What can corporations do to help save the ocean?

The largest 100 companies in the ocean economy can play a major role in climate and ocean action.

Oil leaks from the Japanese-owned MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius on August 10, 2020 [File: Nik Cole/Mauritian Wildlife Foundation via AP]

We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean, but the health of the ocean is now in a clearly observable decline. It is folly to imagine we can solve the global challenges posed by climate change by simply leaving the ocean alone. Of course, we need to allow ecosystems to recover and regenerate, but for reasons of food security and positive economic activity, we also need to give tangible support to more sustainable ocean business and production practices.

The ocean’s main industries contribute more than $1.9 trillion a year to the global economy. A new study by Duke University in the United States and the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, titled “The Ocean 100”, shows the 100 largest transnational corporations account for 60 percent of these revenues. This study suggests that by working closely together with these “keystone” businesses, we could set new standards for how we manage our one, shared ocean.

As a supporting member of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, I agree. Our work has shown that targeted areas of ocean action could reduce the “emissions gap” (the difference between emissions expected if current trends and policies continue and emissions consistent with limiting global temperature increase) by up to 21 percent on a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway.

Thus, we need to urgently accelerate our efforts to ensure a transparent, science-based approach to solutions such as sustainable ocean-based food production, energy from offshore wind, decarbonisation of shipping, and the conservation and restoration of wetlands, mangroves and seagrass beds.

We know that largely through the development of sustainable mariculture, the ocean could produce up to six times more food than it currently does. We also know the ocean could produce 40 times more renewable energy than it does today. Making investments in these areas could both help to mitigate global climate change and revolutionise for the better the lives of millions of people.

For too long there has been a serious disconnect between our scientists, governments and the large transnational corporations that dominate the ocean economy. Proper protection of our shared ocean means changing the way governments, scientists, the private sector, and citizens work together to achieve sustainable outcomes.

In his recent Reith Lectures, Dr Mark Carney, the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy on Climate Action and Finance, argued that we cannot achieve net-zero carbon emissions without the innovation, investment and profit provided by the market. But Dr Carney says the power of the market must be directed to achieving what society values and he warns there is precious little tolerance remaining for companies that “preach green but don’t manage their carbon footprints”.

In their study “The Ocean 100”, the authors argue that focusing on the improved stewardship of a relatively small number of large corporations, in tandem with ongoing regulatory efforts, could have a massive impact on the ocean economy. This paper is built around the idea that the largest companies in a given industry can operate similarly to keystone species in ecological communities, by having a disproportionate effect on the structure and function of the ocean economy.

A starting point for working together with this powerful group of corporations could build on the success of the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative. Launched in 2016, SeaBOS has already used a science-based “keystone” approach with 10 of the world’s largest seafood companies to build greater transparency and stewardship across the entire sector.

This represents a huge step forward in the history of seafood production, with major companies across wild capture, aquaculture and feed production jointly committed to science-based targets for ocean stewardship.

The Ocean 100 paper proposes a similar voluntary approach which could catalyse a shared understanding of their role in the sustainable blue economy. Building shared commitments to sustainable practices could then help to set new industry norms that could cascade through all ocean industries.

In the same vein, it is worthy of further consideration that creating a global ocean tax on just 0.1 percent of the revenues of the top 100 transnational corporations in the ocean industry could yield $1.1bn annually for investment in ocean conservation and the development of the sustainable blue economy.

Improved legislation and greater consumer demands could also be combined with economic incentives from financial institutions to encourage these corporations to integrate environmental and social responsibility into their operations.

Because 60 percent of these 100 corporations are already publicly listed, stock exchanges and shareholders should also play their part in observing ocean stewardship responsibilities. Despite the challenges of dealing with such a diverse, complex, and sometimes opaque group of corporations, none is exempt. The world is demanding greater action by all on sustainability.

The chaos wrought by the novel coronavirus has brought home the fragility and resilience of humanity and the natural environment on which we all depend. For the United Nations, 2020 had been billed as a “super year” for the environment, but the pandemic intervened, and now it is 2021 that could prove to be our turning point on both climate change and halting the decline in the ocean’s health.

This year marks the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, designed to give us the science we need for the ocean we want. Concurrently, we are now engaged in the build-up to UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow in November – the time and place for humanity to call for a halt to our war on nature by agreeing on necessary controls on the levels of our greenhouse gas emissions.

To address global challenges such as climate change, we need to shift our outdated perception of the ocean as a passive and often distant victim of human activities. Everything is connected and we must all acknowledge our roles and responsibilities as leaders, employees, citizens and consumers.

We live in an era in which we have finally learned the extent of the damage we have done to nature and the health of the ocean. We should now look to the Ocean 100 corporations to help play a major role in correcting our ways.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.