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“When the ocean suffers, we all suffer”: Tackling the crises of plastics and climate change

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Eighteen-year-old climate activist Hannah Testa from the US writes about the links between ocean pollution and climate change and calls forcefully for urgent action which takes a holistic view on the climate crisis. 

This blog is the ninth in The Elders’ Intergenerational Climate Blog Series 2021 and features an introduction by Gro Harlem Brundtland:

“We cannot forge a sustainable future unless we take into consideration the intricate links between climate change, human health and the health of our oceans. Human actions have significantly damaged the health of the world’s oceans leaving both people and our ‘Blue Planet’ in jeopardy.

Hannah Testa argues that interconnected environmental issues affect us beyond what can be seen in plain sight. I could not agree more. As Hannah explains, plastic production and waste not only contributes heavily to global warming, but it also makes its way into our bodies causing harm to human health. At COP26 this year, leaders must remember that a holistic approach to sustainability and tackling climate change is the only way forward.”
- Gro Harlem Brundtland

With the countdown to COP26 narrowing and the release of reports like the IPCC Assessment Report, youth activists direct their attention to global leaders in hopes of tangible change. However, many leaders fail to consider ocean health when it comes to climate action. The ocean is the largest carbon sink* — and without a healthy, thriving ocean ecosystem, the effects of the climate crisis would be drastically heightened. So why are we neglecting to include ocean conservation in climate conversations?

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Plastic pollution is one of the largest threats facing our oceans today. When you think of the climate crisis and plastic pollution, you might think of them as two separate environmental issues – however, they are intrinsically interconnected.

Plastic is not just a problem of ocean pollution; the problem starts from the wellhead and continues throughout each stage of the plastic lifecycle. Firstly, 99% of plastic is produced from oil. Extracting oil releases the harmful greenhouse gas methane that is stored deep in the ground, and the process often require deforestation, millions of acres are cleared for oil and gas development in the United States alone. Currently, 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is for plastics, and estimates show that this number may rise to 20% by 2050 if our reliance on plastic continues.

Our continued reliance on fossil fuels for plastic is a threat to our society as we strive for a climate-just world. We must divest from fossil fuels wherever possible to limit global temperature rise to well below 2Cº. Fortunately, there are many solutions on national and global levels; phasing out single-use plastics, ending government subsidies for oil producers, and stopping the export of plastic waste to other countries are some ways we can quickly reduce the grip that plastic has on our society.

And this is only the beginning! The refining and manufacturing of plastics is also a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The chemical ethylene, which is very common in plastic, emits greenhouse gases equivalent to 45 million passenger cars each year.  As the production of plastics is projected to keep increasing, so too is the hazardous flow of plastics in the ocean. In fact, the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean is projected to triple by the year 2040 unless we do something to stop it. 

Secondly, as plastic degrades, it breaks up into microplastics and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Every year, about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste escape into our oceans from coastal nations. That’s equal to placing five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world every year – from arctic sea ice to the deepest trenches of the ocean. Each year, over 1 million animals die due to ingesting or getting entangled in plastic. Not only is plastic impacting marine life in the ocean, but it is impacting us. It is in our drinking water, our food, our organs, and even in the air we breathe. 

Most plastic items ultimately find their way into the ocean. Less than 10% of plastic is recycled but, believe it or not, recycling facilities in America and other Westernized countries send recyclable plastics to countries in Asia. Moving and getting rid of our waste overseas has become a growing problem. It is a social justice issue for the communities impacted, and it is a very carbon-intensive transportation process. And on top of that, plastic incinerators are typically located in marginalized communities and pollute their air — a recurring theme of environmental racism.

I live hundreds of miles away from the nearest coastline, but that does not mean that depleting ocean health won’t impact me. The oceans cover over 70% of the surface of our planet and play a key role in supporting life on earth. This important ecosystem provides us with food, materials, oxygen, and regulates the climate. The ocean is the life support system for this blue planet. Unfortunately, we think that our oceans are so massive they won’t be impacted by human activity. But this is not true. When the ocean suffers, we all suffer and the threat of plastic pollution on our oceans is a threat to our wellbeing.

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As a Gen-Z environmental activist, there is a lot of fear of what our future holds — but there is also a lot of hope. We are at a pinnacle point in history to alter our fate. Youth-led movements are making headways, and the world is beginning to listen. Politicians, CEOs, and people in positions of power are waking up to the realization that environmental preservation is essential— not optional. Our generation is speaking out now more than ever. We are prioritizing our right to a future. Young people are able to organize via social media with strength in numbers. We have grown up watching our planet be devastated for temporary gain, and we can collaborate and connect across the world. There is a global movement to protect the Mother Earth we rely on, and youth are at the forefront of it. 

*A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon than it releases and thereby lowers the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Hannah has been an environmentalist activist most of her life — all 18 years of it – and has made it her mission to fight for the planet and its future. By the age of 10, she realised that one of our biggest environmental problems is one that we can control: plastic pollution and in 2017, she conceived and spearheaded Plastic Pollution Awareness Day. Closely linked to plastic pollution and ocean health, Hannah fights for solutions to the world's most pressing issue – climate change. Today, she is not only a sustainability advocate, but also a published author, TEDx speaker, and founder of Hannah4Change, a non-profit dedicated to fighting issues that impact the planet. 

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

Mary Robinson and Brianna Fruean at COP 25Intergenerational Climate Blog Series 2021

Featuring youth climate activists from around the world, discover stories of courage, hope and resilience in taking climate action.

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