The message from experts is clear: we need to act fast to reverse the damage done to our oceans. We’ve lost 40% of life in the ocean in the last 40 years and the situation is escalating. Biodiversity loss, pollution, urban waste water, overfishing, and climate change, are all part of the problem. But there is hope.
Business for Peace convened leading ocean experts in Norway to determine the state of the industry. High on the list of talking points was what action the private sector in particular is doing to protect nature’s most important system. Panelists Vidar Helgesen, Christine Spiten, and Nina Jensen are all heavily involved in pushing the industry forward.
As the blue economy booms, businesses need to collaborate on minimising their ocean impact and addressing climate change. Whatever action that is taken needs to be aggressive and collective. We are all aware that time is not on our side. Who has responsibility for this implementation, though, and how we get there, is increasingly being acknowledged and pushed forward by the private sector.
Photo: Trym Schade Warloe.
Bring in the experts
The panellists acknowledged the interplay of problems. Norway’s Special Representative for the Ocean, Vidar Helgesen, sees incentives for innovation as part of the solution: “Part of the fundamental problem is that plastic is too cheap. This is an innovation problem. In Europe there are a lot of exciting new initiatives coming out.” Where you live also determines who should be held responsible, and goes on to claim that “if you are in the US, I would look to business rather than the government.”
Christine Spiten, Senior Corporate Advisor for Plastic & Circular Economy at WWF Norway, acknowledges that there are risks involved when trying to make innovation profitable, but advocating for teamwork: “Here in Norway we are afraid of testing something out that is not perfect because we are afraid of losing face. We need to be bold and come up with those crazy ideas and support them.” This teamwork and openness is crucial in having any hope of recovering the status of the oceans, as “very few people know how to manage the ocean and most of them do not do that in a sustainable way.”
Our final panelist, CEO of Rev Ocean and marine biologist Nina Jensen, also sees that the most potential lies “in business. Where there are large problems there are also huge business opportunities.” Of course, this is easier said than done. It is extremely difficult to persuade those in power on ideas. “Part of the solution,” she suggests, “is to scale up infrastructure. Those producing the plastic have plenty of money and they should be held accountable. They should be solving the problems that they have created.”
The ocean protects us in ways we can barely fathom. It absorbs about 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans. To put that into perspective, the ocean covers 99% of the total living space on Earth by volume. It’s a lot to take in for the average land-dweller.
“There has been a free-for-all approach to managing the ocean,” said Heglesen. Jensen added: “I’m an optimist and believe that technology can help us with a lot of things, but it’s also a way of keeping us from doing the right things. We simply cannot open any new oil fields. It is keeping us from making the right choices.”
When making the right choices, then, it is “equally important to make sure what happens is not just creating another problem. Technology is not going to solve anything unless you put it in the hands of good people,” as Spiten pointed out.
So what is the future of the ocean?
“I do think that we’re on the cusp of some really important and critical discussions,” Helgesen said. “More has happened in banking and investment in the past few months than has happened in the past few years. Today we know better. We are in a transformation. The oil issue is a transformational question. We need to get away from fossil fuels. Divestment from oil is really catching on.” Governments need to provide that holistic planning framework for such activities to take place. Industry working in ocean solutions can achieve ⅕ of what we need in order to achieve our targets. A lot of this requires regulations put in place by governments in combination with technological innovation.
Keeping businesses accountable is a key piece to the puzzle for Jensen. “There are a lot of great initiatives out there that could benefit from funding. Part of the solution is to scale up waste management in the countries that are missing this.” According to her, funding should come from those who produce the plastic. It’s the responsibility of governments to put regulations in place, to use the data that we have to our disposal.
Spiten pointed out that there is a need for more cross collaboration. Research is being done without the connection to business, and this lack of shared ideas and research is hurting progress. “Let’s put more scientists into startups,” she says. It is through this collaboration where we meet around the challenges.
The solutions don’t have to be complex in order to be effective. The start-up ARC Marine has transformed, for instance, a simple brick block. The brick is used on off-shore wind turbine field construction, where the bricks have simultaneous purpose: doing its job while at the same time creating artificial reefs for threatened animals. In this way, Spiten says, what nature needs is “often what we need as well.”
Sea of Possibilities
The panellists left us with feelings of hope – hope that concrete technologies and solutions will be put to use in the hands of those who really can make a difference already in 2020. This includes individual efforts as well. Does it really matter if we eat less meat and recycle? If we ask the panelists, of course it does. “We might not all be Greta Thunberg but we can all make an impact,” says Jensen. We can all act like Greta in whatever way that we can. It’s the little things that everyone does that add up. “All of a sudden, you can have a huge impact.”
From the air we breathe to the water we drink, sustaining life on our blue planet depends on the oceans. We are living in a historic time, and it’s time we have discussions and actions that make an impact.