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Voices of Leaders
We are more than an editorial company. We are a socially-aware company formed by mindful individuals that are actively taking action for the good of the planet. We dedicate our efforts to empower everyone to not only be conscious, but also become proactive in what’s happening in everyday life. As a B2B publisher, we inform and connect the voices of prominent leaders in innovation, sustainability, circular economy and impact investing through our exclusive digital magazine and a new B2B connecting feature.
At VoL, we don’t just make digital magazines, we make a digital communication experience. Touch, click, slide, connect and discover how exactly a digital media experience should feel like.
Co-Founder & Editor: Mayte Mascarell
Co-Founder & CFO: Luca Bugialli
Brand Guardian: Javier Minguez
Journalism: Daiva Sen & Natalia Díaz
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Graphic Designer: Jorge Romero
Editorial & Media Director Philippines: Carla Pérez-Rosales
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Blue Valentine - Ocean edition February 2020
Until the Tide Turns
Spotlight on the Philippines
Vibrations from Cornwall’s
Beach Clearup Boys
Surfers Against Sewage
Once on This Island
Interview with Dr. Zita Sebesvari
Our Ones to Watch…
Riding the Wave of Innovation
I Can’t Believe it’s not Seafood…
Sometimes You have to go Backwards to go Forwards
their “Little Grain of
Sand from Valencia”
Lust for Marine Life
in the Water
In the small Pacific island of Palau, the ocean has been an inseparable part of people’s lives for thousands of years, ever since its first inhabitants arrived on its shores. For Palauans, the ocean is life itself: it sustains their livelihoods and provides a bountiful source of food and nourishment. Its underwater galaxies are the playground home of Palauans, many of whom learn to swim before they can walk. Even the Palau flag, which depicts a full moon against a blue ocean, symbolizes nature’s balance and harmony as the tides rise and fall. Yet today, when the full moon rises, the people of Palau are starting to fear the unthinkable — the water itself.
“At full moon, my backyard is flooded,” said one longtime Palauan resident. “When I was a child, my backyard did not flood — and we did not have tropical storm after tropical storm pass through our Pacific islands.” This Palauan, in fact, is the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, who shared his own experience addressing the UN General Assembly.
“The full moon and the ocean are no longer metaphors for balance and harmony. Today they represent imbalance — from our past excesses and a lack of harmony”, he said.
Palau may be a small island country, but it puts forward a monumental warning for us all if we continue to ignore the thunderous messages of the forces of nature.
That sinking feeling
For inhabitants of a planet covered three-quarters in water, we don’t seem to care about our waters very much. We’ve dumped an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic on our oceans — think of a full garbage truck dumped into the sea every minute — according to UN Environment. We’ve collectively created the Great Pacific garbage patch, a vortex of marine debris floating along the north central Pacific Ocean. Such plastic pollution wreaks havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, as well as our own health as microplastics have now found their way into the human food chain.
Underwater blue ocean background in sea | Photo by Rich Carey
We’ve heavily exhausted fish stocks across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean — the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. And we continue to heat up the world’s oceans because of unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions. According to the latest 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, the world’s oceans are warmer, more acidic and less productive, and the rate of sea level rise has accelerated further due to the rapidly melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.
It’s the perfect storm — quite literally — leading to more extreme and severe natural events which we are seeing as each year passes, with hurricanes and typhoons more powerful and devastating than ever before. Climate Central’s 2019 research projects that by 2100, areas currently home to 200 million people could sink permanently below the high tide line, with the most vulnerable populations residing in coastal Asia.
Sea level rise: a mitigation and adaptation issue
In an interview with Dr. Zita Sebesvari, Senior Scientist at the UN University- Institute for Environment and Human Security and Lead Author of the latest IPCC Special Report on Ocean and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCCC), the harmful impacts of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) on our atmosphere could not be overemphasised.
“The issue is that we are emitting more and more CO₂, which obviously has to go somewhere. In the past, around 20-30% of that CO₂ has actually been taken up by the ocean. In terms of heat it was more, around 90% so the ocean served as a huge buffer for the Earth’s system”, explained Dr. Sebesvari. “Until now it saved us from even harder impacts. But whenever the ocean takes up CO₂, that contributes to the acidification of the ocean. It’s a very slow process. We are talking about 0.02 - 0.03 pH units per decade, which sounds quite low, but you can observe on a global level that the change is happening.”
Dr. Sebesvari highlighted that the inevitability of sea level rise makes it a combined mitigation and adaptation issue. Adopting ecosystem-based solutions — for example, restoring mangrove forests along coastlines to lessen the impact of waves and wind and sequester CO₂ — can help build more resilience among coastline communities vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise. Yet Dr. Sebesvari stressed that these are not enough.
“If we don’t do anything and we just continue to emit as we did in the past decades, we are still getting to 1.10m of sea level rise by the end of the century”, she said. “Ecosystem-based solutions at the coast are mainly considered for adaptation purposes, but if you do not cut emissions, and we are getting sea level rise as projected, then ecosystem-based solutions will not save us. It has to be seen in combination with emissions reduction and making our coastlines more resilient and adaptive to the uncertain future”.
Faced with a tsunami of facts, is there anything at all we can do? “We talk about commitment to sea level rise because at a certain point we just can’t stop it. The message is, we have to reduce our emissions drastically otherwise we get a sea level which is hardly manageable at the low-lying coasts.”
Drop by drop
Commitment is a word that alleviates paralysis.
It’s easy to feel helpless amidst such insurmountable challenges, especially as many governments around the world seem to be paralysed with inaction — none more apparent than in the recently-concluded COP25 UN Climate Change Conference that ended in a deadlock in drawing up national plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions and concretizing a global carbon market. And yet we’ve found reasons to be hopeful and optimistic as we’ve identified definitive, committed action, not from governments, but in grassroots movements across the globe.
From the shores of the Atlantic to archipelagos in the Pacific, they ranged from surfers to chefs, scientists to recent-graduates — many of whom started as pioneering individuals taking their cause to the coasts, eventually swelling to much bigger movements. Some of them even became important voices pressuring corporations and influencing legislation at national level.
UK-based Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is one such initiative that in 30 years has grown from a small group of concerned Cornwall surfers to become a significant force in the British Parliament. SAS CEO Hugo Tagholm, who describes himself as “an environmentalist, a surfer and a dad” shares, “We’re one of the biggest voices in the plastic pollution debate. We’ve not only activated the biggest community of ocean activists
and campaigners around the UK with 100,000 people joining us annually, but we also take that very powerful authentic voice to corridors of Parliament, to big business, to call for the changes that we want to see. We’re all about a community of people, and we’re always about empowering people to take action with us.
Across the oceans, in the Philippines, SWEEP (Sea Waste Education to Eradicate Plastic) started as a small but passionate group of scuba divers cleaning up the beaches and running eco camps, and expanded to become not only a movement but a mindset of being “zero waste”. SWEEP has partnered with local governments, given talks in schools, and even met with corporations to discuss solutions to reduce their plastic footprint.
CEO and Co-Founder Patrick Rynne of Waterlust, an American advocacy apparel company started by marine scientists, offers: “I’ve come to realize that while an individual person may not make a noticeable difference to a global problem, an individual person can make a huge difference to their local problems. So if you live in a town or in a city and you want it to do something better...if you want to go and make things different, you absolutely can”.
Indeed, positive social impacts seem inextricable from trailblazing environmental initiatives, as has been the experience of Spain-based Square Ventures’ CEO Álvaro Cuadrado, whose award-winning Bluemont machines that convert water vapor into potable water not only provides a sustainable solution addressing the water crisis, but also empowers women in Kenya and Namibia by saving them the burden of travelling long distances to fetch water. “In these territories, water doesn’t only mark a difference between living and dying, but how to live”, said Alvaro.
It’s a similar story for the Swiss-based International Rainwater Harvesting Alliance (IRHA), whose rainwater harvesting initiatives, albeit an ancient technique that stretches back for thousands of years, have literally taken the problem off the shoulders of young girls in Nepal who need to get up at
industries”. Following a similar sentiment on the seafood substitute industry, Ocean Hugger Foods´CEO David Benzequen said, “The fact that this community is so driven by mission really puts traditional business models on its head. Everybody’s working to the same goal, but it’s really a
Perhaps the monumental climate challenges that are facing humanity have become an unequivocal cause for unity such that we are seeing a new market dynamic, wherein businesses within the same industry see each other not as competitors, but allies
6AM to collect and carry water uphill with pots that weigh up to 15kg. Marc Sylvestre, IRHA Executive Director adds, “When the communities realised that they could save rainwater over a rainy season, they could save money, they don’t have to go back and forth to fetch the water, they save time, and they can be with the family.”
Camaraderie, not competition
Perhaps the monumental climate challenges that are facing humanity have become an unequivocal cause for
unity such that we are seeing a new market dynamic, wherein businesses within the same industry see each other not as competitors, but allies.
In the U.S., Ocean Hugger Foods and Wild Type are two companies helping alleviate overfishing by producing plant-based and stem cell-based seafood alternatives (that actually taste like seafood!). Wild Type Co-Founder Justin Kolbeck shared his vision: “The dream is that in ten or fifteen years you can go to any sushi restaurant or any grocery store and have an alternative to every type of fish that you might like to to eat, that is truly sustainable and healthy and free of contaminants. It’s that vision that connects all of us and that is collective and creates a very different
working to the same goal, but it’s really a transformation of the way business works, and that’s what consumers are looking for, they’re looking for transparency, they’re looking for authenticity, they’re looking for a mission and they’re looking for businesses to care about more than just their bottom-line”.
In Finland, CEO Heikki Paakkinen of Wello Oy, a pioneering technology company harnessing clean energy from ocean waves, said, “I don’t like to talk that much about competition. In the future, all renewable energy
sources are needed. All these different sources of energy support each other – they’re not competing but adding to each other.”
Be water, my friend
In creating this issue, we at VoL have moved from a position of dread and helplessness to one of hope and optimism in the power of the individual, in spite of such overwhelming challenges.
These top 10 stories have come to remind us of the very nature of water itself: it may be one of the softest elements on Earth but it is also the strongest — powerful enough to swell, cut through, and flow. Water can and always finds a way.
This year marks Surfers Against Sewage’s 30th birthday. During that time they have seen their organisation diversify from specialising in water contamination to including other key themes such as plastic pollution. Influencing policy, educating and empowering youth on critical environmental issues as well as getting their hands dirty, Surfers Against Sewage are a charity focused on making human interaction with the planet healthy.
The charity may be from Cornwall, in the southern coast of England, but a Londoner is currently the man running the operation. Hugo Tagholm, describes himself as “an an environmentalist, a surfer, and a dad”. He is also CEO of one of our top blue organisations, one which continues to lead the line in the fight for the protection of our oceans.
Voices of Leaders: What achievements are you most proud of since Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) was established?
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Hugo Tagholm: This year is actually an auspicious year, this is our 30th anniversary, SAS has gone through really interesting phases over the past 30 years. As the names suggest, the first ten years or so were very much focused on water quality and sewage pollution, there were some big successes around that, pushing European legislation — there were some big bits of European legislation that really led the way on cleaning up, not just the UK’s sewage pollution but lots of parts of Europe.
There was the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, lots of different bits of legislation, the most powerful tools that we have to protect and improve our environment. In the 2000s, SAS started to strongly reinvent itself, a lot of the work on water quality was very mature. There were some big successes, the water companies were investing in new infrastructure, water quality was improving massively, so we were part of a journey that took our bathing water quality from what would be just 27% of our beaches meeting the minimum standards, to now almost 100%,
Click to hear the interview,
voiced by Natalia Díaz and Hugo Tagholm
Sometimes we can be fooled into thinking in the west that we’re dealing with the problem, but all too often, we’re offshoring our plastic problem to other countries that haven’t got the systems, the resources or the infrastructure to cope with the amount of plastics we’re offshoring. Then we have the audacity to point the finger of blame at those countries and say ʻlook at how polluted they are with plastics’.
CEO of Surfers Against Sewage
We’re in a phase with plastic pollution where we need the right legislation to create a level playing field for all manufacturers to operate with the same standards, same obligations, same financial impacts, so they can come together to create not just the material revolution where they start to look at the different material mix — how much plastic, glass, aluminum we use — what products we can eliminate, whether we need so much bottled water, and also look at the systems that contain and control plastic. It’s not one or the other, we won’t just get rid of plastics, it’s about minimising and reducing the amount we’re using first and foremost, but then also looking at the residual plastics — how do we create a circular economy that doesn’t put our problem out in Thailand, China or Bangladesh, or other countries. That’s crucial, sometimes we can be fooled into thinking in the west that we’re dealing with the problem, but all too often, we’re offshoring our plastic problem to other countries that haven’t got the systems, the resources or the infrastructure to cope with the amount of plastics we’re offshoring. Then we have the audacity to point the finger
Every piece of plastic we pick up from the beaches is a victory for the environment. But every piece of plastic we stop from being produced in the first place is an even bigger victory for our environment. It saves resources and it stops the damage being done.
CEO of Surfers Against Sewage
of blame at those countries and say ʻlook at how polluted they are with plastics’. We need a fair, equitable society across the world, a global society that really protects the environment and the health of people right around the world in the same way.
VoL: It’s great that your work does not only involve cleaning up the beaches but also trying to stop plastic from the source. Could you tell us more about your work with youth, particularly Ocean SAS’ School and Plastic Free School?
HT: To cover your first point, I think it’s quite clear that despite the fact that we’re very proud of all of our beach clean volunteers picking up plastic on the beaches, it’s not a solution in its own right and risks playing into the hands of the big multinational companies who want to see that as the solution. Every piece of plastic we pick up from the beaches is a victory for the environment. But every piece of plastic we stop from being produced in the first place is an even bigger victory for our environment. It saves resources and it stops the damage being done.
The really important factor from beach cleans is that it brings the community together, it unites people to protect the spaces they love. It enables them to collect the evidence to have a conversation with government and say, look, this isn’t good enough! Unless you bring in the right systems and change the way you’re doing business on this planet, this problem is going to get worse and worse.
We have to reduce the manufacture not just of plastics but lots of products we’ve got in our world. We’re consuming things too quickly and often in a very superfluous way, which doesn’t really add any value to our lives. Indeed, scientific evidence is now showing that people are very much unhappy with consuming the whole time.
The schools are really interesting, we’ve seen this incredible movement over the last year on climate change, with the school strikes, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and people really rising up to what is truly a dramatic time for people on this planet for our environment
Volunteers | Photo by Surfers Against Sewage
and how it’s really going to survive and change the way we’re living. The youth have been very powerful in that, speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo. That’s been great because us in our sector, all too often charities feel obliged or encouraged to deliver education programs often supported by big corporate entities which effectively say to those children, ‘look, we’ve caused a mess, and it will be up to you to lead the cleanup in the future, this is what you should do, you should be better, but we’re actually not going to do anything now’.
Our education program is different from that. We empower the youth, school children to become ocean activists and we want them to challenge power, to write to big business, write to MPs and have a conversation with them. Telling them not to leave the mess for us to clean up, they have to change their habits now. Otherwise it would be too late. We’re all for educating the kids but educating them to take action now and to really put pressure on the infrastructures that we have — the mega companies, the multinationals, and the world leaders who clearly are in a state of borderline paralysis as to how they’re going to deal with the reconfiguration of global economies to enable the growth and the comforts people expect, but also to enable us to stop consuming as fast as as we are, which is the paradox of their situation.
VoL: Has that had an impact on MPs and government leaders?
HT: We’ve taken lots of school kids to Parliament to talk to MPs, they’re writing letters, we’re getting MPs writing back to them to talk about legislation, about what’s happening and that’s really encouraging. We’ve got about 10% of schools engaged with the program, a good enough ambitious target to build up over the coming years to an even bigger number so we’re encouraging progress. We’re mindful of our scale and size, we’re still a small organization, we have a big impact.
We’re going to focus on some key deliverables, I want to do that this year with deposit return systems, making sure the bans work, making sure the extension of the plastic bag charges is successful, those could really have a tangible, demonstrable and measurable impact for our ocean.
VoL: What has your impact been on Cornwall?
HT: We’ve got an incredible community in Cornwall. People are very connected with their environment in the region because they live and breathe the environment. We’re all right next to the environment, we overlook the ocean. We’re very connected to our members
Surfing wave | Photo by Surfers Against Sewage
of Parliament and worked with them to encourage them and to push them to making the right decisions on environmental issues, all the things we care about like protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, net zero by 2030, eliminating single use plastic pollution on our beaches by 2030 and stopping sewage pollution in our bathing waters and surf spots by 2030. So those sort of things that are really important for the sustainability of our ocean, to create a thriving ocean but also to ensure that people are thriving on the coastline. Fundamentally we’re all dependent on a healthy environment around us, this is the generator for the life that we lead. It’s not Primark, it’s not Uniclo, Gap or Nike that make us thrive. It’s essentially jungles and oceans and trees. We’ve got it wrong, if people think that what makes them drive are big companies but the truth is, the truly fundamental building blocks are the healthy, happy person and a healthy and happy community — which is the opposite of what people often think.
VoL: You have gathered 100,000 people for your beach cleanups — could you tell us how you were able to mobilise so many people to be part of SAS?
HT: We make it fun, we put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into making sure we get our
projects out there, we make it very accessible, we’re very inclusive, we’re a kind and fun organisation that brings people along our journey. People like to do that. We’re also very accessible, I’m very lucky to lead the organisation but people would find me at a beach clean and also see me in a suit and tie in 10 Downing Street and having a conversation about the evidence we’ve collected together. We don’t want to sit in ivory towers casting our judgment on people, we’re part of the community, we are the community, we want to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty but equally we want to tell that story to the people who can change the situation we’re living in.
VoL: You’ve recently met David Attenborough, how was that?
HT: David was great, he’s still working hard leading the world’s consciousness on the plight of our environment and our oceans, that’s hugely inspiring. He’s a lifelong hero as well as for many people in the environmental sector and I was very fortunate to spend some time with him.
We talked about SAS and what we do as an organisation and how we do it, the successes we’ve had and we talked about our Plastic Free awards, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award with us and we were very honoured
Fundamentally we’re all dependent on a healthy environment around us, this is the generator for the life that we lead. It’s not Primark, it’s not Uniclo, Gap or Nike that make us thrive. It’s essentially jungles and oceans and trees. We’ve got it wrong, if people think that what makes them drive are big companies.
CEO of Surfers Against Sewage
to spend some time with him and to talk about all of that and present him with that award. It was a great day and a great moment with somebody who is no doubt the biggest inspiration for people around the world to fight to save the planet.
VoL: Do you have any plans over the next few years to expand outside the UK?
HT: We get a lot of questions about working outside the UK, we’re looking at some of our models — Plastic Free Schools, our beach clean boxes, for example, to take to other parts of the world. That’s absolutely something that would happen. But you’ve got to be careful with that too, there’s a lot of cases where charity brands can be misappropriated by people who use them either for personal gain or for fairly malevolent things, and you’ve got to make sure you put the right checks and balances in; you’ve got to do them right and at the right pace.
We’ve got a lot of work to do in the UK first and foremost because the more you try to take on, the more you’ve got to do it in the right way. We make sure that with any of our projects we not only are ambitious but we have to deliver them very well. It’s very bad if you take on a project then you don’t deliver with a very high standard, for us it’s very important that we not only plan, but we also implement in the right way that makes people go away feeling that they’ve been part of something brilliant and want to come back and do more. You’ve got to put people on a journey — show them plastic on a beach, get them to send some bottles back to Coca Cola and ask why these are on their beaches, get them to have a conversation with a local MP and tell them what the situation is actually like in their favourite beach. Those sort of things are really inspirational, and when people see that coupled with lots of voices around them saying the same thing, that’s where you got the magic.
VoL: Looking ahead, where would you like to see SAS over the next 3-5 years?
HT: We’ve got 10 years left to save the ocean, and a new strategy to deliver more radical
ocean activism. I hope that in 2030, we look back and show where we were collectively part of changing legislation and the fabric of society around us for the better. So I hope that in ten years’ time we’ll see large waves of the ocean and our land protected, restoring itself. I hope we’ll see the end of the endless stream of plastic pollution that’s pumped into the ocean by big companies, I’d like to think that we’ll see an end to sewage pollution and agricultural run-off running unabated into our ocean and I’d like to think that climate change is really being addressed seriously. Our transport systems, our food systems, our cities, our personal heating in our houses — all of those things be transformed to a more sustainable model.
VoL: What would you say to the climate deniers who persist out there?
HT: I would say: they’re wrong. I’d say that despite the fact there’s a narrative and a rhetoric of rejection of science, the scientific consensus in this world says that this is our fault, basically. The carbon emissions driven by the industrial revolution and what we’re doing is causing the climate to change and change more rapidly at an unusual period in this cycle of the climate changing around the world over the whole of time. I would say that we need to change to stop things. Because we are going to see a changing world, we are going to see changing coastlines, we’re gonna see cities threatened by the rising sea levels, and it’s crucial that they come along this journey.
It’s unhelpful for people to reject science. These are things that are proven, we need those absolutes. And people need to understand that — these are rules. They are the facts.
VoL: As a final question, what would you like your legacy to be?
HT: I just hope what I do actually has an impact, so rather than it be a personal legacy, I would like to think the work we’re doing actually has an impact on the planet — that would be the best legacy.
You’ve got to put people on a journey — show them plastic on a beach, get them to send some bottles back to Coca Cola and ask why these are on their beaches, get them to have a conversation with a local MP and tell them what the situation is actually like in their favourite beach.
CEO of Surfers Against Sewage
Hugo Tagholm | Photo by Surfers Against Sewage
When he returned from studying in Cádiz, Emilio Beladiez was shocked and saddened by the pollution and waste that littered the beaches where he spent his childhood with his family. Refusing to let the problem pass him by, Beladiez founded BIOagradables, and has been organising large volunteer groups to clean the beaches of Valencia ever since 2012. It started with a few friends choosing to make a little contribution and within a few months snowballed into something bigger than they had initially intentioned, with dozens of volunteers coming to the monthly clean-ups.
The impact of everyone doing their part, or making an effort to contribute could not be more clearly exemplified than in the work of BIOagradables. Whilst they are not currently looking to expand their operation across Spain, as they apply for EU funding, the hope is that bigger projects and possibilities are on the horizon. Focusing on their local community, BIOagradables have been able to dip their toe into different valuable projects, whilst not forgetting their core goal of maintaining beaches in Valencia.
The man behind the wheel of the organisation is Emilio Beladiez, who this year, has become the first contracted member of the BIOagradables team. He is simultaneously ambitious and humble, and more than anything, passionate about the value of BIOagradable’s cause — protecting the oceans.
On the problem of ocean and beach contamination...
“I think the problem is everywhere. We have seen the same in beaches in Barcelona, on social media people write to us saying “I wish BIOagradables would come here to clean a beach”. So we know that there is rubbish everywhere, you just have to look at the sea, the Pacific patch of plastic, all of the ocean currents, the problem is everywhere. Not just in Spain, I wish it was only in Spain! But no, it’s everywhere, and it’s all our fault, because have allowed it go on for a long time, businesses we have continued irresponsibly producing and managing the waste that we produce as a society and we are facing the consequences now”.
Volunteers team cleaning the beach | Source: ceeivalencia
It’s everywhere, and it’s all our fault, because we have allowed it go on for a long time, businesses have continued irresponsibly producing and managing the waste that we produce as a society and we are facing the consequences now.
Really cleaning the beaches after using it is everyone’s work but governments and councils have a higher responsibility, and that is to invest so [the beaches don’t become so dirty]
Volunteers team cleaning the beach | Source: ceeivalencia
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The actions we can take as individuals are all linked to our emissions, so we need to recognize that each and every one of us needs to contribute to a solution.
Dr. Zita Sabesvari
Senior Scientist, UN University
Sea level rise is inevitable. The latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCCC) report found that global mean sea level rise is happening 2.5 times faster today than it was in the years between 1900 and 1990. By 2050, the report projects that sea level will rise 20 to 40cm.
Dr. Zita Sebesvari, Senior Scientist at United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security and a Lead Author of the SROCCC report released in September 2019, explains why the changes in sea level rise happen later than the changes in climate.
“Even if we collectively cut all greenhouse gas emissions today, we cannot stop sea level rise immediately. The oceans have a high heat capacity – they warm up slowly and keep that temperature for a long time. As a result, the changes in sea level lag behind the warming of the atmosphere,” she said.
Dr. Sebesavri is an ecologist with a PhD in Environmental Science and an additional Master’s Degree in History, and has focused her research on assessing social-ecological interactions. For the IPCC, she contributed her scientific expertise to assess the global research conducted on ecosystems and their benefits in the context of sea level rise.
VoL: Consider our readers your students. What were the findings of your chapter in the SROCC report? Could you tell us about the effects of global warming on our seas and the acidification of the seas it caused?
ZS: We are emitting more and more CO₂, and around 20-30% of the CO2 emitted has been absorbed by the ocean, so in a way the ocean has protected us from even higher rates of global warming. But whenever the ocean takes up CO₂, it contributes to the acidification of the water. While it is a very slow process (about 0.02 - 0.03 pH units per decade) we can already observe changes to the ecosystem at a global level. The first victims are calcifying organisms, such as mussels or barnacles and also corals. In more acidic environments, they struggle with building up their skeleton or their shell. This has widespread consequences for the respective ecosystems, which in turn affect us as humans. It is also important to consider not just the effects of CO₂ emissions, but also other stressors caused by humans. Stepping on corals for example will lead to parts being broken off. So sustainable and responsible tourism is another factor which we need to consider in a holistic picture.
VoL: Could you give us an idea of the impact of sea-level rise on vulnerable communities around the world?
ZS: Even if we were to stop all emissions today we would still experience a 30-40cm
increase in sea level rise. We refer to this as a “commitment” to sea level rise because at certain point we just can’t stop it anymore, if we do not change our behavior. The ocean and ice sheets are such big systems that the impacts of our actions will come with a delay. It is critical to understand that if we do not take action now, we need to prepare for a sea level rise of up to 1.10 m by the end of the century. There is also no reason to assume that it would stop there, because we would continue melting our ice sheets and this could lead to a scenario of up to four meters sea level rise by 2300.
The other important factor to consider are extreme events, such as storm and cyclones. If these hazards meet even a small increase of sea level, the potential for disaster is unfortunately higher. And when designing our protection for the coast we have to consider these extremes.
VoL: What would be the impacts on low-lying coasts or Small Island Developing States (SIDS)?
ZS: Low-lying coastal areas and SIDS are usually located in areas where the natural variability of sea level is very limited. Or in other words, a mere increase of 30-40 cm will have a big impact for a small islands state in the Pacific or a low-lying coast, as the water will flow more inland. In addition, SIDS will also have less access to resources to develop adaptation strategies.
VoL: Could you give us some examples of places that are already experiencing the impact of sea level rise? And what happens to these communities?
ZS: I will give you an example of a SID in the Pacific. My colleague Dr. Kees van der Geest conducted research on the Marshall Islands in the context of environmentally-induced migration. He researched how people deal with increasing sea levels and its challenges, such as restricted access to fresh water resources.
Dr. van der Geest found that migration decisions depend largely on the context of