Environmental challenges

The future of the oceans: an environmental challenge, with an economic impact

Oceans cover 71% of our planet. While human activity is essentially on land, the 360 million square kilometers of water play a vital role in human life and, more than ever, in our business activities. Food, energy, mineral resources, maritime transport… the list is endless. Amid the emerging climate crisis, conserving our oceans will be a major challenge for the years ahead.

Published on 08 April 2021


The recent space missions have provided a timely reminder – that water is the source of all life. At the same time, half of the oxygen we breathe comes directly from the world’s oceans1, which contain 97% of the water on Earth. And by storing 93% of our planet’s carbon2, they are also humanity’s biggest ally in the fight against climate change.

Today, the oceans face a series of threats, with the biggest being an increase in their acidity, as a direct result of rise sea temperatures. The lower pH of seawater has a dramatic impact on ecosystems, as it limits the ability of plankton to reproduce. Meanwhile, plastic pollution in the form of bottles, packaging, straws, bags and other items is another menace, with 13 million tons of it ending up in the oceans every year3. And while TV pictures of the plastic washed up on beaches is a familiar sight, 90% of plastic waste is actually in the form of microplastics, which are invisible to the naked eye. Finally, over-fishing is also a major threat, with a third of all stocks being over-exploited and another third being fished to their limit. In addition, 20% of the global catch is from illegal, undeclared or non-regulated fishing4

A major economic challenge

Beyond the direct impact on the planet’s inhabitants and ecosystems, these threats also have major economic repercussions – for one simple reason: a large slice of the world’s economic activity depends on the oceans, either directly or indirectly. Transport, fishing, energy resources, tourism, telecommunications, to name but a few. An OECD report, ‘The Ocean Economy in 2030’5, estimates that maritime activities contributes $1,500 billion to the world economy. The report also highlighted the sector’s high growth potential, pointing to areas such as renewable energy, ship construction and biotechnology.

Another revealing figure is that 90% of merchandise trading is carried out by sea6. “With 12 billion tons of merchandise being transported by some 50,000 cargo ships, maritime traffic has almost doubled in 20 years,” says Paul Tourret, Director of the Institut Supérieur d’Économie Maritime (Isemar). As he explains, this situation has been created by significant growth in the world economy “with the development of many countries, such as Turkey, Vietnam and Morocco, among others, leading to an increase in cargo traffic, particularly for the transport of goods back to companies’ home countries, having relocated their production plants overseas.”

Putting figures on the risks of marine pollution to the global economy is a tricky exercise – particularly due to a lack of reference data, i.e. the situation if pollution could be excluded. But as the Marine Pollution Bulletin highlighted in May 20197, plastic waste in the seas is already costing billions of dollars in lost business. The report estimates that the services provided by marine ecosystems in 2011 created benefits to society worth $50,000 billion a year. A report by the secretariat of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity cited the natural capital cost of global marine debris to be at least $13 billion8.

Regulation, teaching and collective responsibility

Given the emergency, countermeasures are now being introduced. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” For its part, the European Union has started to take practical steps to limit pollution of the oceans, particularly with plastic. From 2021, single-use plastic plates and cutlery are prohibited. Meanwhile, Member States have a target of collecting 90% of all plastic bottles by 2029, with those bottles being produced from at least 25% recycled material by 2025, and then 30% by 2030.

How can we take this to the next level? Catherine Chabaud, co-founder of the Océan et Climat platform and the first woman to have sailed around the world, has called for an all-encompassing approach; an integrated maritime policy that brings every issue out into the open9. In practice, that means deploying a series of initiatives, such as making people aware of their own responsibilities, innovating in maritime transport (under sail), promoting fishing techniques that are more sustainable, providing marine infrastructure that has a positive impact (for example, creating artificial reefs from submerged structures) and conserving mangrove swamps. Despite having witnessed pollution on the high seas, Catherine Chabaud remains optimistic: “I believe in resilience. In those areas where solutions have been introduced, you can see that parts of the ocean are regenerating.”

Her determined optimism is shared by other experts on the subject, such as François Galgani, a researcher with Ifremer, an organisation that specialises in analysing the effects of pollution on marine organisms. “Could we restore the oceans by 2050? Yes, but it would take a major effort. You would have to invest a great deal, in order to get things back to normal. But, bit by bit, the measures being taken now, such as the European Commission’s recovery plan, are heading in the right direction. Net zero carbon is possible.” One of the keys to meeting this challenge is to consider public perception, and the way people get their information. The researcher takes the example of oil spills. “People are very aware of these, because the events are very visual, and they make a real impression. But overall, these accidents account for less than 5% of the hydrocarbons in the sea, and about five years after a spill, the situation is back to normal.” At the same time, 95% of the plastic in the sea is lying on the seabed. “I’m optimistic, because when damage is visible, people react and tough measures are taken, such as the banning of plastic bags, for example.” In such a situation, promoting a major awareness-raising campaign among the general public will be a key focus, so that we can finally deal with the submerged part of this particular iceberg.

  1. https://ree.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/themes/milieux-et-territoires-a-enjeux/mer-et-littoral
  2. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2015/6/8/If-the-oceans-were-a-country-.html
  3. https://www.lesechos.fr/monde/enjeux-internationaux/pollution-des-oceans-les-macros-plastiques-partie-emergee-de-liceberg-1206351
  4. https://www.lesechos.fr/thema/articles/les-quatre-principales-menaces-qui-pesent-sur-lecosysteme-des-oceans-1221782
  5. https://www.oecd.org/environment/the-ocean-economy-in-2030-9789264251724-en.htm
  6. https://www.gefco.net/en/glossary/definition/international-shipping/
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article
  8. https://www.cbd.int/doc/publications/cbd-ts-83-en.pdf
  9. https://podcast.ausha.co/voix-durables/1-comment-sauver-l-ocean

Find out more