Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, UN Special Envoy for the Ocean, mobilizes global action to conserve and sustainably use the ocean. He spoke recently about ocean-climate connections, perspectives from small island developing States and the far-reaching possibilities in developing a sustainable blue economy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What connects the ocean and the climate?
The ocean is the great regulator of climate. Around 30 per cent of carbon dioxide emitted is absorbed by the ocean. Over 90 per cent of heat produced by global warming is absorbed by the ocean. Yet these things have their limits and the tipping points are being approached.
My mantra every day is that you cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean. But ocean health is in decline due primarily to greenhouse gas emissions. The ocean is increasingly acidic, has less oxygen and is warmer. This leads to the death of coral, rising sea levels and changing ocean currents among other things. The ocean is also under pressure from pollution; there will be more plastic than fish in it by 2050. Mangroves, sea grasses and kelp forests are still being destroyed despite the fact that they sequester 10 times more carbon than forests on land.
Why are people linked to the ocean, regardless of where they live?
Think about the oxygen you are breathing. A little creature called Prochlorococcus, the tiniest photosynthetic organism on the planet, lives in the ocean and produces 20 percent of the oxygen in the biosphere. So we are all connected to Prochlorococcus and the ocean in an existential way.
For a person in a rural area of a small island developing State, surrounded by the ocean, what does climate change look like?
The most obvious challenge is the frequency and ferocity of tropical cyclones. We had them in the old days. You always had to be prepared once a decade for a big blow. But now you are getting several a year and they are stronger. If you plant crops to get some money for the school fees for your kids, whether it is kava or root crops, you get a loan for the planting material, put in the hard labour of planting and maintaining, and then along comes one of these giant storms and wipes out everything you have. It’s economic disaster. If one’s coming towards you, you get prepared for the worst and then pray the storm veers away. The seasons are also changing now. Where you reliably expected rain, it does not come in that month but comes torrentially in another month, which does not work for the crop cycle.
If you are in low-lying areas, rising sea level is a worry – and that is not just for small island developing States. Places like Manhattan and Florida should be thinking hard about what is going on, because this is going to be a constant now for the next few hundred years given what is happening to the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. In Fiji, we have already moved a lot of low-lying communities to higher ground. This is a programme that the Government is responsibly undertaking based on requests from villages that are suffering from rising sea levels and want to relocate.
Then there is the bleaching of coral. You might remember a reef from childhood with the single most abundant view of life and nature that you could possibly have. And then you go back and see a bleached reef where there is nothing but dead coral and a bit of algae and the occasional fish meandering through. It is devastating. I compare that to what it must have been like going into cities completely flattened by bombs during the second World War. We can expect 90 percent of tropical coral reefs to be gone when we reach warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Why are small island developing States, not the richest in resources by far, leading global calls for climate action?
Because we can see the effects and we’ve turned to science, which has made very clear what is happening. Countries that are low-lying, like the Maldives, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, have been at the forefront of raising global consciousness. Good friends and neighbours like Fiji and Solomon Islands are higher islands that are not going to go under rising seas, but are prepared to fight the fight. It’s a moral battle really.
Humans are humans. If you are given a resource, and it happens to be oil and there is demand, you exploit that so you can develop and give your children an education and good health care and all the rest. That is just a normal human reaction. But you cannot enjoy your life if that process involves harming my life. If you are producing something in your place and the harmful effects come across to my place, I have to speak up. That said, we are past finger pointing. We are in this together. And we have to find the solutions together.
Are you optimistic about the future for people in small island developing States?
They are in a difficult spot because of what the pandemic has done to the global tourism industry. They had come to rely heavily on that. The other challenge is what changing climatic conditions are doing to their economies. Three of the five commercial species of tuna will move away from the south-west Pacific in this century, to the south around New Zealand and across to the west coast of Latin America. In Tuvalu, where 90 percent of foreign exchange comes from tuna, that is like pulling the economic cup from their lips.
Where I see the hope is in the sustainable blue economy, which has many promises for island countries. Genetic marine resources have tremendous potential for medicines and all sorts of health and other products moving forward. Mari-culture, which takes place in the outer ocean, could be the export of the future as we get away from aquaculture near shorelines, which has problems from the use of antibiotics, the clearing of mangrove forests and other issues that arise in closed conditions. And there is sustainable offshore wind energy, where the small island developing States could be at the forefront, and which could provide us with all the energy we need on this planet.
What do you most want the 2021 Glasgow climate conference to achieve?
Moving the climate finance needle in the direction of the sustainable blue economy. At the moment, only a miniscule amount of climate finance and official development assistance are going into blue economy investments.
If the needle moves, there is a big incentive to be much more ambitious about the sustainable blue economy. And that in turn can greatly accelerate advances to a net-zero carbon world by 2050. The High-Level Panel on the Sustainable Ocean Economy report, for example, showed that 21 percent of emissions mitigation can be provided by the ocean, such as through offshore wind energy and the greening of shipping.
Is the political will there to make good on the existing commitment for richer countries to provide $100 billion in climate finance to developing countries?
The pandemic has shown us that we can move vast resources to protect ourselves. The $100 billion is a drop in the ocean of what is required to climate proof ourselves. It’s going to require not billions but trillions of dollars in investment. Politically are we going to be in a position to spend those trillions? Absolutely yes. This is the most sensible thing we can do with our money. If you think of our children and grandchildren being condemned to a world on fire, is that acceptable? No! When we realize that, we will have no trouble raising the trillions required.
I believe humanity bends in the direction of self-preservation. And I believe we have got the ingenuity to come up with the necessary solutions. There are going to be some very big decisions to be made by 2030 because we’ve only got a decade at best to start bending the curve.
Is progress being made in greening the shipping industry?
Over 90 per cent of the world’s trade is carried by ships – it’s a very significant service for humanity. Ships have to keep sailing. But they burn the dirtiest bunker fuel, which is very harmful for human health and bad for the environment. We need to get rid of it.
We are on the cusp of transformation to new sources of power, with probably the most likely option being ammonia green hydrogen. There is enough confidence in this that you see countries like Chile including the production of ammonia green hydrogen in their national development plans. Already, we have battery-powered ships of enormous size that are feasible if you have a 24-hour turnaround, such as most ferries. Coastal shipping should be electrified as soon as possible.
What are your thoughts about current efforts at the World Trade Organization to remove harmful fishing subsidies?
We have to stop the travesty of these. I’m feeling more positive than I have been in years because we are finally moving from a hamster wheel to an Olympic race on this issue. Between $20-30 billion a year of public monies are being spent on subsidies, which mainly go to industrial fishing fleets to go out and chase diminishing fish stocks. The logic is totally wrong. Subsidies that back harmful practices can go into sustainable aquaculture or helping women develop seaweed farms. Imagine what we could do with $20 billion.
How can we make peace with the ocean?
I like the UN Secretary-General’s message that humanity has been waging war against nature and it is time for us to make peace. That is the state of humanity’s relationship with the planet and we have to face up to that. We cannot continue exploiting finite resources and expecting this can go on forever and we can all get richer. It’s not going to happen.
We have to change our ways. In my family we have made the transition away from eating beef, for example. We’ve made the transition from owning private vehicles. We will reward governments committing to net-zero carbon, as well as corporations that do so in our spending as consumers. I’m sure there are millions of our families like ours that are prepared to do what we all have to do.
What really needs to change is the human mindset. We’ve got to give back to the land. We’ve got to give back to the ocean. We’ve got to treat Planet Earth with the respect it deserves.