A healthy planet depends on healthy oceans, but our seas are under threat. They are overfished and polluted by plastic, mercury and industrial and human waste. The carbon they absorb from man-made greenhouse gas emissions has rendered them more acidic, making life impossible for creatures such as coral and shellfish. Last year, because global temperatures are rising, our oceans were the warmest ever. This is threatening their ecosystems – and ours, too.
Oceans support life. Up to 80 percent of all living creatures are found there. Fish is one of the main sources of protein for 3.2 billion people. And let’s not forget that oceans produce more than half our oxygen; they absorb heat and help to regulate temperatures on land. They are, in addition, a significant source of both clean energy and, increasingly, vital biotech resources for medicines, including the enzymes used in COVID-19 tests.
If we carry on like this, we risk everything – including our economic welfare. Countless businesses depend on healthy oceans. Marine industries account for $3 trillion in annual revenues, about 5 percent of global GDP. More than 200 million jobs are linked to marine fisheries.
Yet all is not lost. If we act now, we could restore oceans to full health within a single generation. This means combating climate change, addressing unsustainable fishing and protecting oceans from toxic pollution. This challenge is enormous and urgent, but it is also achievable.
To be successful, maintaining healthy oceans must become a priority for the private sector. Many companies are directly dependent on oceans for their business models, such as fishing, food producers, tourism, maritime transport and offshore wind. Many more still need a healthy planet to thrive.
Thankfully, business is starting to wake up to its responsibilities – not just in recognizing the problems it creates, but also in being part of the solution. To help with this, the UN Global Compact developed a set of Sustainable Ocean Principles. They cover nine important areas of action, ranging from focusing on our oceans’ health and respecting the regulatory environment and human rights to encouraging data-sharing and transparent reporting.
Companies that endorse these principles are helping to nurture healthier oceans. They commit to assessing the short and long-term impact of their activities on the ocean and to mitigate it. Taken together, the principles amount to a framework for responsible practice that will help ensure the future of our oceans and our planet.
More than 80 companies have signed up and made public commitments since the principles were launched three years ago. Some have even gone beyond the principles and are using their size and influence to affect wider change. Shipping giant Mærsk, for instance, has launched the Mærsk McKinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping to help decarbonize the shipping industry’s carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Ørsted, the world’s leading offshore wind company, has created artificial reefs to support fish stocks around its wind farms. Ørsted wants to move beyond damage limitation and aims to make a net-positive contribution to biodiversity at all its new renewable energy projects by 2030.
In finance, Norges Bank Investment Management, one of the world’s largest investment funds, managing the assets of Norway’s government pension fund, has added the UN Global Compact Sustainable Ocean Principles to their ocean sustainability expectations for companies, which outline how companies in the investment fund's portfolio should address ocean-related challenges.
Whether big or small, all commitments are important. But we need many, many more companies to sign up. Any company in any sector can become a signatory – not just those whose activities are ocean-focused. But they must commit to long-term action to protect and promote healthy seas.
Those that do sign up receive guidance from the UN Global Compact to help maximize the impact of their efforts. It might be the obvious, such as reducing the use of plastics and fossil fuels and working with others locally or regionally. But it might be more subtle – and yet still be of huge value – such as auditing supply chains for sustainable practices and creating case studies of successful projects.
Alongside the guidance are lists of potential partners available to share their knowledge and experience. For example, the Seafood Stewardship Index can help with data and transparency challenges, while the Global Salmon Initiative can advise about governance.
There are many things we can do to protect our oceans. Reducing our carbon emissions will help stabilize ocean temperatures and slow down the melting of ice caps that is diluting the salinity of our oceans and causing sea levels to rise. We must also work to stop overfishing and prevent waste and pollution from entering our oceans so they can continue to play a significant role in supporting our life on earth.
By committing to the nine principles, especially in the run-up to the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June, companies can do their bit to secure the long-term health of our oceans and our future on this planet.
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Image credit: OCG Saving The Ocean via Unsplash
Sanda Ojiambo is CEO and Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact, the world's largest corporate sustainability initiative.