Climate, Energy, and Food Crises Loom. Here’s Why the Ocean Could Be the Solution.

Six months after a tsunami, fishermen launch their boats into the ocean, off the coast of Thalanguda Village in Tamil Nadu State, India. Photo: Tom Pietrasik/ UNICEF

The potential of the ocean to solve many of the global crises we face remains untapped. A series of international meetings happening this year could shape its future and that of our planet, demanding our collective attention.

After a two-year delay, the urgency of harnessing the ocean’s potential to tackle some of our biggest global challenges has grown exponentially. Not only has progress on ocean issues fallen short of what’s needed, but the world is still reeling from a lingering global pandemic and grappling with the realities of a new war in Europe and its cascading effects on global energy and food systems. The impacts of climate change have never been more clear, from intense storms and droughts to rising seas and a warming, acidifying ocean that makes food production even more challenging. People everywhere are experiencing the devastating consequences of a changing climate, none more so than the most vulnerable communities that often have the fewest resources available to adapt. With what seems like an ever-growing list of global crises, this may not seem like the moment to focus scarce political will and resources on the ocean.

The Ocean is a Powerful Source of Solutions

And yet, the ocean is not only integral to the challenges we face, but also to the solutions we need. When food becomes scarce and economies collapse, people everywhere — from Africa to Asia and the Pacific — turn to fishing to support themselves and their families, where these small-scale fishers have to contend not only with climate change but also industrial deep-water fleets that often clear their waters. Governments and private companies are looking to the ocean to solve our energy crisis, hoping to harness the power of wind and waves that could power our world many times over. Speculators are venturing into the largely unregulated high seas to find critical minerals and more ways to store the carbon we continue to emit with seemingly reckless abandon. And all of this happens without much recognition of either the ocean’s potential to provide solutions or the risk to us all if we jeopardize its health. Shining a spotlight on these interconnections, and the risks and opportunities they provide for all of humanity, is in all of our best interest.

A teenager in Timor-Leste spearfishes in the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Bernardina Soares/ UNICEF

This year, more than any other, the world should watch the decisions being made about the ocean and its fate: 2022 could mark a turning point, unlocking the ocean’s ability to provide the solutions we need to address our interrelated climate, food, and energy challenges. The decisions made on the ocean this year will help determine our collective future as well as shape the world we leave behind for future generations.

Already this year, the One Ocean Summit in France and the Our Ocean Conference in Palau have highlighted the ocean’s critical role in addressing climate change, food security, poverty, and many other SDGs. They set the stage for ambitious new action on a range of fronts, from speeding up shipping decarbonization and offshore renewable energy to building community resilience.

What’s Next for the Global Ocean Agenda

And the pace is picking up. The UN Ocean Conference in Portugal will indeed take stock of progress toward SDG 14, and it will also do so much more. It will highlight practical solutions to challenges like decarbonizing shipping, minimizing plastic pollution, and combatting sea level rise that can be replicated and scaled up — but only with commitments from governments and the private sector. No less important will be the decisions made (or not made) in many specialized meetings throughout the remainder of the year, among them of the International Maritime Organization, World Trade Organization, Convention on Biological Diversity, and the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. These meetings will determine the trajectories of everything from carbon pricing in the shipping sector and the development of zero-emissions fuels to where global fishing fleets operate and whether the living and nonliving resources of the ocean will be exploited or responsibly managed. The implications of these decisions will have a deep impact on the fate of the billions of people around the world who rely on these resources and industries to survive.

An electric ferry makes its maiden voyage near Hordaland, Norway. Photo Matjaz Krivic / Climate Visuals Countdown

The array of international organizations involved in ocean issues can be overwhelming, and the urgency of issues can get lost in acronyms and processes. But now more than ever we have the opportunity — and the imperative — to think about the ocean as a connector and a provider, rather than a problem to be solved or a resource to be mined. We can’t afford to let decisions on its future go unnoticed. For the sake of current and future generations, we need to keep eyes on the ocean this year to ensure sure we are not squandering its vast potential to help us solve the crises of today and tomorrow.


Susan Ruffo discusses the ocean’s enormous potential as a source of climate solutions in this TED Talk.