I was reading an article about climate change and how we might be able to delay, if not completely avoid, its life-threatening consequences when I came across two insightful quotes: “Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge.” by Thomas Edison. Then there was another one by Rene Jules Dubos, a Pulitzer Prize winner French-American environmentalist who said, “the belief that we can manage the Earth and improve nature is probably the biggest expression of human pride, but it has deep roots in the past and is almost universal.”
Very few people know that it was Rene Dubos, who gave the world its environmental maxim, “Think globally, act locally.” When I think of this term in the context of Indian environmentalist Padma Shri Tulsi Gowda, I feel like we could have done a lot more with her exemplary story of leading a local environmental restoration initiative that, if replicated globally, can effectively heal the entire planet. There couldn’t have been a better story for us to share from India with the world about an individual’s commitment to restoring nature on a local level without making it a spectacle, as common with corporate narratives of sustainability.
Green Dialogues Everywhere
Think of the environment and you would notice there has been a sudden increase in the conversation, which of course is a great thing, about net-zero and sustainability, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world and after the news that the Earth experienced one of its hottest years on record in 2021, with the global average surface temperature reaching its 6th highest level since reliable temperature records began in 1880. The average temperature across land and sea surfaces last year was 0.84 Degrees Celsius (1.51 degrees Fahrenheit) above the average for the 20th Century, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Not to forget, 2021 also marked the 45th consecutive year during which global surface temperature was above the average. All of these disturbing findings, I believe, have finally compelled the world’s most powerful economies and leaders to acknowledge our previously underestimated vulnerability and fragility in the face of natural catastrophes such as uncontrollable wildfires and floods in various parts of the world.
However, I see these sustainability discussions as a half-empty glass only. My apologies for being less optimistic than others about our ability to repair the damage we’ve already caused – simply because when we talk about achieving net-zero and sustainability, we usually focus on land-based solutions, almost ignoring the oceans. I think ocean-based climate change mitigation options are not given as much attention as they should in talks about transitioning to a sustainable future and green economy, despite the fact that oceans sustain life on Earth through natural biogeochemical cycles and they are equally vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.
What Is Green Economy?
The UN Environment Programme defines the green economy as “an economy that improves human well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity.” Green, simply put, is a one-word synonym for a “long-term social, environmental, and economic future.” With this definition of a green economy, governments and businesses are experimenting with ideas to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and finding ways to limit the rising temperature of the Earth to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Some of the world’s largest companies are even pushing their limits, pledging to be carbon-neutral by 2030, while others aim to be net-zero by 2050, and even 2070 (for some latecomers). However, much of these commitments lack the mention of specific actions and measures these enterprises will take to achieve net-zero and transition to a green economy.
Wait for a sec., isn’t the Earth more blue than green, then why green first?
We have all studied in our school books that when we see Earth from space, the most dominant and pervasive colour we see is blue – a colour that allows life to thrive on the planet – the colour of water or the colour of oceans. Oceans not only gave birth to living organisms but also ensured our survival. Then, why world’s attention about sustainability has primarily been drawn and to a larger extent limited to what we see on the surface of the Earth – the Greens, and less on what lies deep in the oceans – the Blues. The oceans play an important role in this balancing act of the Blue and the Green, driving all climatic cycles and they are closely linked to our economic activities. In fact, oceans play the most important role in limiting rising temperatures. Let’s look at some of the statistics about how dependent we are on the oceans.
1. Around 3 billion people rely on marine and coastal biodiversity for a living.
2. Approximately 80% of international trade in goods is carried out by sea routes.
3. The value of blue assets is estimated to be $24 trillion.
4. Many megacities are located on the sea coasts, and more than a third of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the sea.
5. Oceans produce up to 80% of the oxygen we breathe.
These figures should be enough to convince us of the importance of the oceans in our lives, even if we live hundreds of thousands of miles from any seashore. Human development has always been inextricably linked to the exploitation of the oceans, and it continues to be a growing hub of trade, transportation, and tourism. Despite the fact that the terms “blue economy” and “ocean economy” have gained popularity in recent years, they are still inadequately defined and poorly understood today. In fact, most of us understand it as the undersea counterpart of the green economy.
Opportunity Blue Economy
The World Bank defines the blue economy as, “the sustainable use of ocean resources to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while ensuring the environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas.” I think the world needs to recognize there is no green without blue, and there will be no blue without the green, and that they both support and complement each other. As governments and businesses adapt to meet their net-zero commitments, they need to start thinking about the sustainability of our oceans and coastal resources at the same time because net-zero goals cannot be achieved in isolation without first acknowledging the importance of the blue component of the green transition.
Governments and businesses must plan for faster decarbonization of the oceans as they strive for net-zero goals. Blue carbon, or carbon stored in aquatic ecosystems like mangrove forests and seagrass beds, has the potential to store five times the amount of carbon per square foot as terrestrial ecosystems. Blue carbon markets and projects, on the other hand, have been underdeveloped and underfunded. Clearly, there is a huge scope and opportunity for both governments and businesses to develop and support blue carbon projects that can advance the conservation and restoration of oceans, coastal and aquatic ecosystems, and finally, connect them with market demands.
Humans have made tremendous advances over the last several decades, centuries, and throughout civilizations. However, it is also clear that an unchecked climate change would cause business-as-usual growth to self-destruct. We have developed engines and technologies capable of transporting us to another planet – just next to Earth – but we are yet to find that ‘just next to Earth’ planet, where life could survive and we could possibly migrate to in the worst-case scenario. It is time we make a comprehensive commitment to protect and preserve everything on our planet – the Greens and the Blues. Otherwise, as Thomas Edison has once rightly said, “until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge.”
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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