In part two of his monthly sustainability news roundup, Oliver Balch looks at new research on the implications of rising ocean temperatures for climate change, the business sectors that are most at risk from nature loss, and why 2020 is a breakthrough year for sustainability
THE OCEANS are warming – and fast. So finds new research by a coalition of US and Chinese scientists. Published in the Advances in Atmospheric Sciences journal, the findings reveal that world’s oceans have hit record temperatures for each of the last five years. As well as being the hottest year on record for our oceans, 2019 also marked the largest year-on-year temperature increase since the 1950s (the time period covered by the study).
The team of 14 international scientists compare the heating effect to the dropping of five atomic bombs into the oceans every second (or 3.6bn over the last 25 years). Ocean warming is not restricted to the very recent past. Over the last three decades, temperatures have sped up more than four times faster (450%) than they did over the preceding three decades.
Oceans cover almost three-quarters of the surface of the earth and play a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Since 1970, only around 4% of the earth’s excess heat has been absorbed by land or by the atmosphere. In contrast, around 90% has been taken up by the oceans. Similarly, oceans absorb high levels of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (around 31% of total emissions). How long the oceans can continue to work as a carbon sink is the subject of considerable scientific debate, although the emerging consensus appears to suggest that the ocean’s carbon sequestration capacity is relatively robust. In contrast, the ability of the oceans to continue absorbing heat is much more doubtful, according to experts at organisations such as NASA and Yale).
Should the oceans stop absorbing heat at current rates, the implications for global warming are profound. Along with other potential negative feedbacks carbon sinks that go into reverse), such as permafrost thaw and Amazon rainforest dieback, overheated oceans are identified as a major contributing factor to a possible hothouse earth. Another new study predicts that sea levels in Bangladesh could increase by 85-140cm by the end of this century (twice as much as previously predicted). The latest high-level report on the subject by the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meanwhile, suggests sea levels could rise by 60-110cm by 2100 (far in excess of the 15cm registered last century).
Another impact of our oceans becoming hotter is their acidification. Today’s higher levels of acidity are widely thought to impact fish behaviour and to destroy coral reefs. Research indicates that up to half of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been lost in the last 12-18 years, for example. However, a new paper published in Nature suggests that the impacts of acidification may not be as significant as previously reckoned. This hasn’t stopped the influential National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluding that acidification poses unique concerns for Alaska’s $5.2bn fisheries industry and Florida’s reefs (valued at $8.5bn).
‘Over half global economy depends on nature’
THE WORLD economy’s dependency on the health of oceans and other natural ecosystems is the subject of a major report by the World Economic Forum as its annual meeting gets under way in Davos this week.
The Nature Risk Rising report, produced in collaboration with PwC UK, finds that over half of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), worth $44tn, is moderately or highly dependent on nature and the ecosystem services it provides.
Construction ($4tn), agriculture ($2.5tn) and food and beverages ($1.4tn) are the three industries that are most dependent on nature, with a combined value roughly twice the size of the German economy. Such industries rely on either directly extracting resources from forests and oceans or ecosystem services such as healthy soils, clean water, pollination and a stable climate.
The report also found that many other industries have significant hidden dependencies on nature in their supply chain and may be more at risk of disruption than expected as natural resources are threatened by over-exploitation and climate change. They are chemicals and materials; aviation, travel and tourism; real estate; mining and metals; supply chain and transport; and retail, consumer goods and lifestyle.
“We need to reset the relationship between humans and nature,” said Dominic Waughray, managing director at the World Economic Forum. “Damage to nature from economic activity can no longer be considered an ‘externality’. This report shows how exposure to nature loss is both material to all business sectors and is an urgent and non-linear risk to our collective future economic security.”
2020: Year of trust and leadership?
WITH THE new year only just gone and the 2020s looming large, what lies ahead? It’s a question that multiple pollsters have been asking of late. One of those is YPO, the global leadership network of 28,000 or so business leaders. The organisation’s annual Global Pulse Survey reveals that building trust is very much on the minds of senior executives. Almost all (96%) of the 3,000 chief executives from 115 countries who were interviewed cited “trust with stakeholders” as a high priority issue. Worryingly, however, most seem ill-prepared to act on the sentiment, two-thirds (66%) admitting to having no specific plan to build up the confidence of their workforce.
This is doubly concerning given the widespread belief among the business leaders surveyed (77%) that their businesses are increasingly expected to take the initiative on sustainability issues rather than wait for regulators or policymakers to tell them what to do. Even so, most senior business leaders (73%) don’t feel personally under pressure to take a stance on the big social and political issue of the day. Business chiefs in the United States are especially relaxed on the subject, with fewer than one in five (18%) claiming any pressure to speak out. Even so, 71% still feel that business can have a positive societal impact.
This last point is enhanced by a similar poll commissioned by the donation platform Neighbourly. In an overwhelming show of support, 85% of the C-Suite representatives surveyed state their intention to prioritise long-term social impact over short-term profit in the near future, while 78% report plans to increase community investment in the year ahead. Perhaps the most surprising, however, relates to shareholders. In a sign that stakeholder capitalism is taking grip, 82% of those polled say local community interests exert equal weight over their business decisions as those of their shareholders or investors. Note: the findings need to be taken with a pinch of salt as the survey only stretched to 50 business leaders working in the UK).
Finally, the sense of 2020 being a breakthrough year for sustainability is also suggested by a variety of industry reports. The issue is identified for the first time ever as the apparel sector’s greatest challenge – as well as the greatest opportunity – in the influential, annual State of Fashion report, co-authored by consultancy firm McKinsey.
As for the tourism sector, the eradication of single-use plastic, local procurement and sustainable jet fuel comprise three of the industry’s five megatrends for 2020, according to analyst firm GlobalData.
For the US catering sector, meanwhile, eco-friendly packaging and plant-based proteins are the stand-out issues for the year ahead, a report by the National Restaurant Association predicts. More generally, however, US consumers cite environmental sustainability as the weakest driver of purchasing intent, according to research by the International Food Information Council Foundation. Part of the problem comes down to confusion, with six out of 10 (60%) shoppers saying that they are unsure about the environmental impacts of different food choices.
Finally, automotive consumers at last appear to be coming round to the idea of going electric. Deloitte’s annual survey shows that over half (53%) of global consumers are considering buying an alternative fuel vehicle (up from 45% last year).