Want to protect the oceans? Don’t get stuck underwater

Next week thousands of leaders and ocean experts will descend upon New York City to wrestle with an urgent problem: How can we protect the world’s oceans?

A school of fish in the Maldives. Photo by Tchami/CC BY 2.0

To succeed, they’ll need to look at all the ways oceans interact with people’s development realities and aspirations. That requires a deep dive into how we grow and consume food, where we get our energy, how we develop cities and create jobs, and much more.

This probably isn’t what delegates to the UN Ocean Conference signed up for. After all, the conference is the first international gathering exclusively dedicated to a single Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) – SDG14, to conserve and sustainably use the oceans – and how it can be achieved. This is an important step, but ignoring interactions between SDG14 and other goals would be a grave mistake.

A recent report from the International Council for Science (ICSU) has taken the bold step of quantifying just how important these interactions are. We’ve known since the SDGs were adopted in 2015 that the goals are linked; they are intended to be an “indivisible whole,” not 17 goals working in isolation. We understand that some SDGs reinforce each other; pursuing gender equity can reduce inequalities and advance economic growth. We also know that some goals and their underlying targets have conflicting relationships. For example, boosting agriculture to grow more food might put strain on water, energy, and the environment.

But achieving the SDGs requires a deeper understanding of how these interlinkages work. Quantifying interactions was a tall order but the resulting report is a first-of-its-kind blueprint to help countries protect people and planet – including our oceans.

Here’s how the report worked: An ICSU-led consortium of scientific research organizations applied a seven-point scale to quantify SDG synergies and conflicts. The scale ranges from +3, which applies when one goal or target is very reinforcing of others, to -3, which applies when goals and targets conflict with each other. A score of 0 indicates a neutral interaction. Together with a group of outstanding sustainability experts, we examined four goals to test this scoring framework, including SDG14 and its ten targets.

The scale could be used to answer many questions: Would efforts to ensure healthy life below water support or harm health on land? Would moves toward sustainable fishing help or hinder people’s ability to get sufficient nutrition? Would more jobs in coastal tourism and agriculture put dangerous strain on marine ecosystems? And would this potential strain outweigh the promised gains of economic growth?

One of the strongest positive relationships exists between protecting the oceans and ensuring responsible consumption and production (SDG12). In 2010, 275 million tons of plastic were generated by coastal countries. As many as 13 million tons of plastic waste went into the world’s oceans – littering beaches, choking sea birds, and clogging marine ecosystems. Encouraging industry, agriculture, and private households to reduce their consumption and production could dramatically decrease this volume of toxic litter, as well as minimize ocean acidification and protect fragile ecosystems. In short, the marine litter problem won’t be solved until production and consumption no longer result in more plastic waste.

A complicated relationship exists between SDG14 and SDG1, ending poverty. Healthy, productive, and resilient oceans and coasts make it possible to grow economies and decrease poverty. This is especially true in poor coastal communities where people rely on oceans for their jobs and incomes. But increased economic activity can hurt the environment and create pressure on resources. We see this tension clearly in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and the broader Western Indian Ocean region, where 65 million people live within 10 km of the coast. These communities need to balance the rewards of coastal tourism and development with the dangers of illegal fishing, mining, and resource-intensive coastal agriculture – all while grappling with some of the lowest human development indicators in the world.

Some of the strongest synergies happen between efforts to protect the oceans and tackle climate change (SDG13). These goals require many of the same innovations, knowledge, and resources. Failing to address climate change will cause irreparable harm to coastal communities, especially in low-elevation islands like Kiribati, the Maldives, and the Marshall Islands that face serious damage and costs. The island nation of Fiji has already started to move people who are living on the coasts inland because of rising sea levels and storm damages.

But even these two goals do not always go hand in hand, as measures to adapt to climate change could counteract SDG14. For example, dykes or levees built to protect low-lying coastal areas from storm surges could prevent fragile wetlands such as salt marshes from moving up or inland as sea levels rise, causing a destructive phenomenon known as “coastal squeeze.”

Now that we better understand the nature and extent of SDG interactions, where do we go from here?

The seven-point scale developed for this report can be applied by countries to improve the health of our oceans, and achieve all of the SDGs and their targets. Leaders working toward SDG14 must strike the delicate balance between much-needed protections and the development that will ensure future economic growth, health, and well-being. This is no easy task. It requires that leaders streamline and strengthen policies that govern ocean protections, and that general publics understand, appreciate, and demand them.

Cross-sector collaboration will be key for successful implementation of all SDGs. The ICSU-led report provides a tool to start these conversations. Developing the seven-point scale encouraged scientists from different disciplines – oceanographers, agronomists, epidemiologists, and many more – to work together. The process provided a nudge toward a systems-based way of thinking that does not come naturally to most subject experts. But this diverse group of scientists created and tested a common way to talk about the SDGs and scale them.

Like scientists, leaders in government, civil society, and business can come together to tackle the SDGs as an integrated system of goals. This will involve identifying interactions, understanding their consequences, prioritizing strategies and investments, and enacting change across sectors. This process can happen on the local, as well as the national and regional levels. For SDG14, it is critical that these conversations also take place in coastal communities, where people have the most to gain – and lose – from keeping our oceans healthy and vibrant. It is also important that these conversations cross administrative and physical borders because the SDG interlinkages rarely respect such boundaries.

We need to take action now to save our oceans. But action must be strategic, bolstering best bets to advance other goals and making smart tradeoffs when necessary. The more we understand the interactions between SDGs, the better we’ll be at protecting people and the planet for generations to come.

Barbara Neumann is a post-doctoral research associate at Kiel University and Sebastian Unger is the head of ocean governance research at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany. They both helped author the ICSU report A Guide to SDG Interactions: from Science to Implementation.

This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum.

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