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  • Alessia D’Onofrio

What Does the Ocean Have To Do With Sustainability?

2021 represents the start of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. This may bring you to wonder what the ocean has to do with sustainable development. Besides the problem of plastic pollution and overfishing, it is less known that the deep seabed, i.e., the deepest area of the ocean, is an incredible source of profits. This is because the bottom of the ocean is made up of million-year-old rocks which contain nickel, manganese, copper, and cobalt. Such minerals may be used to satisfy the growing demand for the metals used in batteries and clean energy technologies. Consequently, deep seabed mining may facilitate the reduction of fossil fuel dependency. Furthermore, it may help diversify the supply of metals and avoid the problems associated with land mining, such as deforestation, pollution, and child labour. For this reason, deep seabed mining could represent an interesting opportunity for sustainable development.

However, mining in the ocean is not without risks. For example, it may result in irreversible losses of marine biodiversity. This presents a dilemma: although deep seabed mining may make green energy technologies cheaper and more available, it may not be a sustainable choice. For this reason, it is important to analyse the deep seabed mining regime to determine what action needs to be taken. Which is exactly the prospect of this coming decade.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established the current deep seabed mining regime. It was declared that the bottom of the ocean and its resources belong to all states (‘common heritage of mankind’) and needs to be used in such a way as to avoid overexploitation and damage to marine resources. Before that, the oceans were regulated by an open-access regime, i.e., resources could be exploited without restraint as they were believed to be inexhaustible. However, as we now know, scientific progress exhibited that such resources were in fact exhaustible. Therefore, it became imperative to regulate access to avoid disputes between states with competing or conflicting interests. Considering this, UNCLOS was an important step forward for the achievement of sustainable development as it protects the oceans from overexploitation. Nevertheless, the Convention is not an environmental tool but merely an economic one, as its main goal is to foster economic growth. More needs to be done to guarantee the conservation of marine resources, for example with a new environmental treaty.

But why should we care about marine conservation? What exactly should we conserve?

The ocean is one of the biggest unresolved mysteries left. Because of the limits of our technologies, only 5% of our oceans has been explored. What species live in that remaining 95% is unknown. The species of the known 5% have surprised researchers with their beauty and uniqueness: the Mighty Blue Whale, i.e. the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth, the Peacock Mantis Shrimp, the Pink See-Through Fantasia, the Frogfish, the Frilled Shark, the Giant Squid, the Bioluminescent Octopus and many more. The oceans also host the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet: coral reefs. Besides hosting incredible species, our oceans produce more than 50% of the world’s oxygen. The oceans also regulate our climate and weather. For example, mangrove swamps and coral reefs represent essential protection from storms and tsunamis.

Okay, the oceans are incredible, but why should we choose sustainability over economic growth? Economic growth could reduce poverty!

Some argue that the environment has an intrinsic value and we should protect it for ethical and aesthetic reasons. For this reason, we cannot put a price on the environment and be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Therefore, the economic benefits of deep-seabed mining are irrelevant to making a choice that negatively affects marine biodiversity. In other words, environmental damage such as biodiversity loss cannot be measured against economic gains. Choosing sustainability is not simply a selfless and ethical choice, but it is also crucial for our survival, due to the enormous amount of oxygen produced by the oceans.

Additionally, economic growth is not necessarily the best instrument to tackle the massive problem that poverty represents. The former tends to favour those who are already wealthy, while the condition of the poorest remains unchanged. This is because poverty is a structural problem, due to ‘powerlessness, stigmatisation, discrimination, exclusion, and material deprivation, which all mutually reinforce one another’ (M Sepúlveda Carmona). Because of the international structures in place, it is difficult for developing countries to catch up with western hyper-capitalist states. The latter have been favoured from their position of power within the international economic order. For example, the voting system in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund depends on the economic resources of a country. As a consequence, international rules are inevitably favourable to the interests of developed countries. They make their own rules! The tariff escalation system is a clear example of how the policies of international economic organisations can pose a hurdle to development whilst benefitting western countries. Raw materials which cannot be found or grown in industrialised states are subject to low or no tariffs. Not surprisingly, developing countries specialise exactly in the production of raw materials, which are imported by industrialised states to manufacture expensive goods. In other words, industrialised states pose very large tariffs on the raw material they export, but make sure that there are no tariffs on the raw materials they have to import from other countries. Tariffs are only increased when a material steps up on the value chain. In this way, tariff escalation ensures that low materials stay cheap. This favours developed countries, whilst creating obstacles for developing ones.

Therefore, choosing economic growth over sustainability and ethical behaviour will not necessarily favour developing countries and reduce poverty rates. On the contrary, it is very likely to favour only those who are already rich. Too many times we have chosen economic goals over environmental ones, and we are now paying the price. Climate change is responsible for terrible weather events which are leaving people homeless or forcing them to leave their country of origin. Unsustainable economic growth is not an instrument to tackle poverty, but an obstacle.

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