What if the world wakes up to the threat of marine chemical pollution? - An imagined scenario from 2045

How Asia’s approach to marine chemical pollution restored the region’s seas to health – while some other parts of the world have struggled. An imagined scenario from 2045, grounded in historical fact, current speculation and real science.

Introduction and summary

The overall aim of this report, which is written by Economist Impact, for the Back to Blue initiative of Economist Impact and The Nippon Foundation, is to bring the issue of marine chemical pollution to a wider audience, one that includes policymakers, governments, the chemicals industry itself, the broader business community, the finance sector, civil society and consumers.

Chemical pollution—of land, air, rivers, watersheds—has been a festering issue for decades, occasionally prompting resolute action. But only recently has the scale of chemical pollution become more apparent. Chemicals in the form of nutrients, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, sewage and many others are being uncovered almost everywhere—in soils, aquifers, food chains, remote ecosystems such as the Antarctic, in the highest and lowest places on Earth, and in humans. As evidence accumulates of its impact on nature and human health, there is a gathering consensus that chemical pollution is a first-order global threat, alongside climate change and biodiversity loss, and often compounding the impacts of these other issues.

The ocean is fundamentally important to all life on Earth. It covers 70% of the planet’s surface and comprises 99% of its habitable space.1 It is therefore remarkable that there has not yet been a serious scientific assessment at scale of marine chemical pollution and its impact on life in the ocean, marine biodiversity and how ocean ecosystems function, and ultimately on the ocean’s overall health. This report seeks to set out clearly what is known about its impact and where our knowledge gaps sit, prompting the urgent need for more research.

We would like to offer particular thanks to the following people (listed alphabetically by institution) who are either quoted in this report or joined our expert panel

  • Paul Westerhof, Regents professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and The Built Environment, Arizona State University
  • Eugenie Mathieu, senior ESG analys, Aviva Investor
  • Griffins Ochieng, executive director, Centre for Environment Justice and Development, Kenya
  • Debra Tan, director and head, China Water Risk
  • Kenneth Leung, chair professor of environmental toxicology and chemistry, director of State Key Laboratory of Marine Pollution, City University of Hong Kong
  • Richard Haldiman, head of sustainability, Clariant
  • Marianne Krasny, director, Civic Ecology Lab, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University
  • Catherine Louise Kling, Tisch University professor, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Faculty Director, Cornell Atkinson Center
  • Vanessa Hatje, professor, Instituto de Química & Centro Interdisciplinar de Energia e Ambiente, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil
  • Nicola Cutcher, freelance journalist; member, Friends of the Upper Wye
  • Torsten Thiele, founder, Global Ocean Trust
  • Valeria Ramundo Orlando, co-founder, Greensquare Ventures
  • Elsie Sunderland, Gordon McKay professor of environmental chemistry, Harvard University
  • Aleke Stöfen-O’Brien, associate research officer, WMU-Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute, IMO-World Maritime University
  • Anne-Sofie Bäckar, executive director, International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec)
  • Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior adviser, International Pollutants Elimination Network
  • Noriyuki Suzuki, fellow, Planning Division and Health and Environmental Risk Division, Japan National Institute for Environment
  • Dune Ives, CEO, Lonely Whale
  • Sarah Dunlop, director, Plastics and Human Health, Minderoo Foundation
  • Tiago Pitta e Cunha, CEO, Oceano Azul Foundation
  • Ivan Haščič, senior economist, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  • Clair Jolly, head of unit, directorate for science, technology and innovation, OECD
  • Alex Rogers, director of science, REV Ocean
  • Richard Page, co-ordinator, RISE UP Blue Call to Action
  • Frank Michel, executive director, Roadmap to Zero
  • Linda Amaral-Zettler, research leader, Department of Microbiology & Biogeochemistry, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
  • Leonardo Bonanni, founder and CEO, Sourcemap
  • Richard Damania, chief economist, Sustainable Development Practice Group, World Bank
  • Zhanyun Wang, scientist, Environmental Risk Assessment and Management Group (ERAM), Technology & Society Laboratory, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA)
  • Aileen Lucero, national coordinator, The Ecowaste Coalition, the Philippines
  • Tessa Goverse, Chemicals, Waste and Air Quality Programme coordinator, UNEP
  • Kevin Helps, head, GEF Unit, Chemicals and Health Branch, Economy Division, UNEP
  • Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, global co-ordinator for chemicals and pollution, UNEP
  • Eric Usher, head, UNEP Finance Initiative
  • Dennis Fritch, head, Sustainable Blue Economy Finance, UNEP Finance Initiative
  • Matt Jones, head, nature economy, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre
  • Stacey Baggaley, senior programme officer for nature economy, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre
  • Erik Giercksky, head, Ocean Stewardship Coalition, UN Global Compact
  • Linda Amaral-Zettler, research leader, Department of Microbiology & Biogeochemistry, University of Amsterdam
  • Saleem Ali, chair, Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences, University of Delaware. Member of the Global Environment Facility’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel
  • Joel Tickner, executive director, Green Chemistry & Commerce Council; Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell
  • Remi Parmentier, founding director, Varda Group
  • Frédéric Madelin, head of liquid and hazardous waste, Veolia
  • Guy Bailey, head of intermediates and applications, Wood Mackenzie
  • Marcel van den Noort, senior director, chemical industry, World Business Council on Sustainable Development
  • Alix Grabowski, director for plastic & material science, World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
  • Frank M Michel, executive director, ZDHC Foundation
  • Peter Kershaw, independent consultant
  • Craig Halgreen, independent consultant

1. Ocean chemical pollutants of major concern

This section outlines the key chemicals and chemical groups of greatest concern when it comes to marine chemical pollution, looking at the known causes and impacts of each group.

2. Sources of marine chemical pollution

This section seeks to map accountability for marine chemical pollution across the chemicals lifecycle, from those involved in the pre-production phase – including extractors of the fossil fuels, minerals and metals that are used to manufacture industrial chemicals – to those who make and use chemicals, and the public- and private-sector operators that manage the end-of-life waste process.

3. Towards an anthropogenic crisis?

While some marine chemical pollution is wholly independent of human activity (natural emissions of some heavy metals, for example, some nitrogen and radioactive materials emissions, and the significant release of minerals and gases from undersea volcanoes), its rapid growth in recent decades is due to humans. In other words, the source of this growth is anthropogenic, with most occurring in the past century or so. This chapter will look at marine chemical pollution in this broader context to explain why the need to act has become urgent, and why doing so will prove crucial both to the health of the ocean and to that of the planet itself.

4. Measuring the impact and risks of marine chemical pollution

This chapter sets out the evidence – to the extent that this can be established – of the impact of marine chemical pollution on the ocean environment and on human health. Determining a baseline for these costs is an urgent need, as this would allow a series of recommended interventions and actions to be modelled according to their estimated future benefits. It concludes with an in-depth case study on the impact that marine chemical pollution has had on the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

5. Regulations

This chapter looks at regulatory and policy solutions to prevent marine chemical pollution, as well as ways to mitigate and resolve it. To that end, it outlines key aspects of international, supranational and national regulation, explains the current state of play – including explaining why the EU is the global leader – lists key barriers to progress, and details a number of crucial interventions needed on the regulatory and policy sides.

6. Industry

This chapter looks at the role of the chemicals industry in marine chemical pollution, assesses the steps it and its clients need to take, and looks at the risks it faces should it not act. It also examines pathways to progress (including green chemistry), assesses barriers to change, and concludes with a roadmap for industry-led action.

7. Finance

This chapter looks at the role that finance can play in tackling marine chemical pollution, and assesses the steps that financiers and their clients need to take – not least given the increasing prominence of ESG considerations, and the shift within ESG from solely green factors to blue factors. It also examines the need for better information and data to help investors in their decision-making, and the risks and rewards of a chemicals industry in transition, and assesses how that transition can be funded.

8. Consumers and civil society

This chapter examines the roles that civil society and consumers can play in curbing marine chemical pollution. It argues that, although public awareness of this issue is relatively low, previous successes by civil society groups map a way forward. This includes using visual, science-based storytelling to counter apathy, along with realistic, achievable solutions that people can implement in their daily lives.

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