Peter Thomson of the UN, Nor-Shipping’s latest Ocean Action Hero, argues that the ocean must be “front and centre” in any bid to avoid climate catastrophe. A collective, silo-busting approach is key to not only safeguarding the ocean space, but also profiting from it. Every one of us, he says, stands to gain.
Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean since 2017, has an idea for a new Netflix series.
“It’s a bit of a fantasy of mine,” the Fijian diplomat reveals, in his surprisingly Scottish-tinged accent. “It takes place at the birth of the industrial revolution, in a parallel universe. The central character, an engineer, effectively harnesses solar power. That simple breakthrough means the internal combustion engine is never needed. Instead, the entire industrialisation of society is based on clean, renewable energy and we never get into this mess in the first place.”
He smiles, although not necessarily happily, adding: “Maybe in a later series another central character has the idea of writing a book about an alternate universe where energy is derived from digging up and burning fossil fuels and destroying planets. But the book fails, of course. I mean, who’d want to read a far-fetched, horror story like that?”
Decade of ambition
Before any Netflix executives out there get on the phone to Thomson, you’d better organise your own writing team. Although clearly creative, the former President of the UN General Assembly is far more interested in devoting his energies to science fact rather than science fiction.
He’s currently building awareness, support and ambition for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which started this year and runs through to the end of 2030. This initiative, which aims to bring together international stakeholders across politics, business, science and society in general, is conceived to “give us the science we need for the ocean we want.”
It couldn’t be of greater importance, to everyone, stresses Thomson.
A world at war
“The decline of ocean health is an existential threat to us all,” he states. “We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean. It is the governor of life on earth, giving us food, energy, work, pleasure and providing the oxygen for every second breath we take. Yet we seem to be war with it, at war with nature.”
“Man-made climate change is accelerating ocean acidification, deoxygenation, warming, and sea level rise, with dire consequences for the future of marine and terrestrial species, including humankind. We pollute, we attack biodiversity, and we destroy.”
Here he references coral in particular, noting that if we cross the line of a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures (since the start of the industrial age) we risk wiping out almost 100% of our coral reefs, home to up to 30% of all marine biodiversity.
“And according to the World Metrological Organization, if we carry on our activity, producing emissions at the current rate, then we’re heading for an increase of 3 to 5 degrees by the end of the century. That’s catastrophic.”
He pauses, looking intently into the Teams app from his lock-downed London base, then notes, calmly: “There’s a precipice ahead for humanity. And we’re not crawling towards it, we’re running.”
But despite the chilling analogy, Thomson is keen to stress he is an optimist. And its his optimism that is the driving force behind the UN’s decade of ocean action.
“We only know about 10% of what lies within the ocean, so there’s 90% waiting to be discovered,” he reveals. “The right science can unlock the knowledge we need and that can be instrumental in building a truly sustainable ocean, and global, economy.”
Here he states a belief that new food, new medicines and new solutions to our shared challenges are waiting for us in the ocean. If, that is, we can break out of existing silos and work together to access them – with politicians supporting scientists, scientists supporting businesses, and businesses supporting everyone, delivering sustainable products and services based on society’s needs, science’s understanding, and nature’s demands.
“We are all connected,” Thomson says. “Coronavirus has shown us that major global events impact upon everyone – rich or poor, developed or developing – and there is nothing more major than the future of our shared environment. So, the idea that companies may work in isolation sacrificing nature for short-term profits is unconscionable. And people, from consumers through to investors, are waking up to that and will desert them.”
He sits back, stretches, and makes what he believes is an increasingly obvious point: “Reckless practices don’t just undermine environmental sustainability, they’re simply bad for business.”
Going with the growth
Sustainable actions are not though.
Although nine of the top ten “ocean earners” are still involved in hydrocarbons, Thomson believes the tide is turning, with the green transition gathering pace. That’s a) because it has to and b) because that’s where opportunity lies.
“We know that through the development of sustainable mariculture the ocean could produce up to six times more food than it presently does,” he notes, adding, “and, here’s a deal breaker, up to 40 times more renewable energy than it does today. Therefore, investing in these areas makes sound business sense – this is where the growth is. As an ‘added bonus’ you get to mitigate global climate change and transform the lives of millions of people.”
He continues, “So, businesses have a clear role to play, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle. The innovation and investment within the market is key to unlocking solutions, but the private sector needs be incentivisaided, regulated and supported to realise potential. That demands commitment from governments, institutions, consumers… everyone.”
“Nobody can change the world working alone. And that is, of course, the very essence of the United Nations and its 193 member states.”
Focused on the future
The aforementioned pandemic is getting in the way of things a little though, as it is for Nor-Shipping. This interview is taking place as part of the leading event week’s campaign to highlight Ocean Action Heroes – those taking positive action to unlock sustainable success within the ocean space. Nor-Shipping was due to take place in Oslo and nearby Lillestrøm in summer 2021, providing a unique face-to-face arena for the ocean industries to meet, plan and facilitate progress. However, COVID-19 restrictions have necessitated moving it back to January 2022, a development welcomed by global participants still facing travel and business disruption.
The UN has fallen victim too. The second UN Ocean Conference was set to take place in June 2020 in Lisbon, co-hosted by Portugal and Kenya, with the broad overall aim of supporting UN SDG 14 (life below water). However, the pandemic stymied those plans with the week-long gathering now provisionally scheduled for 2022.
Nevertheless, Thomson is keen to accelerate ocean action prior to this, pushing the Ocean Science agenda and call for collaboration at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow (where his father originally hailed from, hence the accent) this November.
“Where does the ocean fit in at COP26?” he repeats rhetorically when asked. “Where does it fit in within the context of climate change in general? Absolutely front and centre!”
“The ocean is not a passive victim here. It is, as I said before, the governor of all life on earth. We all came from it and we are all connected to it. If we look after it – finding the right balance between protection and production – it will look after us. Fail in that and humankind itself risks failure.”
But the optimism inherent in Thomson will not allow the concept of defeat to hang in the air for more than a few seconds.
“We do have agency,” he insists. “Whether that’s working together at arenas like Nor-Shipping, supporting NGOs, buying sustainable products, or building bridges between politics, science and the business community – if we collectively commit to shared goals, we can achieve them. It’s not too late. You can make a difference.”
“I believe COP26 can be the turning point we so desperately need. This is our opportunity to agree on the necessary controls needed for greenhouse gas emissions, call a halt to our war on nature, and rally together to protect our ocean ‘mother’. After all, we don’t live in a parallel universe,” Thomson says with a final concluding smile. “So, this is the only way we can have a happy ending. This is the only way to step back from the climate precipice ahead.”