The Week: Saving the blue economy

Oceans Day 2022 serves as a reminder of the threat to the world’s oceans – and the role investors can play in holding companies to account.

  • The World Wildlife Fund estimates the economic value of global ocean assets is more than $24trn
  • Plastics pollution is a major threat to the world’s oceans
  • Policymakers are starting to take action and push for change

It was World Oceans Day on 8 June, which should be an opportune moment to reflect on a problem that is rapidly becoming as vast as carbon emissions. Close to three-quarters (71%) of the Earth’s surface is ocean and humanity has been just as casual in its treatment of this finite resource as it has with the rest of the planet.  

The ‘blue economy’ is huge. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the economic value of global ocean assets is more than $24trn (£19.2trn). The oceans contribute $1.5trn a year to the global economy, with billions of people depending on it for their livelihoods.

The threats to the world’s oceans are multi-faceted, but plastic pollution has been the most high profile thanks to initiatives such as that of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It helped draw attention to some scary statistics, notably that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastics end up in our oceans every year.

While attention has focused on plastic bottles, the greatest problem comes from microplastics. These tiny particles are shed by paints on oil rigs and ships. They create a ‘plastic soup’, with resulting threats to marine life and the ocean ecosystem. It has been reported that plastic is found in the guts of around one-third of the UK’s caught fish. It is also extremely difficult to remove, taking many years to break down. 

The oceans are part and parcel of the climate crisis. As the World Wildlife Fund says: “The oceans regulate the global climate – they mediate temperature and drive the weather, determining rainfall, droughts and floods. They are also the world’s largest store of carbon, where an estimated 83% of the global carbon cycle is circulated through marine waters. In the last 200 years, the oceans have absorbed a third of the CO2 produced by human activities and 90% of the extra heat trapped by the rising concentration of greenhouse gases.”

Policymakers are finally taking action. The Biden administration says it will phase out single-use plastics on public lands and national parks by 2032. The European Commission has set goals for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030. At the start of June, Scotland became the first UK nation to implement a ban on single use plastics.

Investors are starting to pay closer attention to the problem as well with many major fund groups launching engagement initiatives on plastics. Data is still scarce, but the Minderoo Foundation has launched its Plastic Waste Makers index, naming and shaming the worst plastics polluters. It is a belated start in addressing another major environmental challenge.