Scientists from NYU, University of Portsmouth, and Hamilton College will discuss recent work on sea level rise, the science of “blue carbon” stored in the sea, and important policy changes to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean.
- Aaron Strong, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Hamilton College. Trained as an interdisciplinary sustainability scientist, Strong’s research focuses on understanding the impacts of climate change and the dynamics of climate feedbacks in both terrestrial and marine systems, including work on ocean acidification, carbon sequestration, and sea-level rise.
- Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy and Director of the Sustainability and the Environment Research Theme at the University of Portsmouth. Professor Fletcher is the United Nations Ocean Lead and he heads the University of Portsmouth's Revolution Plastics initiative. Professor Fletcher is involved in research which is looking at G20 plastic policies and combating the urgent challenge of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. He can talk about solutions to this global issue which include how isolated interventions have minimal impact and that systemic change is the key to success by bringing together countries, governments, business and communities to work together.
- Maurizio Porfiri, Institute Professor at New York University Tandon School of Engineering. Professor Porfiri was lead researcher in a study on how the cascading effects of the migration in Bangladesh will ultimately affect 1.3 million people across the country by 2050. The work has implications for coastal populations worldwide.
When: Tuesday, April 27, 2PM-3PM EDT
Where: Newswise Live Zoom Room
Thom: Welcome to today’s Newswise Live Expert Panel, today we’re talking about topics related to Earth Day and climate. We have with us three professors that are going to talk about various recent research that they’ve done in these areas. I’d like to introduce first Aaron Strong, he’s with Hamilton College where he’s Assistant Professor of Environmental studies, Aaron thank you so much for joining us. You recently did some research about blue carbon – atmospheric carbon dioxide being able to be sequestered in the ocean, and that process occurring naturally. What’s happening to it because of climate change?
Aaron: Sure, thanks Thom. So this work is – was published in Global Environmental Change and the title was Incorporating Blue Carbon Sequestration benefits into sub national climate policies – but let me start with what blue carbon is.
So everyone around the world is looking for climate solutions right now, we know that emissions need to drop and drop quickly, getting to net zero by 2050 and there's increasing interest in so called negative emissions technologies, ways that we can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Many people are familiar with trees – growing forests, planting huge numbers of trees to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, and that’s a great thing, but the ocean is also a really big carbon sink and so there is a lot of work to be done to understand those dynamics. Now the middle of the ocean actually pulls out about 25% of all of the human caused greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere – carbon dioxide pushed in the atmosphere every year. That has some drawbacks. It acidifies the ocean but it has a huge benefit. It’s not getting as warm as quickly as it otherwise would if the ocean wasn’t a big carbon sink.
Now there's not a whole lot humans can do to manipulate that carbon sink, there's been some ideas out there like we can fertilise the ocean with iron and I've written some papers on that, and there's a lot of big question marks around geo engineering ideas like that, but one thing that we’ve become increasingly aware of is that our coastal ecosystems – and by coastal ecosystems I mean salt marshes, tidal flats, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests actually pull an enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Even more per unit area than tropical forests do.
Now these aren’t huge areas but they're absolutely vital ecosystems for a couple of reasons.
1] they pull a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere and so if we can preserve those ecosystems or we can restore them, we can actually enhance the amount of CO2 we get out of the atmosphere – but why should we focus on them? Well they also provide us with a lot of other benefits. They mitigate the forces of storm surge, big storms, they help reduce coastal flooding, they provide nurtury habitats for fisheries. Ensure if we can look at the carbon benefit of coastal ecosystems like seagrass meadows and salt marshes and mangrove forests, we might be able to come up with some strategies where we get kind of an ecological win-win. We get some co2 pulled out of the atmosphere, but we also get these more localised benefits. So our study looks at the potential to incorporate valuing these ecosystems in the pledges that countries are making under the Paris Agreement.
Thom: I want to dig into that a little bit further because these coastal areas are a fraction of the total surface area of the ocean, so help us understand why focusing on just these coastal areas can bring such benefit when there's so much vastness to the whole ocean?
Aaron: Yeah and that’s the tricky part about blue carbon being upfront about it. Blue carbon alone is not going to solve the climate crisis, but neither is any other technology that’s out there. We’re fond of saying there is no silver bullet to climate change, that it’s going to take lots and lots of different kinds of solutions from electric vehicles to conserving forests to ground source heat pumps and one of those solutions is blue carbon. Now the challenge is it’s pretty hard right now to understand exactly what the different potentials for brings this carbon sequestration value into existing policies are, and that’s what our paper looks at- how can we streamline these pathways – we have lots of easy accounting of emissions from natural gas we can look at what the potentials of different renewable energy sources are, but if a state in the United States or a country globally wanted to incorporate blue carbon ecosystem services into the emissions trajectories, they need to quantify that, and our study takes a detailed look at some of the pathways to do it.
Now, I’ll be honest- the total amount of carbon in these blue carbon ecosystems across the entire planet, the sequestration potential is not high enough to say – okay we’re going to solve the climate crisis. But, it’s part of a solution and it's part of a solution that can also be part of a strategy to emphasize coastal protections and co benefits. So one of the few examples of ecosystems that give us a win -win between climate change mitigation – that means reducing emissions – and climate change adaptation – that means protecting ourselves against the impacts of climate change in these coastal systems. We see that win-win with blue carbon, which is why it’s so important to take a look at.
Thom: And what would you say are the consequences of inaction on this?
Aaron: Well so there are two kinds of policy proposals for blue carbon, one is to restore lost ecosystems – on the west coast of the United States 90% of coastal wetlands have been lost and right now the rate of coastal wetland destruction, of mangrove forest destruction and seagrass destruction in various parts of the world is quite high. So by actually valuing the carbon within these ecosystems, we provide a mechanism for conserving ecosystems that are under threat. Under threat for conversion for urban development, for sea food farming and many other destructive practices.
So the consequences of in actionable carbon is if you don’t provide ways to bring these values into our framework for dealing with climate change – are further loss and degradation of these ecosystems exacerbating both the climate crisis and the ecological crisis.
Thom: Thank you Professor Strong, if anyone has questions for Aaron, please do chat them and we’ll come back around as we get to some Q&A.
Next I want to introduce Steve Fletcher – he is professor of Ocean Policy and Economy and also the director of the Sustainability and environmental research theme at university of Portsmouth. So, professor Fletcher – you’ve recently done research and analysis of policy about plastic pollution in the ocean. So help us to understand what's the global picture on these policies and why do you feel that they're insufficient?
Prof. Fletcher: Thanks Thom and good evening everybody – yeah so I've been working for a body called the international resource panel which is a UN body which provides advice to the G7, G20 and other intergovernmental bodies, on research use and in that context I've been undertaking a piece of research to identify what policy options are available to society to reduce plastic entering the ocean to zero by 2050, and when you start to look at that question, it becomes obvious very quickly that the existing policy framework is inadequate to deliver that outcome. So what we see at the moment is increasing plastic entering the ocean. We expect that the amount of plastic entering the ocean will triple by 2040 and we expect the amount of plastic stock in the ocean to quadruple from 2040 and the existing policies that governments and industries combined have in place, will only reduce that growth by 7%. So there is a massive increase in plastics entering the oceans and the stock of plastics in the ocean and existing policies are entirely inadequate to tackle that. What we see however ,a lot of public statements by politicians, a lot of public interest in plastics and it would be easy to imagine that a lot of effort was being made by governments and by industry to tackle the plastics pollution, but it seems in reality that that just isn't the case and the problem if anything was worsening rather than improving and the policy situation is worsened by individual policies being very piecemeal – so banning plastic bags, or earbuds or microplastics in beauty products is great, to some extent, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is producing too much plastic, it’s about poor disposal of plastic and poor opportunities to recycle and reduce or somehow bring that waste plastic back into the economy in some way. So really – answering your question Thom – it’s very much about piecemeal and connected policies that don’t really deliver systemic change to the plastics economy.
Thom: I want to make sure we get it clear on the current predicament of this and to make sure that I heard you properly – the acceleration of more plastic entering the ocean continues to grow and the current policies will only reduce that growth by a mere 7% - that’s right?
Prof. Fletcher: Yeah it's slightly confusing Thom – so the curve is going upwards very, very strongly for reasons we both just said – but that growth is only being held back by – reduced by 7% so the growth is still massive – but it's only being reduced by 7% through the current policy framework.
Thom: So it sounds like a real bottom line to your study and your policy proposals are that these local and regional policies, plastic bags ban for example in a state like California or other individual consumer behaviour, like personal recycling really can't do anything in the face of this broader systemic dysfunction of the whole global economy and industry and commercial fishing and all these other issues?
Prof. Fletcher: Yeah it’s a bit of a mix really I would say, so I wouldn’t want to say individual action is pointless and has no value at all, because of course it’s important that we all play our part and if we as individuals choose to reduce the amounts of plastics in our life, we choose to buy less or if we buy plastic we reuse it more and we dispose of it in a conscientious way – then that can only be a good thing. We’re not contributing personally to the stock of plastics in the ocean or plastic pollution – but the reality is that – that can only make a limited difference and that can only make a difference perhaps if there are particular local problems that plastic pollution is causing. So imagine a coastal city around a bay or something like that – then if that whole city chooses to reduce its plastic, then that will make a difference to its local marine environment, but it’s not going to shift the dial massively when we look at the global scale. So the global scale – the problem is that we’re just still producing too much plastic , that plastic is being disposed of poorly in effect and there are pathways for that waste to enter the ocean still. So, we are left with this growing body of plastic entering the ocean. So again what you tend to see is this sort of individual policies like banning plastic bags and that sort of thing, as almost being figurehead policies or policies that look good and make people happy and satisfied in some way but in reality are not really driving the underlying change that we need to see.
Thom: It sounds like you’ve diagnosed the problem quite clearly, so what policies actually would make a difference.
Prof. Fletcher: Yeah so we need to reduce plastic entering the economy essentially, so if you think of it as a tap of plastic entering the ocean, if you just turn the tap down a little bit, you reduce the amount of plastic coming out of that top, there will be less plastic entering the ocean. It’s as simple as that – there's a very simple equation here – create less plastic and less will enter the ocean. But what we can do beyond that is we can really think about what we make products from. So for example – if we have a product that’s entirely made of plastic or made more realistically say – 5 or 6 different types of plastic, we then use that plastic in our everyday lives in some way and we then dispose of it. It’s virtually impossible to then separate out those eight different plastics from each other. So that product is then to all intents and purposes non recyclable or non reusable. So what we can do is – rethink product design, and so in the initial design of the product – let’s just put one plastic in that – let’s make sure that that one plastic is a plastic that can be recycled at the end of its useful life. Or even better – let’s not recycle it at all, let’s make sure that we can reuse that product or we can repair it, so we’re being really efficient with our use of resources. So I'm not saying plastic is bad or we should demonise plastic, it’s an amazing substance that helps us in so many different ways, but its negative side effects are really something we need to tackle and address properly. So it’s really a case of thinking about how we can minimise use of plastics and products where we absolutely need it, and where we do absolutely need it we make sure we’ve got a system in place that enables that waste once it becomes waste, to be captured and then brought back into the economy in some way, and we talk about this as being a circular economy where there's very little or minimal waste and the product has its life – but at the end of the its life it gets recycled back into the lifecycle of the product.
Thom: Thank you Prof. Fletcher – we’ll come back to you for further questions as we get to the Q&A. I want to next introduce Maurizio Porfiri, he is Institute Professor at New York Universities Tandon school of engineering. Thank you for joining us Maurizio. There was recent research that you participated in, running a model on the sea level rise and displacement of people in a region of the world that would be heavily affected by sea level rise – what can you tell us about the region that you applied this modelling to and what that tells us.
Maurizio: Thank you Thom, it’s a pleasure being here and I’ll share a little bit of our work which has been published in Earth Future a couple of days ago. So the place we worked on was Bangladesh. So Bangladesh is expected to see the displacement of 800,000 people by 2050 due to sea level rise. So 40% of the country is somewhere below 8 metres from the water. So the impact of climate changes will be more dramatic over there, so we will see a significant fraction of the population being displaced. So what we did there is we created a mathematical model which is quite simple but helpful in understanding what are the cascade effects in immigration. So what we try to understand was how people will leave these affected regions and how they will redistribute over the entire country. So this was the question we tried to address.
Thom: So what predictions can you make or what consequences can you see based on that model that will have impacts throughout that region in an event that the sea level rise continues unchecked.
Maurizio: So the predictions are actually quite interesting because they show a very dramatic time dependence, in the sense that you would see people leaving these coastal regions and going to big cities. That will happen right away – so this is one of the classical predictions of what is called the [inaudible 17:11] model, whereby people will tend to go where there are more opportunities for themselves and those tend to be bigger hubs – bigger cities. But what’s interesting is that the process is actually cascading -whereby as people leave coastal regions and they populate cities, cities may not be able to offer resources to everybody who is there, and that is triggering migration to other countries. So what we found which is not in line with several studies was that for example the district of the capital Dhaka, will not in the long run see a surge in population but a drop. So what we should be able to see is the population will initially increase and then overtime decrease whereby people will tend to migrate towards the north. So the message is – what can we do to alleviate the asset of environmental migration and to prepare the country for hosting people in the North and for handling the transient as people will be going to Dhaka and leave it.
Thom: Very interesting – you’ve got into studying this as a little bit of a new endeavour for you, before I ask you more about the sea level rise modelling, what is it that you normally are doing studies about and applying these kind of modelling practices to?
Maurizio: Yeah so the general free model we apply comes from network theory which is a quite broad area of study that enables us to understand the collective behaviour of complex systems – so for example with network theory we can understand the collective behaviour of humans. Trying to understand how we reach decisions - how I talk to you, you talk to Craig, you talk to Steve and how all of us will share some information and ultimately we’ll be able to make a common decision. So in this sense we are looking at how individual units are interacting with each other towards performing a task that would be beyond the ability of an individual, or would be beyond what we can predict from a single individual. So using network theory we study a variety of problems that span epidemiology, looking for examples of how Covid-19 would propagate in a city, up to looking at collective behaviours of animal groups. So in the context of the migration, this one is a very mature application in which your network is composed of the different districts in the county of Bangladesh and you would try to understand how [inaudible 20:00] will develop between the loads. So how people will leave a particular load and go somewhere else. So that is an emergent property, it’s not simply dependent on [inaudible 20:16] but it depends on the entire population, on the entire group. On the geography, on the demographics, on their tendency and willingness to migrate and specifically on climate change.
Thom: Thank you so much professor. What other regions might you apply this modelling to, do you plan on studying another part of the world on sea level rise next?
Maurizio: So what we would like to look at next are a couple of things -so first of all I am very interested in understanding migration from the sub-Saharan region to other parts of the world. So not necessarily applying a model to sea rise, but applying it to general environmental extremes. So to conditions that will push people to leave their homes and explore other parts of the world, and try and be attracted somewhere where they're going to be stronger and where they have social contact and where they can built their lives, and so this will be part of the application – looking at other geographical data sets. And from a theoretical point of view the model has a lot of limitations, some of them are related to the social connections – so the only driver of the model now is economy, but we know that that’s not the single factor, we know that people may leave their homes and choose the location where to displace as a function of potentially social tie – if you're family man, you have social relationship with that particular place – so some of the work we’re doing is trying to include this fabric of network that is beyond mere economic factors and that encompass social factors. So that is the research we’re doing and we would like to look at other data sets from the sub-Saharan region.
Thom: Excellent – we look forward to hearing more about that. Studying the displacement of hundreds and thousands of people certainly seems like something that we need to understand well is that’s truly where we’re headed. I’d like to call back on Professor Strong – we have a question for you from Bill and WK-TV and Bill asks – what makes these ecosystems so efficient and absorbing carbon dioxide?
Prof. Strong: Yeah so it’s been great to hear about plastic, sea-level rise and blue carbon and these are all dimensions of the current crisis facing our oceans and coasts at a global scale and merits all the attention we’re all giving – so Bill’s question is why are coastal ecosystems such carbon sequestration power houses – and its actually for three reasons – so 1] just like other forests or vegetative ecosystems – they're highly photosynthetic and that’s going to pull co2 out of the atmosphere and accumulate it into the vegetative biomass, but that’s not what gives them their super power. So coastal ecosystems are flooded by ocean currents, sometimes rivers and estuaries mixed around and all of that water has organic carbon in it, particularly carbon in it – that comes from elsewhere. Maybe it’s coming down a river or its being resuspended in the ocean, and these ecosystems – salt marshes and seagrass meadows and mangrove forests are incredibly efficient at capturing some of that floating carbon that’s going around and it settles out and starts to accumulate there. That actually helps salt marshes to build themselves over time and so in that sense some of that carbon would probably be broken down and burped back out as co2, but it’s being captured and buried in these coastal ecosystems in a way that makes them carbon sequestration power houses. And the third reason is that relatively slow rate of decomposition – so you can imagine – you have a lawn, it's photosynthetic, but you mow it and it dies and most of the carbon that was sucked out of the atmosphere just gets burped back out pretty quickly.
In coastal ecosystems like seagrass meadows, salt marshes and mangroves, you actually accumulate a lot of that carbon over time that doesn’t decompose as rapidly, because of the aquatic environment and then lack of fast decomposition means that you're actually accumulating more and more of the carbon that’s pulled out of the atmosphere by the vegetative growth. A larger fraction of it remains basically out of the atmosphere. So for those reasons we get these super powers of coastal ecosystems in terms of the CO2 they pull in the atmosphere.
Thom: As a quick follow up to that, what can you say as a bottom-line about how these coastal carbon things have been lost- there's probably a lot of reasons for that but what would you point to the major culprits?
Prof. Strong: Right now its urban development and honestly – shrimp farming. So you look at your package of shrimp you buy at the grocery store and a lot of it is going to say Indonesia, Thailand, India on it right now and those shrimp farms are primarily built by knocking down mangrove forests. So over a history in the United States we lost a lot of salt marshes from urban development, and that’s continuing in many other parts of the world where more and more people are moving to the coasts and as we just heard, the dynamics of where and why and how people move are incredibly fascinating. But those are the two big culprits – coastal urban development and then increasingly aqua culture primarily of crustaceans like shrimp.
Thom: Thank you Aaron. I want to take a follow up question for Professor Fletcher – we have a question from freelancer Christine Row – why is plastic so cheap and how can the economics of producing these ubiquitous disposable plastics be disrupted?
Prof. Fletcher: Thanks Thom and nice question Christine. The cheapness of plastics largely come from the fact that the negative implications of plastics like gluten or impacts on human health are never included in the price you pay for the raw materials, so it’s called an externality, so the external impacts of the products and the costs are never internalised or never included in the price of the product or the material in the first place. So we have this slightly crazy situation where it’s cheaper to extract fossil fuels and make what are called virgin plastics or brand-new plastics and that is cheaper than recycling plastics that we already have. So in economic terms, there's no real incentive or motivation to recycle and to bring back recycled products back into the raw materials to make new plastics. There are various policy initiatives to tackle that situation, there are initiatives around including those negative externalities into the cost of the product and some companies voluntarily do that, so they become pre immune products and they're very ethically sound products therefore, but they come at a cost of course, not everybody can afford that cost. There's also a call to tax virgin plastics more, so that governments collect that additional cost to clean up the problems that virgin plastics create and there are also policies that are coming online that require companies to include a minimum amount of recycled plastic and their new products and that in essence gives financial value to recycled plastic. So the cost differential is reduced but it’s a really challenging question, is the economics of plastics – that is one of the most challenging aspects of getting it right.
Thom: A question from the chat that I saw you responded to Professor Fletcher, I want to give you a chance here for everyone to hear – all these plastics winding up in the ocean, what do we understand about how that happens? Industrial and commercial pollution - garbage dumping into the ocean. What are some of these routes? And by pinpointing that, is there something we can do about those as well?
Steve: Yeah, thank you, it's a great question. There are so many different pathways for plastics to enter the ocean. So, first let’s divide up between land and sea-based sources. So sea-based sources are things like discarded fishing nets, so materials that fall off the side of vessels when they are at sea, and they become plastic pollution directly into the ocean, if you like. Looking towards land-based sources, then we are looking at all sorts of different things. We are looking at just simply littering in coastal cities and towns, and that just flows into the sea or it gets washed into the sea through runoff, channels, rivers, that sort of thing. But perhaps more importantly than that, if you think of every major activity that takes place on land, there will be some side-effect of that that generates waste. And in some of those activities, there will be a significant portion of that being waste plastic. Now, unless that waste plastic is captured properly and entered into a strong and impossible to breach waste management system, then there will be some leakage of that plastic into nature. So, agriculture is a huge source of plastics into rivers and, therefore, into oceans. Industrial processes, disposal sites, landfill sites – they leak, like you wouldn't believe, plastics into water courses. So, loads of different land-based activities create waste plastic that then finds its way into transport pathways that ultimately enter the ocean.
Thom: Thank you, Professor Fletcher. If anyone has any further questions for Professor Fletcher, please do chat them to us. I want to ask Professor Porfiri, in your measurements and modelling, I am curious about the factor of some of these economic costs. We just heard Professor Fletcher mention that the economic costs of the environment are not figured into production of plastics, for example. And the real need for accounting for these costs and that going into the price of certain things or behaviours is one of the ways forward to really understand this better. The displacement of potentially hundreds and thousands of people in Bangladesh, what would be the economic factors involved there? People abandoning their homes and property, having to close abandoned businesses, the jobs and things like that that will obviously be lost as those areas can no longer be habitable. Did your study measure those factors, those variables in any way and what can you tell us about your understanding of the impact there?
Maurizio: So, the way the model is constructed, it uses economics as a driver for selecting the place where you want to go. So, in principle, you will be leaving your home, you will be forced to leave your home and you will be searching for a district that is as close as possible to yours, that can offer better economic conditions to the one that you have just left. So there is a driver, which is the environmental driver, and then there is the pursuit of a better economic condition. So the way the model is constructed, it is indeed economics based and it assumes that better condition corresponds to a larger population. So, in that sense, the model is implicitly assuming that larger cities are better for housing people because they will have more opportunities. The pitfall of the entire argument is whether that there exists such a correlation, which in principle may not be the case. And that will bring additional cost to the entire environmental migration problem because, for example, the north of the country is not as developed as the central part of the country. So in that sense, if people are leaving the central part of the country to go to the northern part of the country, then we shall provide additional resources and additional job opportunities for these individuals so that they will be successful in the place that they will be their new home. At the same time, there are also additional costs which are included only indirectly related to potential turmoil or conflict that may come from new people who are coming in a new town, a new place, whereby they may change the economics of the particular place. So the existing residents themselves may feel a hit in terms of the economic resources that are available to them, and themselves they can start being on the move. So the environmental migration itself does not only have the cost of people who are leaving the affected area, but also the cost of people who are in areas that are not affected but are growing in population due to people coming from their previous home. These people may bring additional resources, additional skills but if the place is not prepared for offering jobs and well-being to these individuals, then they create conflict, it may create economic disparities and create further arrest. So the quantification of the cost of environmental migration is challenging because at the end it is not only those affected but it is the entire country. And we shall do some projection on what resources should be allocated to receiving districts, as well as ways to mitigate the migration of the affected districts. For example, we could pre-emptively allocate resources for promoting a certain area of agriculture, a certain business, certain type of technology so that people living in that area may not feel the impelling need of living right away but could find alternative means to continue living in that particular place. And then at the same time, for districts, that will be the new homes that we should allocate resources so that they will be prepared in not creating further distress to the entire country.
Thom: Thank you, Professor. Follow-up question here for Professor Strong. And this may be something that the other panellists may want to comment on too – Christine row, the freelancer who is trying to question: there seems to be a lot of confusion among the media, especially about ocean ecosystems and a couple of documentaries about these issues. Professor Strong, do you have any tips for journalists on reporting accurately about these ocean environments? And what other information could you help for the media to clear these things up when there seems to be a lot of competing information?
Aaron: Yeah, it's a great question, Christine. And I want to have Professor Fletcher and Professor Porfiri weigh on this because I think it ties into all of the different things in the ocean and coast space. The oceans are really challenging to understand because they are so vast, because the areas beyond the exclusive economic zones or areas beyond national jurisdiction, which we are only just now getting a handle on at the UN level in terms of how to regulate and control and allocate those resources. So, in my space, thinking about carbon and that kind of ocean climate solutions, what I think would be really valuable to make a distinction of, is that the oceans are big carbon sink pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere on their own. Biologically this just happens, physically this just happens. And so there has been a lot of calls for taking credit of that – some countries are saying we should be able to get credit for all the CO2 that we are pulling out of the atmosphere and our waters, even though we are not doing anything to do that. And that anytime someone's talking about negative emissions or climate solutions involving carbon sequestration, it really has to be because we are doing something to enable that carbon sequestration to happen. That is absolutely vital, and it’s really vital in the oceans. And I'll give you a case in point that's exploding right now, which is this interest in kelp aquaculture. And there is a lot of interest from the federal government, there have been various proponents of blue new deals that involve a lot of kelp aquaculture, and it's great. I mean, it's a big business, you can sell the kelp and as it grows, it sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere. And so there is a whole group looking at, you know, could this be a climate solution? Well, in order for it to be a climate solution, it doesn't just have to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere for a little while. It has to stay out of the atmosphere because kelp is more like your lawn and it just grows and then you harvest it all, throw it on land and use it as fertilizer or feed. It's breaking down and that CO2 is broken back to the atmosphere. Now, there is a lot of evidence recently that if you grow kelp, some amount of it can be sequestered in the ocean for a long time. That's an area of active research and there tends to be just a blanket assumption that anytime you pull CO2 out of the atmosphere for even just a moment, it's considered sequester. And that's just not true. So if you are writing about kelp or writing about ocean carbon solutions, pay attention to your definition of sequestration at a really fine level because there is a lot of misinformation out there about that in particular. That's just from my own perspective as someone interested in the carbon cycle, but I am sure there are other tips that the other panellists can throw in here.
Thom: Very interesting. Thank you. Professor Fletcher, do you have any thoughts about that question? What the media might benefit from understanding, from your perspective, to help them get the reporting right when there is competing info out there?
Steve: Yeah, thank you. It is a great question. I’d agree with everything that Aaron just said. I think I’ll just focus my comments on plastics. And plastics is an incredibly noisy space, particularly ocean plastics, with so many people with opinions about this. A lot of those opinions come from pressure groups and they come from non-governmental organizations who adopt a campaigning stance towards certain issues. And so the numbers they produce, the numbers they propagate, of course, are only the numbers that support the position they hold. So there is a built-in scepticism that's needed about some of the positions and some of the numbers that are associated with that. So, looking at who funds the research would be one way of trying to get underneath that bias, I suppose you'd say. If there is no funder identified, keep away, because that is a risk point, I suppose. And what I would suggest that well, two things actually – one is check multiple sources. I mean, I guess that's obvious to you guys, so perhaps I should not even bother saying that. But the other point is to try and find independent knowledge brokers, who operate within that same ecosystem of knowledge. So, just as a very quick example, at the University of Portsmouth, we are in the process right now of setting up an independent plastics policy knowledge platform where we will undertake analyses of plastics policies that have been put in place by government and by business, and assess their actual effectiveness in that if they are in place already, or their likely effectiveness if they are just being developed right now. And we intend to place ourselves at the heart of this interaction between the private sector, governments, other scientists and citizens, and I would just throw the media into that mix as well, because I kind of think of the media and public as the same in some respects. I know that's not quite right, but in terms of the messaging and in terms of the role that's being played. And so trying to find those independent knowledge brokers that are trustworthy, that don't have a vested interest in a particular outcome, would be one thing to do.
Thom: Thank you, Professor. Professor Porfiri, is there anything that you would add in terms of advice to reporters about getting it right when there is competing information about these potential consequences of climate change and sea level rise?
Maurizio: Absolutely. So, from my point of view, the interest is in the modelling – so doing mathematical modelling and predictions of what is the future to come. So in that sense, I believe the critical question that a journalist shall ask is what are the hypotheses of the model? So sometimes, you may have two models that gives you conflicting answers, but the reason is because they have conflicting hypotheses, and there is neither of them that is better than the other, is simply that they are starting from a different premise, and they would focus on a different aspect of the problem. So, in that sense, when one is making a prediction and communicating to the public regarding a specific projection of something to come, then it would be wiser to present also general hypotheses that are underlying the model. So, for example, in our case, there are a variety of hypotheses upon which we predict the scenario – should some action be taken, let them be, for example, allocating additional resources to coastal regions or introducing incentives for people to relocate in other regions of the country, the prediction will change completely? So, framing the model prediction, starting from the hypotheses, it can also provide a more comprehensive picture on which people can rely and can make decisions upon, and they have a better judgment, and be better informed.
Thom: Thank you, Professor Porfiri. We have time enough for just a few more questions, if any of you in the audience have a question for one of our panellists, please do let me know and chat that to me. One follow-up for Professor Fletcher. Professor Fletcher, tell us a little bit about the global policy initiatives that the UN is developing, as well as other proposals that you'd like to see intergovernmental cooperation on these plastic pollution restrictions?
Steve: Excuse me. Thanks, Thom. I started off my comments at the beginning of this session, saying how the policy commitments from governments and businesses were really quite inadequate compared to the scale of the problem. Well, it's not just me that knows that, it is recognized across governments and across UN and other intergovernmental institutions like the European Union and other regional, economic and social and environmental groupings. And so there is a lot of pressure on the international system to increase the ambition and scale and impact of policies to reduce plastics entering the ocean. So there is just one that I think is a real potential game changer that it's important to mention now – there is increasing likelihood that at the next UN environment assembly, this is a bit like the UN General Assembly but for Environment Ministers, so it’s the UN assembly for environmental stuff essentially, which will take place early in 2022, that at that meeting, there will be a proposal put on the table for a global Treaty on plastics. And that will begin to set standards like those I mentioned, with respect to things like including the external costs, recognizing the negative costs associated with the production and use of plastic, about minimum recycled content, about trade in plastics, about how to deal with plastics waste, about setting targets to connect households to plastic waste; well, waste collection processes including plastic, and really also about the transition to a more circular economy so we reduce plastic waste that's generated in the first place. It looks likely that this will happen – around about 80 countries so far have signed up to the proposal for this global Treaty. And so it's hard to see how that won't really come to pass as it is some of the more influential countries in that UN environmental system and some of the big blocks of countries as well, like again, the European Union is really pushing on this policy agenda. And final comments at this time that, I mean, if this comes through successfully as it's currently being talked about, it is likely to create a total step change in how we manage plastics and how we reduce plastics entering the ocean. What I would say, however, is that – that's if it works – we know from tens of other global agreements on environmental issues that these treaties don't always work. So it's a case of applying pressure now to make sure the institutions are there, the incentives are there, and the policies are strong, and the resources are there financially, to make these policies work. So there is hope. It's fair to say, Thom, but it's hope that we need to keep the pressure up to make sure it's delivered.
Thom: Indeed. Thank you, Professor Fletcher. That's about all the time we have. For any of the media who have any further questions or would like to follow-up with any of today's panellists, we will be sharing with you a recording and transcript of today's panel, and that will include the information about how to get in touch and follow-up with our panellists and communicators at their universities for help with that. If you registered for today's event, you'll automatically get sent that transcript and video but if you just popped in from an invite link that we may have emailed to you and you want to receive those things, please email us at [email protected], and we'll make sure to send you those materials. With that, I want to draw things to a close here. And thank you very much to Professor Porfiri, Professor Fletcher and Professor Strong – thank you very much to the communicators and each of their home institutions for helping us to coordinate and put this panel together. And thank you to all of you who have attended. This is obviously a very important issue. And the Biden administration has got a lot of initiatives that they are pushing forward, and re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement and things like that that are moving forward. And we hope that with some of the insights that our panellists have shared today, that will help for the media to report on these issues, as we hopefully get a handle on it. We are running out of time, so let's hope that we can make some positive change. Thank you very much, panellists. Thank you to everyone for joining. Stay safe, stay healthy and good luck.