‘I went to the beach last Wednesday and when I got home, I felt so much better. Lockdown was the longest time in my entire life that I’ve not visited the beach. It was one of those moments where you say, I actually need this. This is something I need to do for my own well-being!’ ClimateWorks’ Dr Sali Bache cares deeply about the sea – and she thinks others should, too.
The world’s oceans are, she reminds us, a major buffer against climate change, absorbing 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions and 93 per cent of added heat.
‘Basically the ocean regulates the climate on Earth,’ Sali says. ‘And if we don’t pay attention to it, at some stage, it will stop having the capacity to do that.’
Sali began her career as a scientist and, right from the start, she took an interest in matters aquatic. For five years, she researched sea turtles, moving from international negotiations, to sleeping on nesting beaches during the tropical heat and then patrolling the shore line at night when the creatures were active.
‘Turtles are subject to all the bad environmental decisions we make,’ she explains. ‘They’re higher level species and they rely on land as well as water. They can end up eating plastic bags. They’re impacted by fishing but they also nest on beaches and so when we alter the beaches we affect them. We have an endless impact on them – and yet they still go on, with some of them migrating from Australia to Mexico each year.’
The experience reinforced her sense of the need for better stewardship of the oceans.
‘I think that I saw an enormous need. The ocean is out of mind, out of sight, and it’s not well regulated. And it’s hard, much harder than on land, to enforce the law. So people tended to shy away from it.’
Today, she works developing and analysing international policy for ClimateWorks. She talks of the distinctive problems the ocean poses for policy-makers – not least because it’s not always clear who is, or should be, responsible for it. Many areas remain beyond national jurisdictions, making regulation innately problematic. How do we negotiate between the claims for, say, fishing rights and deep sea mining, in waters that don’t belong to any single owner?
‘When you make a choice in the ocean, it impacts all the ecosystems and all the industries because you can’t separate them. If there are fish there and oil reserves and a reef, you have to find a way for everybody to work together. You can’t just say, I own it and it’s mine. It’s a totally different mindset to working on land, and quite similar to working on climate as a global common.’
As that comparison suggests, the ocean’s not just a problem – it’s also crucial for climate action.
‘Oceans and ocean based activities offer around a quarter of the solution to the 1.5 degree climate change target. Ocean-based renewable energy is enormous. Offshore wind has an estimated potential to provide 17 times our current energy consumption needs. So the opportunity is enormous.’
In 2019, some christened COP25 – the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the ‘Blue Cop’ because of its focus on the ocean’s role.
The conference featured more than a hundred events covering topics such as maritime shipping, ocean science, ocean acidification and deoxygenation.
Sali notes that Australia is particularly well-positioned to benefit from the new interest in ocean-based climate solutions. As an island continent, it has a chance to exploit both offshore energy and blue carbon (the sequestration of emissions through seagrass beds, mangroves and kelp forests).
But if we’re really to take advantage of these opportunities, we’ll need a change in attitude. Australians love the beach and the sea, Sali says, but they don’t necessarily recognise the ocean’s relationship to the climate. Yet when you look at the Pacific from space, you can see almost no land at all, on a globe that’s overwhelmingly blue.
As an analyst, Sali knows the ocean matters. As a diver, she feels it – on a deep, almost visceral, level. When she’s under the water, she says, all else falls away.
‘Everybody has those places where their brain stops,’ she explains, ‘where they are just present. Diving is that place for me. Everything else stops and I am just where I am.’
The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) has identified ten global transitions needed to transform the world’s food and land use systems. The Land Use Futures program at ClimateWorks is working to adapt the global critical transitions for Australia’s unique national and regional circumstances, and identify key actions to accelerate them. Read the latest paper on securing a healthy and productive ocean.