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What Does the Ocean Have To Do With Sustainability?

Updated: Feb 11

2021 represents the start of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. But what exactly does the ocean have 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 a source of vast profits for many international corporations and governments. 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. It may also 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.

But mining in the ocean is not without risks. Experts alert that it may result in irreversible losses of marine biodiversity. This presents a dilemma that speaks to the complexities of trying to solve the climate and biodiversity crises: although deep seabed mining may make green energy technologies cheaper and more available, it may not be necessarily 'sustainable'. It is important to analyse the issue with care – 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 showed us 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, we must remember that the Convention is not an environmental tool but merely an economic one: its main goal is to foster economic growth. If we really want to guarantee the conservation of marine resources, we need to do more. A new environmental treaty that prioritises ocean conservation could be a start.

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 so far. What species live in that remaining 95% is unknown. The species living in 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. But the ocean doesn't just host incredible species: it producs more than 50% of the world’s oxygen. The oceans also regulate our climate and weather, and are essential for climate mitigation and adaptation strategies – e.g. 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. Following this line of thought, we cannot put a price on the environment and it is impossible for it to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Considering this, the economic benefits of deep-seabed mining would be irrelevant as it negatively affects marine biodiversity. In other words: environmental damage such as biodiversity loss cannot be measured against economic gains. But protecting our oceans is not simply a selfless and ethical choice, but it is also crucial for our survival, considering the enormous amount of oxygen produced by the oceans.

Looking at the current state of the world, one might also come to the realisation that economic growth is not necessarily the best instrument to tackle the massive problem that poverty represents. Our current economic system tends to favour those who are already wealthy, while the condition of the poorest remains unchanged. This is because poverty is a structural problem where ‘powerlessness, stigmatisation, discrimination, exclusion, and material deprivation, 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.

This serves as a reminder for us when looking at 'complex solutions' that have few environmental benefits, many risks but promise great economic gain: choosing economic growth over sustainability and ethical behaviour will not necessarily favour developing countries and reduce poverty rates, as promised. 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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