Protection of the oceans has long been the poor relation when it comes to environmental policy, particularly during international conferences.
Huge forest fires serve to remind us that the planet is burning up. But the future of the planet will also be played out at sea. Oceans make up 70% of the earth’s surface, produce 70% of its oxygen, and absorb 90% of the heat and a third of carbon emissions. They are the main refuge for biodiversity, being home to between one and three million species. Furthermore, they are a major contributor to human activities, whether it be for food, energy, transport or tourism. But, today, the oceans are under threat from the very earth that it regulates. Firstly, there is disruption linked to global warming, with sea temperatures having risen by one degree since the 19th century. The second lethal problem is pollution: 150 million tons of plastic thrown into the sea, with a lifespan of 400 years.
The fight against plastic has now reached emergency levels. Because of growth in population and in economies, the use of plastics will have increased from 460 million tons to 1,231 million tons by 2060, generating 1,014 million tons of waste and 493 million tons of discards, 80% of which will be in emerging nations. This will have drastic consequences. Firstly, for the climate, since carbon emissions from the fossil plastic cycle will increase from 1.8 to 4.3 gigatons. Secondly, for biodiversity, with the disappearance of 100,000 marine mammals and a million birds every year. Thirdly, for human health, for we eat the things we pollute. Lastly, for the economy, because fishing and tourism will be ruined. Human beings cannot let plastic suffocate the oceans. We have to act quickly to save them by taking action covering the whole plastic cycle, by limiting its use, improving recycling, closing waste channels and cleaning up the oceans, notably by getting rid of the “sixth continent” of plastic that has been formed in the Pacific.
The European Union has paved the way with its directive of 5th June 2019 restricting access of single-use plastic to the single market, increasing the level of producer responsibility, and organizing the selective collection of bottles and fishing gear. With its anti-waste law of 10th February 2020, France set the objective of getting rid of plastic by 2040, by means of five-year action plans, the first of which plans to recycle all packaging by 2025 and introduces the principle of responsibility for producers of toys, as well as goods for sports, DIY and gardening. The initial results have been positive, recording a 50% fall in European exports of waste over four years. However, the production of plastic increased by 10.2% in the EU in 2021 and by 6.1% in France, notably because of requirements linked to the Covid epidemic.
The protection of our oceans has long been the poor relation when it comes to environmental policy, particularly in COP countries. UN conferences on oceans have marked a turning point. The second one, which took place in Lisbon at the end of June, prioritized the fight against plastic pollution. But recognition of the oceans as a common heritage of humankind is hindered by the fact that nations want them for themselves, as can be seen in the ambitions of Beijing over the China Sea, of Moscow over the Black Sea and the Arctic, and of Ankara over the eastern Mediterranean. Commitment to the fight against plastic pollution is still patchy: strong within the G7 countries, but more limited in Asia, which is the leading world producer of plastic. Converting countries in the Southern hemisphere means technology transfer and significant aid in waste management, above all in Africa whose consumption will have increased sixfold by 2060. Furthermore, it is not enough for governments to take action. It is imperative that all players in the economy be energized in order to produce dynamic innovation.
The oceans are an example of the contradiction that pervades the history of the world in the 21st century. Their preservation is a global issue of global urgency. But it is under threat because of conflict between democracies, authoritarian empires and countries in the Southern hemisphere.
(Article published in Le Point, 4th August 2022)