Pathways to achieving sustainable ocean futures

Rear Admiral Md. KHURSHED ALAM (Retd.)

The planet has already started absorbing increasing anthropogenic impacts and accelerating change to social-ecological systems, with local to global implications for human well-being (Steffen et al. 2015a). In response, there has been considerable international focus on conserving ecosystems and enabling sustainable development like formulation of the planetary boundaries’ framework (Steffen et al. 2015b), and declaration of Aichi targets (CBD 2010a) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (CBD 2010b; Steffen et al. 2015b; UN 2015b). Yet, while the scale and urgency of the global environmental crisis have been broadly articulated, the necessary reforms to international governance and institutions, and the on the ground action needed to address the environmental crisis, have not kept pace. In particular, there is a need to move from incremental changes to existing governance and institutions to transformational reorganization such as change in equity among developing and developed countries in relation to sustainable development (Burch et al. 2019).

Any type of transformations requires forward-looking approaches that provide decision-makers with the necessary information to be proactive in anticipating and responding to changing social-ecological systems. (Boyd et al. 2015). A common tool used to explore the future, to help evaluate options and to inform decision-making is quantitative modelling e.g. linked biophysical and economic models such as those used by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). Quantitative models are invaluable in developing understanding of the trajectories of social-ecological systems. (Rosa et al. 2017). Reliance on data and quantitative approaches may constrain users’ visions of the future, leading to an ‘imagination gap’ when prioritizing a more sustainable future and the transformations needed to achieve it (Galaz et al. 2016).

Critically, the visions portrayed in these futures are based on multiple types of knowledge and are ‘shared’ by those involved in the development process (Blythe et al. 2018). As part of a new, shared vision of the future, scientists and decision-makers can identify ways to encourage the uptake of behaviours—by individuals’ communities and organizations, and from local to regional/global scales—that will leverage greater environmental and societal benefit and a more equitable distribution of those benefits among and within nations (Alexander et al. 2020).

Narrative scenarios (Konno et al. 2014) identify the capacities, technologies and enabling conditions that must be fostered to achieve desired transformations (Sadowski and Guston 2016). Narrative scenarios offer the opportunity to include diverse knowledge and value systems, and incorporate uncertainties, whereas predominantly biophysical and economic models are insufficient to capture the complexity and context-specific nature of many socio-ecological problems (Blythe et al. 2018; Pereira et al. 2019).

Scenario development (Francis et al. 2011) can be grouped into three broad categories of predictive, normative, and exploratory approaches. Predictive scenarios are focused on what will happen in the future based on current evidence (Amara 1984). For example, social-ecological modelling outputs can be integrated into predictive scenario development around the future consequences of climate change (e.g. Lotze et al. 2019). Normative scenarios are focused on describing what we would like to happen, conceptualised as the preferable future. For example, the SDGs provide an internationally negotiated set of normative goals for society’s future to direct action internationally (UN 2015b). Exploratory scenarios look at a broader range of futures by outlining what could feasibly happen, allowing stakeholders to think creatively about what could happen over a given time period and unconstrained by current societal norms, political processes, or disciplinary approaches.

To provide pathways to the imagined future, stakeholders and policymakers need to design and implement complementary and coordinated actions across all levels of society from local community groups to national governments and international organizations allowing participants to work backwards from a desirable future to create a series of actions to ensure attainment of that future (Robinson 1990).

In 2016, the First Global Integrated World Ocean Assessment found that a considerable proportion of the ocean has suffered serious degradation leading to significant changes to marine ecosystem structure and function and the ecosystem benefits we receive from the oceans (UN 2016). In response, the United Nations declared 2021–2030 as a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The intent of this initiative is to stimulate international efforts aimed at improving ocean health, and a core emphasis is on generating the knowledge and data necessary to support sustainable development into the future (UNESCO 2019). While generating quantifiable knowledge and collecting data are important to ensure scientific advice on sustainable development is relevant and fit for purpose, major transformations are needed to create a sustainable future for our oceans (Sachs et al. 2019).

However, there is currently little guidance within the marine science literature on the process of developing narrative scenarios that combine a range of worldviews from within the scientific community and beyond. As a result, understanding around the interdisciplinary approach and challenges associated with creating shared, plausible ocean futures to guide action and policy, is currently lacking.

To help address this gap, objectives will be to describe the overall interdisciplinary process that underpinned the Future Seas projects, detail the methods used to create the future scenarios and the action pathways to achieve those futures; and reflect on the key barriers and enablers to achieving the project aims.

Future Seas aims to improve society’s capacity to purposefully shape the direction of marine social-ecological systems over the course of the UN Decade of Ocean Science. The Decade will aim to achieve considerable progress in a number of research and technology development areas with a view of generating the following six societal outcomes.

A clean ocean, whereby sources of pollution are identified, quantified, and reduced and pollutants removed from the ocean in an efficient manner. Integrated research will assess the human and environmental shorter-term and long-term risks from ongoing and future types of ocean pollution and generate new ideas on how to reduce ocean pressures by recycling, improved waste management, and strengthening the governance regimes that encourage more sustainable production and consumption.

A healthy and resilient ocean, whereby marine ecosystems are mapped and protected, multiple impacts on them, including climate change, are quantified and, where possible, reduced and provision of ocean ecosystem services is maintained. The Decade will promote research aimed at elucidating impacts of cumulative stressors on the ocean, its seas, ecosystems, and resources, hence providing required information to enable actions, which can reverse the ocean ecosystem degradation. Improved evaluation and appreciation of the economic and societal value of the ocean and its ecosystems will also be instrumental to stimulate marine spatial planning, marine protected areas, coastal zone management and other ecosystem-based management approaches.

A predicted ocean, whereby society has the capacity to understand current and predict future ocean conditions and their impact on human well-being and livelihoods. Under the Decade, sustained and systematic ocean observations would be expanded to all ocean basins and depths to document ocean change, initialize coupled models and facilitate improved ocean understanding. Knowledge of present and future conditions is a pre-requisite to the development of sustainable ocean economic policies and ecosystem-based management. More detailed and complete accounts of ocean processes can help to improve climate prediction in a significant way. The Decade will also build on advances in ocean robotics and the combination of remote and in situ ocean observations, which offer new opportunities and reduce operational costs; it will also promote multi-stakeholder contributions by governments, the private sector, and citizens.

A safe ocean, whereby human communities are much better protected from ocean hazards and where the safety of operations at sea and on the coast is ensured. The Decade will promote research aimed at minimizing impacts of various changes and risk reduction through adaptation and mitigation. It will also support the development of integrated multi-hazard warning systems (MHWSs) in all basins, hence, contributing to enhanced preparedness and awareness of society with regard to ocean risks. Community resilience and adaptive capacity, with elevated education and awareness concerning the use of observations and data, will also contribute to reduced impacts and improved efficiency of early warning systems for natural and man-made hazards. This area of research will be of great interest for the insurance and reinsurance industries.

A sustainably harvested and productive ocean, ensuring the provision of food supply and alternative livelihoods. The Decade should create a better understanding of the interactions and interdependencies of the ocean ecosystem and environmental conditions and processes, the use of resources and the economy. A major task in context of the development of the ocean economy will be in documenting the potential impacts from environmental changes on the established and emerging maritime industries and their ability to generate growth, especially for least developed countries and Small Islands Developing States. Defining safe and sustainable thresholds for economic operations in the ocean will help policymakers and stakeholders in implementing a truly sustainable blue economy (Smith-Godfrey, 2016; Visbeck, 2018).

A “transparent and accessible” ocean, whereby all nations, stakeholders and citizens have access to ocean data and information technologies and the capacities to inform their decisions. The enormous need for more ocean information in the scientific, governmental, private and public sectors demands a step change in ocean education at all levels. New technologies and the digital revolution are transforming the ocean sciences; these will be harnessed to deliver data and information to all stakeholders. Science-policy interface for the ocean should be enhanced as well. Open access to ocean information, increased interactions between the academic and societal actor communities, and ocean literacy for all should capacitate all citizens and stakeholders to have a more responsible and informed behavior toward the ocean and its resources.

Society faces a number of complex, interacting global challenges, from feeding a population that is predicted to approach 10 billion by 2050, to addressing climate change. These issues are often divisive or lead to feelings of powerlessness due to their apparent intractability (Longo et al. 2019). Simplified, shared, mental models of the future have been proposed as a way to facilitate action in the face of complex global issues (Costanza 2000; Jerneck 2013). Such mental models provide a ‘mobilising narrative’ by exploring society’s capacity to change our current trajectory to one that better supports a healthy environment, economy, and society (Galaz et al. 2016; Jerneck 2013). Currently, there is little guidance available on the process of working with large interdisciplinary groups to form robust teams that provide a safe space to develop shared visions of the future.

The societal outcomes of the Decade are holistic. In order to be achieved, most of them require actions by the society, governments, or by key stakeholders. However, there is no causal link to achieving them that would be entirely scientific. Nevertheless, progress in several thematic areas of ocean science is either necessary or very useful to achieve them. Scientific papers should not be the sole measure of success of the Decade. Impact to society, appropriately measured against clear objectives, should also be a measure of success. Areas of research and technology development (R&D) should be interconnected but allow focused design and planning. Progress in these areas is necessary to facilitate protection and the sustainable use of the ocean, on global and more localized scale.

The complex and uncertain nature of many key challenges facing the oceans and our society can lead to inertia and paralysis among private and public actors alike. It is our hope that presenting sustainable but realistic versions of the future and highlighting that collectively we have the combination of knowledge, resources, and technology to respond constructively, may lead to greater action across all levels from individuals to governments. Society needs a vision of what the future could look like, beyond the ‘doom and gloom’ story that we must avert the ‘inevitable’ catastrophe. The earth is already undergoing significant transformations in the Anthropocene. Now we need to develop and disseminate tangible depictions of where we are headed but also where we could head if we actively chose to steer the transformation to a more sustainable future.


Rear Admiral (Retd) Md Khurshed Alam, MPhil, ndc, psc, Secretary, Maritime Affairs Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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