Ocean currents can carry toxins, impacting regions far from where dumping occurs.
Regulations have evolved to prevent marine pollution from waste dumping, but governments still struggle to dispose of nuclear wastes and captured carbon and CO2 without polluting the ocean.
The 1996 protocol to the London Convention applies the precautionary approach, meaning action to prevent harm must be taken even when there is a lack of conclusive scientific evidence regarding environmental risks.
If waste is dumped far enough from land it cannot cause harm, it was believed for hundreds of years. This led to people using the ocean as a dumping ground for millions of tonnes of waste each year until the 1970s. As explained in the latest ‘Still Only One Earth’ policy brief from IISD, regulations have evolved to prevent such pollution, but governments still struggle to dispose of nuclear wastes and captured carbon and CO2 without polluting the ocean.
Author Leila Mead notes that ocean currents can carry toxins, impacting regions far from where dumping occurs. Accumulation of toxic materials and other waste in the ocean can damage and destroy habitats and ecosystems, marine and human health, and livelihoods and economies. Moreover, changing the chemistry of the ocean “closes the book” on priceless knowledge held by the ocean that is vital for humans’ future, according to marine scientist Sylvia Earle.
Balancing climate mitigation with protection of the marine environment remains a challenge.
In 1972, countries attending the Stockholm Conference discussed ocean dumping and considered a treaty. Shortly thereafter, governments adopted the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, one of the first global treaties aimed at protecting the marine environment from human activities. The Convention banned the dumping of high-level radioactive waste, and in 1993 an amendment all nuclear waste from being dumped at sea.
In 1996, the London Convention was updated further with a Protocol that: covers the disposal of wastes from land-based mining operations; bans the burning of waste at sea; and promotes support for developing countries to help them properly dispose of waste and enforce regulations. The 1996 update also applies the precautionary approach. This means that action to prevent harm must be taken even when there is a lack of conclusive scientific evidence regarding environmental risks.
These and other regulations have not eliminated the threat of disastrous ocean dumping. In 2020, a ship leaking oil was deliberately sunk off the coast of Mauritius. It was the Indian Ocean’s biggest ecological disaster, harming to ecosystems and people who depend on tourism and fishing for their livelihoods.
Presently, the Government of Japan is planning to dump 1.25 million tonnes of contaminated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean as storage space at the plant runs out. Dumping could begin in early 2023 and take decades to complete. Local fishers say dumping the wastewater will devastate their livelihoods and industry. The Republic of Korea, Chile, and China have all expressed concern, with the Republic of Korea asking Japan to “immediately halt” its plan to release radioactive water into the sea, and China urging Japan to revoke its “highly irresponsible unilateral decision.” The US, meanwhile, believes the planned release is in line with global standards.
In the context of accelerating climate change, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies have been debated as an option for reducing net CO2 emissions, despite their potential to harm the marine environment. The IPCC considers them a short-term option. The protocol to the London Convention currently allows some CCS to be deposited under the seabed. The German government’s scientific Advisory Council on Global Change and the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection have noted that risks to ecosystems and the marine environment cannot be fully assessed, invoking the precautionary approach. As Mead notes, balancing climate mitigation with protection of the marine environment remains a challenge.
The brief concludes that “banning ocean dumping is, unfortunately, not enough to eliminate it,” as countries’ application of international and regional regulations is uneven. More effective governance of ocean dumping will require broader participation in and implementation of these agreements. Such governance is also bolstered by advocacy, activism, international pressure, and media campaigns that spotlight the impacts of dumping on the marine environment. Countries that dump with impunity will be called out, and this can move governments to action.
The ‘Still Only One Earth’ series is being published by IISD in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm+50). The briefs assess successes and shortcomings of five decades of global environmental policy. [Publication: The Ocean Is Not a Dumping Ground: Fifty Years of Regulating Ocean Dumping] [Still Only One Earth policy brief series]