‘You can’t have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean’: interview with UN Special Envoy for the Ocean

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Emma Charlton, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The UN’s IPCC report said climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying.
  • Detailed plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and concrete commitments to invest in a sustainable blue economy are what’s needed, United Nations’ Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson said in an interview.
  • “You can’t have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean,” he said.
  • Ongoing changes to the ocean include warming, marine heatwaves, acidification and reduced oxygen levels.
  • Officials attending the COP26 climate summit need to increase their ambition, he said.

“Ramp it up” and “deliver us from this nightmare.”

That’s the message Peter Thomson, the United Nations’ Special Envoy for the Ocean and and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action, is sending to global leaders as they head to a crucial climate summit in November.

Detailed plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and concrete commitments to invest in a sustainable blue economy are what’s needed to slow the decline in ocean health and put a brake on human damage to the planet, he said.

“You can’t have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean,” Thomson said. “The big emitters have to face up to the fact that they are poisoning us all. They are the ones who have to take the lead on drastically cutting their emissions.”

these five scenarios all show how human activities affect the climate system components
Five scenarios all show rising sea levels and other ocean changes. Image: Intergovernmental panel on climate change report.

Thomson, whose home nation of Fiji is under threat from rising sea levels and ocean temperatures, spoke in an interview with the World Economic Forum.

Climate code red

His comments came after a major report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed ongoing changes to the ocean, including warming, more frequent marine heatwaves, acidification and reduced oxygen levels. The wide-ranging assessment of human impact on the planet said climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying. UN Secretary General António Guterres called it a “code red for humanity.”

“The report is a huge alarm call for us all,” Thomson said. “From the ocean’s perspective, everything is connected. Think of it as one bathtub. So, what’s flowing off the Greenland ice sheet is causing a rising sea level in an atoll republic. If you’re burning coal to get your electricity, you’re contributing to the drowning of an age-old island culture.”

this diagram shows how the ocean impacts the planet
How the ocean impacts the planet. Image: IPCC

Once a support for the planet as a key absorber of carbon, the ocean is now at grave risk.

Warming, acidification, deoxygenation, changing circulation patterns and rising sea levels threaten marine life and ecosystems and put at risk the future ability of the seas to indirectly support life on Earth, Thomson said.

“We can see there are going to be increasing marine heatwaves and this, along with acidification, really puts the survival of tropical coral reefs in particular into jeopardy,” he said.

Ocean ecosystems at risk

Coral reefs are among the ecosystems with the highest biodiversity on the planet and are home to more than a quarter of all marine life. The IPCC said coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C and virtually all would be lost with 2°C.

Limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach in the next decades unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC said, underscoring the severity of the prognosis for coral reefs and other marine life.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.Global warming can be beaten thanks to this simple plan

The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.Mission Possible Platform: Delivering industry pathways t…

A major climate summit, COP26, is due to take place on 1-12 November at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow. The UK and Italian governments, as co-hosts, have set four goals: agreeing to a step change in commitments to emissions reduction, strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts, getting finance flowing for climate action, and enhancing international collaboration on energy transition, clean road transport and nature.

The IPCC report “really ratcheted up the responsibility of COP26,” Thomson said.

Financing a sustainable ocean

As well as committing to real reductions in human-generated carbon emissions, policymakers and leaders need to direct more climate finance to the sustainable blue economy, which Thomson said are “hugely underfunded” when compared to the amount of investment in terrestrial projects.

“The sustainable blue economy is our future,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to get our future security of nutrition, healthy nutrition; that’s where we’re going to get our energy: from offshore wind and tidal energy. But we’re not investing in it.”

More needs to be spent on offshore wind projects, the greening of shipping, moving to green hydrogen from fossil fuels, and scaling up sustainable aquaculture that doesn’t disrupt ecosystems, pollute or damage biodiversity, Thomson said.

“We have to start spending the money,” he said. “Government leaders have to step up. Government action is required to make renewable energy the way we go forward.”

Friends of Ocean Action

Thomson also co-chairs the World Economic Forum’s platform Friends of Ocean Action, bringing together more than 65 leaders from a range of sectors around the world to fast-track solutions for a healthy ocean. The network argues that the knowledge, power and technology to put the ocean on a path to recovery is there and needs to be put into action.

One of the World Economic Forum’s UpLink streams is focused on innovating new models for ocean and ecosystem restoration, protection and financing.

Challenges facing the ocean. Image: UN

Everyone can get involved in the United Nations’ Development Goal 14, conserving and sustainably using the ocean, seas and marine resources, Thomson said, by cutting emissions, fishing sustainably and picking pollution up from beaches

“There’s so much that people can do, my message would be: get involved and do the right thing,” he said. “And certainly, you don’t have to be an optimist, but you can be a pragmatist.”

He also had a message for world leaders, policy makers and officials as they digest the IPCC report and prepare to head to Glasgow:

“Whatever your ambition was before the IPCC report, ramp it up,” he said. “This is the best of science available. So whatever your ambition was, prior to this report, ramp it up and come to Glasgow, with much more ambitious plans in your head. And if you don’t, you are not being faithful to the grandchildren of your country.”

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