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Catastrophic consequences for oceans when climate change and plastic pollution crises combine

Christian Fernsby |
ZSL (Zoological Society London) and Bangor University have revealed fundamental links between the global climate crisis and plastic pollution, including extreme weather worsening the distribution of microplastics into pristine and remote areas.

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The ocean, its ecosystems and species are commonly the focus of plastic pollution research or climate change research; however, the compounding impact of how they act together is often overlooked.

In a paper published in Science of the Total Environment, an interdisciplinary team of scientists have for the first time, collated evidence that the global issues of marine plastic pollution and climate change exacerbate one another, creating a dangerous cycle, and are urging governments and policy makers to tackle the two issues in unison.

The team identified three significant ways that the climate crisis and plastic pollution, a significant driver of marine biodiversity loss, are connected, with the first being how plastic contributes to global greenhouse gases (GHGs) throughout its life cycle, from production through to disposal.

The second demonstrates how extreme weather, like floods and typhoons associated with climate change will disperse and worsen plastic pollution. With plastic pollution and the effects of climate change being major issues for our ocean, seas, and rivers, the third point examines the marine species and ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable to both.

Plastic pollution is having a devastating impact on marine biodiversity from individual animals mistakenly ingesting plastic bags to entire habitats polluted with microplastics. Mainly sourced from fossil fuels, and with global demand set to rise, the production of plastic is predicted to emit more than 56 billion Mt of carbon dioxide in GHGs between 2015 to 2020, which is 10–13% of the entire remaining carbon budget.

Climate change is already causing more extreme weather events including storms and flooding which increases the dispersal of mismanaged waste between land and sea. In addition, sea ice is a major trap for microplastics which will be released into the ocean as the ice melts due to warming.

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