Citizens of Sustainable Seas

  • Climate and sustainability
  • Election 24

Dr Pamela M. Buchan, University of Exeter 

In this piece, Dr Pamela M. Buchan, University of Exeter, discusses three policy ideas that would allow the next UK Government to improve marine sustainability.

The health of the world ocean is crucial not only for a functioning ecosystem but also for human wellbeing. The ocean regulates our climate and atmosphere, provides food, and is the means over which many of our goods are transported. But we are threatening its ability to provide for us by driving long-term ecosystem imbalances through release of effluent and untreated sewage, chemicals and plastics, and by overfishing and ineffective marine habitat management. On top of this, our carbon emissions drive ocean heating and more frequent extreme weather at sea, threatening our safety and security at the coast and reshaping the ocean ecosystem.

What can the next UK government do in the face of these great marine challenges? Here are three key policy ideas that would help drive marine sustainability.

1. Marine experiences for marine sustainability

People are the problem and therefore also the solution. Knowing how to act responsibly towards the sea is important for individual decision-making, but my research shows that that it is positive experiences of the marine environment that really drive people to take action to protect it. Marine citizens are people who participate in the transformation of the relationship humans have with the sea for sustainability. The most active marine citizens have a strong attachment to marine places – thalassophilia – whether they are coastal people or not. They have strong positive feelings about the sea, love and passion for it. And they view the sea as a part of themselves – they have a marine identity. People who really need the sea in order to feel like themselves will have their identities threatened by degradation of the marine environment, and will be moved to take action to restore their sense of self. Often, this action will be marine citizenship.

So it is those first experiences of the marine environment that shape emotions which grow into attachment and eventually perhaps a marine identity. These experiences can be recreational, educational, indirect such as through aquariums or nature documentaries, but they accrue to develop early attachments to the sea. If these attachments are going to be ecologically sustainable, then there is also a need to restore and recover marine habitats, tackling the ‘shifting baselines’ problem by fostering human-ocean connections that are based on more ecologically sustainable marine environments.

The UK Government can support people to develop marine identities that are based upon a healthy and sustainable marine environment, by bringing a strong commitment and delivery of ocean recovery together with improved sustainable access to the marine environment. A national curriculum which introduces experiences of the marine environment, coupled with ocean literacy to equip young people with the knowledge they need to make informed choices, will help set up the next generation of active marine citizens. As well as benefiting the health and sustainability of the world ocean, marine citizenship offers a potential gateway to wider environmental citizenship. Positive marine experiences therefore will help to grow social responsibility towards the natural environment.

2. Social impact assessment

The UK has a long-established process for environmental impact assessment, but formal assessment of social impact is considerably less developed. Strategic assessment of impacts are ultimately driven by the Green Book. Laid out within this guidance are the key metrics that should be assessed for all major developments. Alongside measures of ecological impact and human health, are a set of metrics aimed at measuring socio-economic impacts. These metrics include the use of land value costs as a proxy for social value, impacts to quality of life which are discounted according to age (i.e. the same impact is worth less when it applies to older people), and an assessment of transport according to commuting time (which in effect prioritises the private car).

No wonder then, that social impact assessment is primarily undertaken in relation to socio-economic variables. In non-strategic developments, typically it is job creation, associated education and skills development, and supply chain value (as seen in the offshore wind Contracts for Difference process). Yet research shows us that social impacts are hugely diverse, and the International Principles for Social Impact Assessment recognise impacts on people’s way of life, their culture, community and political systems, their environment and health and wellbeing,  their rights, and their fears and aspirations.

The marine sector is leading the way in researching social impact assessment, with pivotal decision-makers such as Marine Management Organisation and the Crown Estate collaborating with universities to work out how to do this. The government should formally require effective assessment of social impact and mitigation in its decision-making processes, including enhancing the robustness of social impact assessment within the National Planning Policy Framework. This will create a level playing field for the private sector, raising the game for social impact assessment and the UK’s collective ability to tackle the impacts of climate change at the coast.

3. Honour the right to participate in marine decision-making

Through the Aarhus Convention, people in the UK are afforded the right to environmental information, participation in environmental decision-making, and environmental justice. This is more familiar on land, where people routinely have opportunities to get involved in local planning decisions at local government level. But there is no local government below the low water mark, and with offshore marine decision-making often taken by the Secretary of State or Planning Inspectorate, there is limited opportunity for people to have a meaningful say. This problem is compounded by decision-making silos and the enormous complexity of marine legislation.

People have a right to have a say about how the UK uses, develops and protects its territorial waters. For that right to be just, there must be fair processes of identification of who should be invited to contribute, and opportunities to participate should be at an early enough stage in the process for participation to be meaningful. There is a need for procedures that secure a national mandate for strategic marine development and policy, and local mandate for the place-based impacts of such development in order to manage conflicts between these interests. Without meaningful participation in decision-making, talk of a just transition is only rhetoric.

Bringing it all together

Presented here is a suite of policy change that recognises and promotes healthy and sustainable human-ocean relationships, and that fairly considers these relationships in marine decision-making by ensuring effective and meaningful participation.

These changes will deliver a fairer and more just marine decision-making process. They will support the development of the next generation of marine citizens. And they will create governance resilience, ensuring that individuals see decision-making as fair and have ownership of the increasingly challenging coastal decisions the country faces in response to climate change impacts and coastal inequalities.

About the author

Pamela is a marine social scientist and interdisciplinary researcher with a background in marine biology, coastal zone management, public engagement with science, and volunteer management. She has a particular interest in exploring the human-ocean relationship. Pamela is Vice Chair of the Devon & Severn Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority and has sat on a number of boards that work at the interface of the marine environment and the public, across a range of marine and non-marine sectors.

Image credit: Benjamin Elliott, Unsplash