors to downstream health and resilience — in other words: to connect the human economy on land to the sustainable ocean economy.

By mapping connections between upstream actions and downstream resilience, we found new areas potential shared innovation and investable value, that could vastly expand the pool of resources flowing to ocean health and resilience priorities.

(Read the full report below, or download the PDF here.)


The Acceleration Dialogues are co-convened by the International Center for Dialogue and Peacebuilding and Citizens’ Climate Education, with technical support from the Geoversiv Foundation, and in collaboration with the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The EAT Foundation contributed food system sustainability insights to this dialogue, and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, along with the Institut Océanographique de Monaco, contributed event space, logistical support, and programme listing for Monaco Ocean Week.


The Ocean Signal

The ocean is not a remote wilderness, far removed from human experience. Though much of Earth’s ocean has yet to be explored in up-close scientific detail, our everyday activities are intimately entwined with ocean health and resilience.

Some of the ways this entanglement happens are obvious, as in the case of plastic waste, which is now being found throughout the ocean, even in remote waters under Arctic ice. We discard so much plastic material every day, everywhere around the world, that it is now estimated [1] there will be more plastic (by weight) than fish in the ocean, by 2050. Other threads are not as easy to see:

  • Industrial farming practices, for instance, which provide much of the food we eat every day, push chemical pollutants into rivers and streams, which eventually run to the ocean. These chemicals have a number of severely adverse impacts on ocean ecosystems, such that there are now 400 ‘dead zones’ due to oxygen depletion, while 40% of all oxygen-producing phytoplankton are estimated to have been lost since 1950. [2]
  • It is well known that carbon pollution from energy production traps heat in the atmosphere. It is less commonly understood by the general public, policy-makers and investors, that the ocean has absorbed 90% of the excess thermal energy [3] from industrial emissions of heat-trapping compounds. That excess thermal energy fundamentally alters living conditions, displaces or eliminates critical habitat, and disrupts ecosystems. It also changes the physics of the deep ocean, altering weather on the surface, adding volatility to regional and global climate patterns, and putting human beings, food and water supplies, and whole economies at risk.

The ocean, like the climate, is a global fabric of interactions. Actions we think are local or regional rise to a planetary scale, when their impacts are projected through a planetary system, like the ocean. Because our choices not only impact life under water, but also lead to repercussions we can feel, the ocean is a reservoir of signals about our own prospects for sustainable thriving.

Reading the ocean signal is increasingly vital for the future wellbeing of humanity.


Ocean Neutrality

Our actions are creating major disruptions to ocean health and resilience. The ocean not only anchors climate patterns we depend on, provides an abundance of food, and helps to shape our economies; it also produces half of all the oxygen we breathe. Ocean health is human security.

Changing course, however, is not as simple as knowing this and willing change. We cannot proceed in the world in an ocean-friendly way, if our world is structured to generate pervasive threats to the ocean and its life-sustaining dynamic systems.

The vast majority of plastic pollution going into the ocean flows from just 10 river systems. Many of the practices that already limit plastic pollution elsewhere can and should be deployed in those river systems, to maximize the overall sustainable investment return.

The scale of this challenge means we need to set ambitious goals — goals ambitious enough to align our overall economy with ocean health and resilience. If we want to read (and respond to) the ocean signal intelligently, we need to acknowledge that disrupting ocean systems puts our own wellbeing at risk. In spite of the many systemic challenges, it is reasonable to think ahead to a future of ocean neutrality — in which human activity does not threaten the health and resilience of ocean systems at all.

The trouble with ocean neutrality is that we cannot get there with “net zero” goals. There is no such thing as “net zero plastic waste”. We need to achieve zero plastic waste, for the sake of the ocean, its life-support systems, its inhabitants, the global food web, and our own health and wellbeing. Similarly, you cannot have “net zero sea level rise” or “net zero agricultural chemical runoff”.

Zero goals for outcomes of actions that are part of our everyday experience are hard to fathom. Beyond the technical challenge, there is the communications challenge, the economic challenge, and the political challenge — all of them complex. So: we need policy to add leverage and drive change, we need new business models to chart a new economic course, and we need to learn how to tell this story, without the pessimism of outdated thinking about the limits of sensible problem-solving.


A Cascade of Effects

Resilience is a layering of positive effects [4]; environmental threat and degradation comes through a layering of negative effects — some small, some sweeping. The health of our ocean depends on a cascade of ecologically responsible activities, moving through entire watersheds.[5] Our decision to invest in those ecologically responsible activities upstream will generate a cascade of benefits for ecosystems, watersheds, and the ocean, and for human sustenance, health, and wellbeing.

A threat introduced far upstream will degrade overall health and resilience as it moves through the watershed. If that threat is persistent, and widespread, it will begin to impact ocean ecosystems, and the cascade of effects will generate an overall degraded state. Warmer temperatures combined with low oxygen conditions make it harder for some organisms to build shells and so to reach maturity. Less food means malnutrition and so enhanced vulnerability to disease. This cascade of effects may first touch microorganisms, then more complex crustaceans, then eventually marine mammals, including the largest whales.

Resilience-building strategies also create a wider foundation for integrated health and thriving, when they start upstream and cascade through an entire watershed. Regenerative farming [6] practices, for instance, remove the chemical runoff that leads to dead zones in the ocean, while building resilience on the land itself. A simple cascade of layered benefits can also be traced as follows: regenerative farming builds soil ecology, which holds more carbon, reducing overall greenhouse gas pollution, in turn reducing the heat-absorption stresses on the atmosphere, on arable land, on waterways, and on ocean ecosystems.


Investing in Ocean Health & Resilience

Getting fresh technical solutions to scale requires a reimagining of systems. That reimagining can start from identifying threats to ocean health and resilience and then sorting through concrete opportunities to move investment and reimagine whole systems of upstream-downstream interrelationship. The following are 10 system-failure challenges, each of which represents a zero goal for ocean health[7] and resilience[8]:

Plastic Waste

  • Driven by: Poor waste management and sanitation.
  • Investable action opportunities: Biodegradable polymers, reusable packaging, improved waste management, circular economy supply-chains, and ocean clean-up.

Ocean acidification

  • Driven by: Carbon emissions.
  • Investable action opportunities: Zero-emissions energy production, regenerative farming and forestry.

Thermal absorption and expansion

  • Driven by: Human-caused global warming.
  • Investable action opportunities: Zero-emissions energy production, regenerative farming and forestry.

Sea level rise

  • Driven by: Warming and ice melt.
  • Investable action opportunities: Zero-emissions energy production, regenerative farming and forestry.

Disruption of ocean currents

  • Driven by: Warming and glacial melt.
  • Investable action opportunities: Zero-emissions energy production, regenerative farming and forestry.

Chemical agricultural runoff

  • Driven by: Land use and fertilization practices, lack of effective pollution controls.
  • Investable action opportunities: Regenerative farming practices, top-soil resilience-building, closed-cycle drainage engineering and waste-water-treatment.

Coral bleaching

  • Driven by: Warming, ecosystem and nutrient changes and other stresses.
  • Investable action opportunities: Zero-emissions energy production, regenerative farming and forestry.

Sonic trauma

  • Driven by: Military exercises, oil and gas exploration and production, shipping.
  • Investable action opportunities: Innovative underwater mapping and communications technologies, quieter motors for large vessels.

Accelerated extinction

  • Driven by: Ecosystem degradation, habitat destruction, food supply depletion, warming, forced behavior change, invasive species, disease vectors.
  • Marine protected areas, sustainable fisheries, climate mitigation, regenerative farming, waste management, ecosystem protection.

Sea-floor methane disruption

  • Driven by: Warming, drilling.
  • Investable action opportunities: Zero-emissions energy production, regenerative farming and forestry.

To achieve any of these zero goals, we need to stop introducing the driver of the threat upstream. While we need to invest in downstream blue economy innovations, the success of the sustainable ocean economy is heavily dependent on our moving major investment into ocean-smart practices across the whole economy.


Whole-Economy Ocean Resilience

To address the ocean health and resilience challenge, we need to develop whole-economy ocean resilience strategies. The Blue Economy must be widened in scope to include all areas of industrial and economic activity — and related areas of policy — that impact the sustainability of ocean systems in a significant way. This means planning specific ocean-smart investment priorities, mapped to science-based strategic timelines, at multiple layers and scales of influence, in:

  1. Waste management
  2. Infrastructure design and urbanization [9]
  3. Agriculture and land use
  4. Ecosystem stewardship
  5. Chemical processing and refining
  6. Manufacturing
  7. Energy production
  8. Transportation
  9. Finance, investment, and trade

The list [10] is bookended by Waste Management and Finance — in part because reading the ocean signal reveals powerful connections between the two and points to business-model innovations we must learn to harness for transformational benefit. We treat the field of waste management as something very different from finance — physical labor vs. data management and bookkeeping, low-income vs. high-income — but the shift to circular economy standards and practices will connect them in important ways. Waste management and finance will be redefined as two modes of a shared project, a resource management industry industry that in different ways, at different scales, aims to leverage presently accessible foundations of value to achieve specific enhancements of future prosperity.

Markets (whether sector-specific or multi-sector), finance and international trade, are not zero-sum games; they are not proverbial pies of finite size, where anyone’s gain is someone else’s loss. Markets, finance, and trade, are all capable of expansive optimization — adding value by optimizing processes and investments to yield the highest overall benefit from the same base of resources. We can do far better at extending those benefits to all people and to natural systems, but the core capability is already there.

The question for this moment in history is: Will we innovate fast enough and collaborate inclusively enough to leverage the power of whole economies to meet planetary resilience needs?

The health and wellbeing of natural systems in the ocean and on land, and so of human societies, depend on our success in doing this. To answer this question in the affirmative, we will have to envision together a vastly different everyday economy: one where blue economy principles and aims inform everything we do. We must expect major industrial corporations and consumer product companies, food producers, grocers, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, and fashion labels, as well as investors large and small, commercial banks, insurers and policy-makers, to understand and act on the demand for ocean-safe standards and practices.

We need to invest at the source to achieve ocean sustainability — to eliminate threats to ocean health and resilience from day-to-day activities and wider supply chains. This brief will serve as the foundation of an ongoing effort:

  1. to map an actionable-investable whole-economy approach,
  2. identify specific solutions and opportunities for collaborative innovation, and
  3. connect Earth science information to finance and investment guidance.

There should be no further profitability or status-quo argument for failing to meet this challenge. The ocean-smart economy will help us to achieve sustainable prosperity.

We invite you to join our ongoing effort to map and motivate the building of an Ocean Health and Resilience economy. Please find and share this report online, learn about additional specific solutions to ocean challenges, and share your recommended strategies and critical innovations, at:

OceanSmart.org

Notes

1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy, 2017. URL: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics-catalysing-action

2) State of Our Ocean, 2019 edition, from the Sustainable Ocean Alliance. Page 11. PDF: https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.163/j1r.45c.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2019StateOurOceanReportHR_012219.pdf

3) The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds 90% of excess thermal energy from global warming pollution has been absorbed by the ocean. URL: https://www.oceanscientists.org/index.php/topics/ocean-warming

4) Interactions between distinct areas of risk can shape the overall viability of ecosystems, economies, societies, and nation-states. Resilience intelligence derives from tracing these interactions to better direct investment and build resilience. URL: resilienceintel.org/interactive

5) Whole-Economy Active-Value Economics (WEAVE) traces these upstream-downstream interrelationships, to reveal natural system value. URL: engage4climate.org/weave

6) A growing global alliance of innovators is demonstrating that regenerative farming can become the mainstream standard. URL: regenerationinternational.org

7) Coral bleaching is cited here as an example of the collapse of an ecosystem anchor — affecting the viability and biodiversity of a wider ecological sphere. We welcome feedback and reports from the field from researchers, activists, agents and innovators, working on other comparable situations where ecosystem anchors are threatened.

8) Sonic trauma experienced by marine life, due to human activity affects the behavior of individual animals, groups, and species across affected areas. These forced behavior changes can disrupt migration patterns, threaten health, and degrade complex ecosystems — reducing the overall capacity of the ocean to cope with other stresses.

9) UN-Habitat has mapped connections between urban planning and the ocean, in the background paper ‘The Blue Economy and Cities’. PDF: https://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/UN-Habitat-Background-Paper-on-Blue-Economy-and-Cities.pdf

10) The Acceleration Dialogues partners will continue to report on specific areas of innovation, relating to each of the sectors listed here.

Written by Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Education. He is the lead strategist supporting the Acceleration Dialogues (diplomatic climate-solutions roundtables) and Resilience Intel—an effort to move the world to 100% climate-smart finance. Joseph represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, the UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes, and is founder of the Geoversiv Foundation and Democracy Witness—an online periodical promoting engaged, non-partisan civics. His articles appear from time to time in the Guardian.

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