Picture: 123RF/VOLODYMYR GOINYK
Picture: 123RF/VOLODYMYR GOINYK

Our oceans are facing a serious and urgent crisis. The cumulative impacts of rising ocean heat, disturbance, acidification, reduced oxygen, nutrient inflow and bio-invasions lead to a loss of resources and ecosystem function. We can address these challenges and build resilience through a co-ordinated strategy that needs to be supported by all stakeholders and that includes adequate finance mechanisms to maintain sustainability. 

Finance is a necessary tool for conservation and ocean protection; it allows different ways of thinking about risks and the ability to use money intelligently to support science. Marine protected areas (MPAs), for instance, provide fish refugiums that protect species and enhance ocean productivity; they can also help protect coasts, promote carbon mitigation and help deliver sustainable tourism. The Southern Ocean (Antarctic) is catching up in terms of MPA coverage, currently at 5%, but there is still a way to go to reach the minimum of 30% recommended by science.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Blue Natural Capital needs to be protected as it delivers benefit for both people and the environment. Overseas development aid and philanthropic types of funding have traditionally been the primary sources of support beyond national funds. These need to be supplemented with private-sector investment and innovative finance mechanisms. Regional co-operation, such as through the Nairobi and Abidjan Conventions along the coasts of Africa, can also help deliver trans-border capacity-building and strategies.

Traditional financing has not only been insufficient, it has also focused on extraction of non-renewable resources. In the long run, the benefits from renewable resources may be significantly higher, so we need to understand how to invest in maintaining the capacity of nature to deliver these benefits. A language of stressors and regenerators can help identify investment opportunities in the marine world and engage policy makers, as well as the private sector. We need to reduce stressors, such as pollution from carbon, plastic and nutrients in the ocean: we can also identify regenerators, such as seagrasses, that act as fish nurseries and carbon sinks.

Development banks and other financial institutions will spend about $70-trillion globally on infrastructure over the next two decades. We need to make sure that this spending is climate-smart and aligned with nature, rather than contributing to the destruction of the natural environment

The concept of natural capital provides a way to deliver such economic assessments and can be included in national accounts and corporate decision-making to deliver a just transition to inclusive wealth for all. Mangroves and other coastal features have a high carbon sequestration rate; they, in turn, depend on the marine ecosystems around them to maintain carbon cycles and biodiversity, and deliver coastal protection and resilience.

From remote sensing technology to project finance for new data infrastructure, public-private partnerships and blended finance can support countries in meeting their UN sustainable development goals. Development banks and other financial institutions will spend about $70-trillion globally on infrastructure over the next two decades. We need to make sure that this spending is climate-smart and aligned with nature, rather than contributing to the destruction of the natural environment that supports us all.

Ocean finance can draw on the experiences from other areas, such as green and renewable financing, but this requires marine biologists and conservation activists willing to gain a grounding in the workings of the financial sector. Adaptation finance is particularly relevant for coastal areas in marine systems and key to implementation of the Paris agreement. Innovative finance, linking payments to outcomes, blended finance and impact investing can all play a role in developing an ocean finance infrastructure that is equal to the mission of delivering a sustainable ocean.

This is a big shift; we have to push all banks, mutual funds and others to account for impacts. We need science, economics and technology innovation to urgently deliver ocean solutions at the right scale.

SA has recently increased protection of its continental waters to 5% within MPAs. This improvement on 0.4% is a significant achievement, but the hope is to secure 10% protection of the oceans around SA by 2020, with scientists calling for at least 30% to achieve ocean health and resilience.

MPAs have several benefits, including the conservation of threatened species and sensitive areas, combating the threats of climate change and ensuring the sustainable use of our ocean resources. Considering the current state of our oceans, we cannot afford to not have significant protection in place. There is a regional movement for increased ocean protection that all South Africans can be a part of — @oceanimpactsa or www.oceanimpact.co.za.

You can also commit and make a difference by supporting the #OceanCallForG7. The objective of the ocean call is to communicate the importance of ocean protection within the framework of climate change, and the urgent need for effective measures to be taken by G7  leaders to preserve our marine environments.

Citizens, NGOs, businesses, local authorities, heads of state and governments: the whole of society must now commit themselves to protect the oceans against ongoing threats.

• Thiele is with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, based in Potsdam, Germany.