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OPINION: Time to join up work on climate change, ocean conservation and biodiversity loss

Tuesday, 14 May 2019 09:23 GMT

A tourist stands on the beach as a large reef fish digs for food in the reef flats on Lady Elliot Island, 80 kilometers north-east from the town of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia, June 9, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pacific Ocean ecosystems and fisheries - and the people who depend on them - are particularly vulnerable to growing threats

Tommy Remengesau Jr. is the president of Palau and Robert Watson was chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services panel.

On Wednesday, Pacific leaders are joining United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in Fiji to discuss climate change and what the international community must do to address it.

It is no accident that the Secretary General chose the Pacific for such a high-profile visit. Perhaps no other region is more closely identified with the dangers of climate change, particularly sea level rise, which could inundate some of its lowest-lying island nations by mid-century without urgent action to cut the carbon dioxide emissions responsible for the crisis. 

But as worrying as the prospect of catastrophic sea level rise and other climate impacts are, we hope the meeting will also be an occasion to turn public attention to a related, but no less significant threat to the Pacific's and the world’s future: biodiversity loss and ocean degradation.

In early May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a sobering report that found one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. Tropical Pacific Ocean ecosystems and fisheries are particularly vulnerable.

Scientific models show that once global warming eclipses 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels only about 1 percent of corals are likely to survive. The loss of reefs, which harbor nearly 25 percent of all marine fish species, to warming and ocean acidification - a process where excessive carbon dioxide emissions react with seawater and makes it more acidic - could cause a collapse in commercial and indigenous fisheries, impacting billions of people around the world who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein.

Unfortunately, the news onshore is no less distressing. The biodiversity report found that terrestrial ecosystems on every continent, including Pacific islands, are equally at risk. Industrial agriculture, pesticides, habitat loss, and invasive species threaten to unravel the bonds that hold life together on land just as pollution and overexploitation does at sea.

Lowering carbon emissions is the only long-term solution to ensure the survival of reefs and countless other natural systems. But while the far-reaching action needed from the international community to reduce emissions is advancing too slowly, local conservation efforts to address overfishing, habitat loss, coastal run-off, and so on have taken on even greater importance. 

In 2015, Palau enacted the National Marine Sanctuary Act, creating a protected area that covers 80 percent of the country’s exclusive economic zone (an area about the size of Spain). And last year, Palau became the first country to ban sunscreens that contain chemicals proven to damage coral reefs.

Other coastal nations are following suit. Belize, for instance, recently announced that it will expand its no-take zones - areas where most fishing is prohibited to allow fish stocks to increase - from 4.5% to 11.6%. Research has shown that such Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can help build resilience in species struggling to adapt to other environmental pressures.

But individual nations cannot address the climate change or biodiversity loss alone - nor should the burden of responsibility for doing so fall on the shoulders of the ones least responsible for the activities creating these dual crises to begin with.

Next year, Palau will host the 7th annual “Our Oceans Conference” where best practices in marine conservation policy, such as MPAs, no-take zones, sustainable tourism, among other measures that can help give marine life a fighting chance while the world limps toward a climate change solution will be highlighted.

Unfortunately, at such a perilous moment in history, we can no longer afford to treat ocean conservation, biodiversity loss and climate change as separate problems: if we don’t address them together, we risk failing entirely.