These were the words used by Rena Lee of the United Nations as she presided over the signing of a landmark deal earlier this month aimed at protecting ocean life. Endorsed by 193 countries, this is the first international agreement on ocean protection since 1982. Think of it as a hugely important victory for life on earth.
The deal is significant in the sense that for the first time, the global community has agreed to protect the world’s ‘high seas’ – the waters beyond the jurisdiction of any single country. They amount to around 60% of the world’s oceans. Previously unregulated, it has been hard to prevent overfishing in these waters as well as potential contamination and disruption to marine ecosystems. Seas are crucial for our planet and our lives. They produce about half the oxygen in our atmosphere while absorbing every third carbon dioxide molecule we emit. In addition, they supply much of what we eat.
Against this background, it is disturbing to learn that more than 171tr pieces of plastic are now estimated to be floating in the world’s oceans, up from 16tr in 2005 (per the Plastic Marine Pollution Global Dataset). Every day, the equivalent of one dump truck of plastic alone is tipped into the ocean every minute. On an annualised basis, the total weight of all that plastic would be equivalent to 90 aircraft carriers (per Pew Research). Assuming this estimate is accurate, then by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish.
The UN High Seas Treaty will go some way to addressing (and hopefully reducing) this dire prediction. It is also a rare example of multilateralism in a world where geopolitical relations are febrile. We have been warning of the dangers of plastic pollution since 2018. Treaties are a necessary but not sufficient part of the solution, in our view. We believe that all stakeholders need to embrace alternative packaging solutions to plastic – such as aseptic and recyclable cartons. In addition, a broader, holistic approach would see a more rapid deployment of renewable energy sources and broad circular economy solutions (see our February 2023 note for further details) as well as an increasing emphasis on sustainably farmed fish. We still have more metaphorical shores to reach.
Originally Posted March 16, 2023 – “The ship has reached the shore”
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