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Home » Dr Nathalie Hilmi – “We Need To Protect, Restore and Regenerate the Ocean Ecosystem”

Dr Nathalie Hilmi – “We Need To Protect, Restore and Regenerate the Ocean Ecosystem”

Nick Breeze

Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

In this ClimateGenn episode, I am speaking with Dr Nathalie Hilmi at the Centre Scientifique in Monaco about the need to invest in research, restoration and regeneration of the world’s oceans.

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By protecting and restoring ocean ecosystems we can start to create resilience in an area we know is in decline but yet know so little about.

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We have much of the technology and we have the intelligence but we still lack the political will and the investment to protect the world’s fast-declining marine ecosystems that our lives are codependent up on.

In the next pre-COP episode I am also speaking with Professor Jason Box to highlight his new work around the Zombie ice on Greenlands ice sheet that is already committed to rising global sea levels this century and is not included in any of the climate models that we depend on for policymaking.

I’ll be catching up with both Nathalie and Jason among many others during week 2 at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh. This is being dubbed the African COP to draw attention to the world’s most vulnerable societies in the global south. 

We are striving too for a global loss and damage fund that even you and I may be in need of, in the rapidly advancing onset of extreme climate impacts.

Thanks for listening. You can support my work via Patreon. Please do subscribe and leave feedback on any of the channels where you listen or watch this content.

Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Nick Breeze, Dr Nathalie Hilmi

Nick Breeze  

Natalie, the heat waves in 2022 have largely drawn attention to the atmospheric and land surface temperatures, the sea surface temperatures in places like the Mediterranean have been very high too. Can you tell us what impact this has had on heated areas?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, in fact, climate change is everywhere and the Mediterranean is a hotspot of biodiversity. So the impact of the heat waves has been devastating in the Mediterranean. And many ecosystems have been threatened by the heat waves. If we consider that the heat waves into the Mediterranean is affecting, for example, corals and seagrass and other crustaceans, this it’s very difficult to understand, and the impact will be very, very high.

Nick Breeze  

These anomalies this year have been very high. If that continues, what will be the impact on this region?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

It will happen like in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching. So if heat waves became the norm in the Mediterranean, we can imagine that many ecosystems will be impacted.

Nick Breeze  

Okay, how resilient are marine ecosystems to this kind of warming?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

In fact, the heat waves are causing massive mortality of ecosystems and the resiliency of those ecosystems is not proven. So what is happening now is some of them will disappear, and some of them will increase, like algal bloom. This is very bad for the Mediterranean ecosystem.

Nick Breeze  

As the atmospheric temperatures rise, is there a threshold, do you think, that we might see an accelerated and expanded ecosystem collapse?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

In fact, the frequency, intensity, and incidence of the heat waves will determine the risk the consequences. 

Nick Breeze  

We’re hearing a lot about blue carbon with regard to ocean regeneration, and protection. Can you give us a brief definition of what we mean by blue carbon?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, Blue Carbon is carbon captured by the vegetated coastal ecosystems like salt marshes, seagrass, and mangroves, but also what is sequestered in the open ocean, from the surface to the deep sea?

Nick Breeze  

Are we doing enough at the moment in terms of building resilience and conservation of existing marine ecosystems?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Obviously, not. What is really missing is a political will. And the sense of urgency. And this is really missing, we have the valuation, and we know that low carbon is important. We have the regulation, everything is here, and we have the technology, what is missing is a real sense of urgency. It is urgent to do something,

Nick Breeze  

Given the oceans cover 70% of the planet, and these are complex, largely undiscovered territory, from your experience, what should we do next in terms of our efforts to protect the oceans,

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

we need to finance, you know if we can have marine protected areas. But if we don’t have the finance, there is something missing. To have the finance, we have article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which has been ratified in Glasgow at the last COP26. And now what is missing is the real will, the political will to do something.

Nick Breeze  

Let’s say we protect large parts of the ocean, even if we do that, and the actual climate is changing, then we still have changes going on within those ecosystems. Are you saying that we need to be able to understand more about what’s going on before we can start trying to protect them further?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

The deep sea is not well known. We know that carbon is sequestered in the deep sea. If we go and explore and extract the minerals, and the fossil fuel, which is in the deep sea, we are disturbing those ecosystems and we don’t know what is happening. So we need more science to take the decision.

Nick Breeze  

So extracting from the deep sea is stupid. My word, not yours. But if we actually research this, and we know that this is a massive store of carbon, do you think that there’s a huge role for the oceans to play in actually bringing down atmospheric concentrations from where they are at the moment?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, what we know is ocean already moderates global warming by absorbing 93% of the excess heat and 26% of the excess co2 from the atmosphere. And this is more sequestered in the deep sea. We need to know what is going on before going and exploring what is in the deep sea.

Nick Breeze  

You’re going to be at COP27. Do you feel energised and hopeful when you have been at COP26 and you see these things are emerging? Do you see progress being made?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yeah, the progress is here. What is interesting is that COP27 is in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, which is a developing country. So you know that one important concept is climate justice. And we need now to develop financial tools to have the money coming from developed countries to the developing world, to help them to adapt and to mitigate climate change.

Nick Breeze  

So this is a massive issue, and I know this is going to be prevalent at COP27, this climate justice issue, are you saying that we need specific funds going into ocean research and protection?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, maybe we need to create a sovereign wealth fund to protect the ocean. And this fund will serve to protect, restore and regenerate the ocean ecosystems?

Nick Breeze  

And is that something that’s being talked about here at this research centre?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

This is a new idea that we are trying to promote at this centre.

Nick Breeze  

And where is it at the moment? Have you got a plan? Are there any funds in there at the moment?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

For the moment, it’s still a research idea that we are trying to push into the politics.

Nick Breeze  

Is this something you’ll be doing at COP 27?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, I will be there on the Science Pavilion with IPCC and the Marine Foundation, and I hope we can propose something acceptable.

Nick Breeze  

Do you think there is a case for creating blue carbon markets and that these could be accurately accounted for in terms of whether land carbon is susceptible to burning or collapse or whatever?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

We have the evaluation. We can already know how much the mangroves, for example, are sequestering. We can put a monetary value on it. So it can go to the markets. The markets are here and the regulation is here because the mangroves are on the land. We know they are owned by different islands, different coastal governments, etc. So this is really possible. Now what we need is that the government decide to push this idea and to develop some blue carbon markets.

Nick Breeze  

Is that something that’s being done through the UN or through another body?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

It can be done by other bodies. The private sector is very important here too. The financial markets and the companies, not only the UN or the governments, everybody should be involved. Even you and I, can go and invest in those funds.

Nick Breeze  

I’m just trying to think of the mechanism for getting it started when you’re working across borders. It sounds quite complicated.

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

What we need is collaboration at national and regional international levels. This is something lacking.

Nick Breeze  

And it’s a collaboration between which partners are saying public-private sector?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, exactly. A partnership of private and public sectors.

Nick Breeze  

Okay, we’re seeing a rapid uptick in concurrent and consecutive climate impacts around the world in the marine blue carbon space. Can you outline your top priorities that would help us sustain healthy marine ecosystems and hopefully stimulate them as carbon sinks?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, we know from the last IPCC Special Report, the special report on the ocean and the cryosphere, that over the past 200 years, the ocean has taken up 500 Gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere out of 1300 of the total CO2 anthropogenic emissions. This is very important. So we know that the ocean is very important. So marine ecosystems are very important. Now, my objective is to prove that they have a monetary value. And this is why when we consider ecosystem services, we tell the policymakers that those ecosystems have value, and we can protect them, and the regeneration of those ecosystems will help us to protect our climate.

Nick Breeze  

So you see this as a sort of paradigm that we’re moving into but we’re not moving fast enough, obviously. And once we do get into it, it’ll become a part of the economy?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, there is really a paradigm shift, we have to protect nature and nature, we protect us. So this is something very important, we cannot consider the economy without nature. So this is something now understood. And we have to transform our way of thinking. If we, as citizens, already transform, I think we can push the policymakers to transform that vision too.

Nick Breeze  

You said that out of 1.3 trillion tonnes of emissions, the oceans have requested 500 billion tonnes, and how stable are these carbon sinks? Are they declining? Are we at risk of overstretching them and breaking them down, or are they quite resilient, and we’ve still got a long way to go?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

So the difference with a forest, is when this carbon is sequestered in the ocean, it’s for millennia. In the forest, it’s for hundreds of years. So in the ocean is more stable, but we have to protect those ecosystems.

Nick Breeze  

Sequestration is when it’s locked up at the bottom but the ecosystem is the mechanism that does the locking up. And that’s very important for people to understand.

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Exactly if we want to make those ecosystems more resilient, we can also help the local communities and indigenous people, because we can move the money that we have from the carbon markets, and we give them to those people for the living cost. This is very important too.

Nick Breeze  

If we zoom in on one of these kinds of ideas, I know that you’re doing a project with Chile, that involves whales. Is this like one small part of a big Jigsaw of projects? Can you talk a little bit about that and how it works?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, the Marine Foundation, with the Ministry of Environment in Chile, I have a very important project called the blue boat initiative. We have put buoys into the Gulf of Corcovado to protect the whales. So the boats are not going to hit the whales, they know that the whales are here, and they will change their way and navigate differently.

Nick Breeze  

Can you tell us a little bit about the ecosystem services that corals provide? Because you have a fantastic research laboratory here with corals?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, the Monaco Research Center is working on the corals and the coral reefs. I am studying their ecosystem services. For example, corals are very important for the fisheries. And this is important, as you know, for food security. And also, thanks to the corals, tourists come to the country, they have their monetary currencies, and it is very useful for those countries. Then it is also important for coastal protection because when you have the corals, the coral reefs, they protect from the waves from the wind, etc. And so corals are protected from the erosion.

Nick Breeze  

We hear a lot about the Great Barrier Reef and you mentioned it earlier, and it’s kind of become emblematic of a dying reef. How significant is this? I know as a global symbol is very significant, but is it really dying? Can it be saved? Is there lessons to be learned?

Dr Nathalie Hilmi  

Yes, we can still do something for the coral reefs, they are dying. This is a fact because of global warming and because of ocean acidification. We know that the coral are bleaching and some of them are dying already. But we can still do something. We know there are some species that are more resilient. So we can work with those species and plant them but what we need is a healthy environment to have those corals growing.

Nick Breeze  

Well, it’s been fantastic to speak to you. Thank you very much and no doubt we will speak to you again COP27.

Thank you.

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