THE BLOG
07/22/2014 03:28 pm ET | Updated Sep 21, 2014

Rescue for the Global Ocean (Part 3)

Our series on the new Global Ocean Commission report, From Decline to Recovery: A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean, continues this week, addressing Proposal 5, Plastics: Keeping Them Out of the Ocean, and Proposal 6, Offshore Oil and Gas: Establishing Binding International Safety Standards and Liability.

Over the past few years, the news media have publicized the vast accumulation of plastic debris on our shores and the high seas, a function of our poor waste management practices, failed regulation and recycling, and lack of consumer awareness. In the report, the Commission states,

"It is important to intensify efforts to address the variety of sources of marine pollution. In particular, the Global Ocean Commission calls for coordinated action by governments, the private sector and civil society to eliminate plastics entering the global ocean including by:

• Minimizing single-use plastics by direct government intervention and consumer incentives;
• Creative incentives to promote recycling, including single polymer products and extended producer responsibility;
• Establishing time-bound, quantitative reduction targets;
• Achieving improved waste management;
• Promoting consumer awareness;
• Replicating local initiatives to restrict or ban certain unsustainable uses of plastic materials (i.e. bans on disposable plastic bags, polyurethane packaging, etc.) and cleanup programs;
• Addressing lost and discarded fishing gear, in particular FADs, to avoid abandonment;
• Encouraging "XPRIZE-like" innovation around substitution, waste avoidance, recycling and cleanups;
• Exploring taxation and other levies to establish a Global Marine Responsibility Fund to build waste management capacity, coordinate action to combat marine plastics, grow sustainability initiatives, and change the behavior of industry and consumers."

According to the Report, world plastic production has increased from 63 million tons in 1980 to 270 million tons in 2010, with increased production estimated to reach 540 million tons in 2020 and 33 billion tons in 2050. A large percentage of this volume ends up in the ocean, accumulating in five localized ocean areas, the largest of which is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 15% of this debris floats on the sea surface, 15% remains in the water column, and 70% rests on the sea floor, where it breaks up over time into micro-plastics which enter the food chain, posing a threat to fish, wildlife, and humans. The Commission's proposal is aimed at major actions to redress this situation, but each of us can do our part at home today by reducing our plastic use, recycling aggressively, and drawing attention to individual and community actions through local boycotts, educational programs, and personal commitment.

Proposal 6 addresses an equally large challenge to the ocean, well-known but remaining a critical factor as off-shore oil exploration and drilling in deeper and ever more remote and challenging environments continues. Some 33% of oil and 25% of natural gas consumed globally comes from underwater areas; offshore drilling is increasing dramatically in the Arctic, Mediterranean Sea, and off the coast of East Africa.

The Commission argues that:

"The potential impacts of offshore drilling on the environment are numerous, including the disturbance of fish stocks and marine mammals during seismic surveys; carbon dioxide and methane emissions through gas flaring and venting; and pollution of the marine environment through the loss and discharge of various substances, drilling fluids, and cuttings in particular. Fixing a problem in the midst of an accident in deep waters is particularly complex."

This situation is further compounded by the variance or lack of regulation from country to country, by the absence of monitoring capacity, by the jurisdictional confusion of drilling on the continental shelf on the high seas beyond the limits of national economic development zones, and by the failure to define and apply standards for safety, technology adequate to offshore conditions, accident preparedness response, insurance, liability, and compensation for accidents.

The Commission supports the elaboration of an international convention that should

"cover both economic losses and ecological damages; provide for a strict liability of operators; include provisions for a shared liability between all license holders and their subcontractors; bind States to ensure that operators have adequate financial capacity to pay for possible compensation; and set a liability cap...as well as a compensation fund to address major disasters that are likely to exceed the liability cap."

Oil and its derivative, plastic, the base elements of the global economy; we return again and again to this management challenge. The Global Ocean Commission offers important first steps in response.