Mediterranean in crisis warns report

Urgent action has been demanded from governments in the Mediterranean region amid fears that the “unsustainable pursuit of economic growth”, has left the region’s environment in crisis.

A report issued today by Plan Bleu, spells out eight core challenges for the region and urges governments to take steps to halt the slide into environmental disaster.

Despite representing less than 1% of the world’s ocean surface, the Mediterranean Sea is home to up to 18% of the planet’s marine species.

“The decline of Posidonia Oceanica (an endemic seagrass species known as the ‘lungs of the Mediterranean’), overfishing, non-indigenous species are among the symptoms of environmental degradation,” warns Plan Blu. “Marine and coastal ecosystems are reeling under pressure from the unsustainable pursuit of economic growth. This pressure is illustrated by the challenges of marine litter and pollution and further compounded by the rising impacts of climate change.”

The United Nations Environment Programme Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP) report, State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean, (SoED) provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of the environment and development in the region.

The report added that the issues the region faced have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This report comes at a historical turning point for the region and the world. In the first half of 2020, COVID-19 has spiralled into a pandemic, compounding a set of intersecting crises already affecting the Mediterranean region,” it explained. “The pandemic is taking a hefty toll through loss of life, human suffering and massive economic disruptions in the region, with much of its medium- and long-term impacts yet to be fully apprehended.

“As we launch the SoED and in response to the socio-economic crisis caused by COVID-19, Mediterranean countries are in the process of introducing policies, measures and stimulus packages to support recovery. Millions of jobs are on the line and according to initial estimates, the crisis has knocked several percentage points off national income. There is no silver lining to be found in the COVID-19 pandemic, but we believe that our region must seize a historic opportunity to recover in a smart, evidence-based green fashion.”

The report said there were eight core challenges:

  1. Climate change affects the Mediterranean significantly more than the world average, particularly with warmer air and sea surface temperatures all year round. While the average air temperature is worldwide about 1.1°C higher than pre-industrial times, the Mediterranean temperatures are above to 1.5°C higher. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) further expects temperature increases in the region of 2 to 3°C by 2050, and 3 to 5°C by 2100.
  2. Population densities in coastal areas have continued to increase at unsustainable rates over the last decade. Over 1965- 2015, urban pressures increased in 75% of Mediterranean countries; particularly, built areas doubled or more than doubled within one kilometre from the sea. Consequently, biodiversity and especially natural coastal ecosystems and their services (e.g. carbon capture, flood control) decreased in contradiction with the Barcelona Convention Integrated Coastal Zone Management Protocol. Urbanization also resulted in the loss of agricultural land.
  3. Health impacts from atmospheric pollution are most severe in urban and port areas, with pollution measured well beyond WHO recommended standards. The low quality of fuels in some countries, emissions from ships, and high shares of aged vehicles in motor vehicle stocks contribute to explain the annual 228,000 early deaths from air pollution in Mediterranean countries.
  4. Health impacts from lack of water supply and wastewater treatment facilities, particularly on the southern and eastern rims of the region, contribute to a range of diseases, undermining population well-being and labour productivity.
  5. Waste and its management remains a challenge in many countries. Around 730 tonnes of plastic waste end up daily in the Mediterranean Sea. Plastic waste represents 95 to 100% of marine floating waste and 50% of litter on sea beds. In tonnage, plastic could outweigh fish stocks in the near future. Many coastal uncontrolled landfill sites are found, particularly on eastern and southern shores.
  6. Fisheries practices threaten fish resources: 78% of assessed stocks are over-fished, while 18% of the catches are discarded. Fisheries represent the number one threat to fish populations in the Mediterranean Sea. Aquaculture is growing fast with high dependency on fish meal from sea catches, large nitrate and phosphorus effluents, as well as genetic modification of natural fish stocks.
  7. Fossil fuels overall dominate energy supply in the Mediterranean region, with heavy environmental and health impacts (e.g. CO2, water acidification, particulate matters). An energy transition is imperative, focusing on energy efficiency and larger shares of renewable sources in the energy mix, in line with international agreements.
  8. Excessive use of chemical and pharmaceutical products generate increasing concerns, particularly in northern Mediterranean countries. Only about 700 out of 70,000 chemical substances on the market have been studied for their risk impacts, with focus on those used with ‘high tonnage’. Endocrine disruptors penetrate the environment directly (e.g. herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) or indirectly (e.g. metabolic degradation of pharmaceuticals through treated wastewater). They have effects on fish and amphibians, as well as on children and human reproductive health.

In response the report was unequivocal in its belief that national governments needed to take the lead.

“Mediterranean countries, individually and collectively, should capture potential economic, social and environmental benefits associated with progress not only in sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, energy, tourism, transport, industry and mining, but also in new sustainable development frontiers through aid, foreign direct investment, international trade and the blue economy,” it stated. “While capturing the related benefits, attention needs to be paid to the negative impacts of emerging and fast-growing sectors on the health of the sea and its coastal areas. Such sectors are strongly influenced in the Mediterranean by world trends and changes.”

To ensure the necessary transition towards a sustainable and inclusive future, the report said governments and enterprises in the Mediterranean region should build on a mix of regulatory and economic instruments, with attention to proper prices, taxes and subsidies.

It needed to tap into technological and social innovations and explore multiple financing sources that target sustainable investments and walk-out on funding of polluting activities: national and international, 2020 public and private, conventional and non-conventional, micro-credit.

“At this point in time, legislative and regulatory shortcomings, difficulties in controlling economic activities and budgetary restrictions explain the gaps between commitments and implementation of public policies in the Mediterranean region,” added the report.