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June 13, 2019

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SOS: Save Our Seas, for our own survival

The ocean is looming increasingly large in China’s economy.

At the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress in 2017, it was decided that China will become a marine power, characterized by an advanced ocean economy that figures prominently in its overall economy.

This goal has become all the more important in the context of China’s commitment to building an “ecological civilization.”

In particular, President Xi Jinping’s catchphrase “Clear waters and green mountains are as good as mountains of gold and silver” has been ingrained into the eco-friendly practices adopted by many local authorities.

‘Green is gold’

Among those inspired by the mantra of “green is gold” are foreign politicians and diplomats such as Vidar Helgesen, who is Norway’s special envoy to the High-level Panel on Building a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

Speaking on the World Oceans Day on June 6 at a half-day seminar held chiefly by the Norwegian Consulate General in Shanghai, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Think Tank Foundation and Jiangsu Industrial Technology Research Institute, Helgesen said he was aware of the Chinese priority given to protection of the environment, including the ocean, and added that “‘blue and green’ have to go together if we are to build a sustainable ocean economy.”

A long-time observer of the ocean economy, Helgesen said the ocean is economically significant as many in not just his native country but around the world depend on the seas for their livelihoods.

“More than 10 percent of the world population depend on fishing for their livelihoods,” said Helgesen. “It is the protein source for 3 billion people, and that number is set to double in 20 years.”

According to some estimates, the ocean is valued at more than US$24 trillion; however, its actual value is likely to be much higher because many key ecosystem elements are difficult to quantify.

Life-saving resources

For example, aside from hosting life-saving resources such as oxygen — 50 percent of the oxygen humans need to survive comes from the oceans — the oceans also prove much more efficient than the atmospheric layers in capturing carbon dioxide, thereby helping cool our planet and mitigate the effects of global warming, said Helgesen.

“In fact, 90 percent of global warming has been captured by the ocean,” he noted.

That said, the ocean is under relentless pressure from multiple threats including climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and over-fishing.

Of all the threats, global warming perhaps poses the biggest danger to economies that are largely sea-based, including Norway’s.

Therefore, protecting the ocean is given pride of place on the country’s development agenda.

Helgesen cited the example of the country’s world-famous cod stocks to illustrate how the vagaries of global warming could take their toll on the backbone of the Norwegian economy and even jeopardize its national identity.

Right now because of global warming, the Atlantic cod are heading north, resulting in an increasing biomass and a bigger catch for Norwegian fishermen.

This might be a boon but it is actually only short-lived, said Helgesen.

An alarming prospect, he warned, is that global warming has exacerbated acidification of the seawater, and “if we continue to sit on our hands in the present business-as-usual scenario, in 80 years 80 percent of Norway’s cod stocks will be depleted.”

Helgesen said the loss of biodiversity, pollution — especially plastic pollution — and over-fishing have cost the world billions of dollars a year, and if we are to produce more from the ocean in a sustainable way, “we need to take better care of it.”

According to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, countries around the world will have to address these issues to stop deterioration of the oceans to ensure their regenerative potential is restored or enhanced.

Helgesen said he is a firm believer in the significant contribution from oceans and ocean-based industries toward combatting climate change.

Managing the coasts

Nature-based solutions such as mangroves and sea grass help counter global warming by storing almost half of the carbon dioxide captured under the seabed, he noted.

In addition to encouraging more scientific research to pinpoint opportunities and challenges for ocean protection, Helgesen said the world can also help by leveraging “win-win opportunities” that could arise from jointly managing the oceans well.

As much as 90 percent of the world’s biodiversity exists within coastal states, meaning that it is critical for these countries to manage their coasts and reduce the pollutants that are discharged into the oceans.

“But what’s important is that they don’t do things in isolation,” Helgesen argued, calling on countries to join their hands for the shared benefits of all those who live off the oceans’ bounty.


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