University of Plymouth

The ocean has life-giving power. Is systems thinking the key to protecting it?

The ocean has life-giving power. Is systems thinking the key to protecting it?
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For two-thirds of the Earth’s history, two-thirds of its surface has been ocean.

However, it is only in recent years that we have come to appreciate the scale of its life-giving power. A resource of clean energy; a producer of much of our oxygen; a regulator of climate; home for millions of different interrelated types of life from viruses and bacteria to the mighty whales; an incredible food resource.

We also appreciate how the scale of human enterprise is threatening our ocean and with it all life. Now more than ever, it is crucial we learn how to value, protect, manage and use sustainably the natural capital that our ocean produces.

The care of our ocean cannot though be considered in isolation. The issue is global and so the solution must be global, bringing together industry, science, regulators and local communities to tackle the challenges we face on both local and international scales.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow presents a unique opportunity to make a tangible difference, to show not just in words but in actions a commitment to the health of our ocean, the health of our planet, the state of our common home.

In order to combat climate change, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. That means reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, which has built up over many centuries, and achieving the transition to clean energy.

Over the past 30 years, wind energy has gone from being alternative energy to mainstream. The UK government’s ten-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution — designed to help us meet net zero greenhouse gas targets by 2050 — recognises the key role of offshore wind, which is seen as forming the backbone of the UK’s future energy mix.

However, offshore wind cannot be the whole answer. A diverse renewable energy mix combining each of wind, solar, wave and tidal, is needed to ensure balance and resilience.

As an engineer and an ecologist, we come from different scientific disciplines. In the recent past, some might have, wrongly, put those disciplines in opposition to one another in terms of how we use our ocean. But any tension that did exist between the need to accelerate development and to protect the marine environment needs to dissipate fast.

The scale of offshore renewable energy needed to keep global warming to 1.5°C or below means that project development has to be accelerated. And so it is imperative that designs take into account the needs of ecosystem and ocean health and are informed by transdisciplinary research.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was in some quarters the sense that such a whole-system approach to transformative change was not possible. But now, just over a year later, in our reaction to that pandemic we have seen what we thought was not possible, transformative change in the face of acute and seemingly overwhelming crisis. The question now is not ‘can we do it?’ but ‘have we the will to do it?’

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Deborah Greaves OBE is Professor of Ocean Engineering and is one of the country’s foremost experts in offshore renewable energy.
John Spicer is Professor of Marine Zoology and a world-renowned expert on the effects of climate change in the ocean.