Beyond the Surface: Exploring Ocean Conservation with Craig Leeson

May 9, 2024

Season 4 | Episode 5

In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, host Makhtar Diop takes a deep dive into ocean conservation and environmental storytelling with award-winning filmmaker and global sustainability ambassador, Craig Leeson. Craig shares his journey from exploring the beaches of Tasmania to producing impactful documentaries like 'A Plastic Ocean' and 'The Last Glaciers.' In a conversation that spans film, finance, and the path toward a sustainable future, Makhtar and Craig highlight the urgent need for collective action to protect our planet's precious ecosystems.

Subscribe & Listen



Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative development with IFC. I am Makhtar Diop, the managing director of the International Finance Corporation. Today I'm delighted to host an exceptional guest on my podcast. Craig Leeson, is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist and global sustainability ambassador for the French Bank, BNP Paribas. Craig's work demonstrates the power of storytelling for social and environmental impact. His documentaries, like A Plastic Ocean and The Last Glaciers have received international acclaim for their powerful statement on the impact of climate change. Named Australian of the Year in 2022, Craig is a force for positive change, who leverages the heart of filmmaking to drive important conversation, such as needed to help save our planet. Craig, welcome to Creative Development with IFC.

Craig Leeson: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here..

Makhtar Diop: It's a great to interview today from Portugal. I mean, the seas are important for you, you are in Lisbon close to the sea. You grew up in Tasmania, a beautiful island, and the ocean has been a part of your life. I can understand it because I myself grew up on the seashore and I understand the importance of the ocean. But you have taken it to a level that nobody has taken it in bringing it to an audience at large. So tell us a little bit what started this passion about ocean life and protecting the ocean?

Craig Leeson: Yeah, well, thanks for having me. And it's great to share the knowledge and the awareness. When I grew up on the beach, there were no computer games and television wasn't that much of an option. And so the beach and the ocean was a place to explore a place of wonder, it was a place to play in. And so it became somewhere that I could go to and spend a great deal of time and learn. And I used to spend most of my free time, particularly after school, searching through the rock pools on the beach. And I was completely fascinated by these tiny little ecosystems, these puddles of water that contain so much life, and how these animals were able to live together in symbiosis between the tides. And it made me think even then about the greater ecosystem that we as humans live in. And that was the community that I lived in, which was a beach called Ocean Vista beach, but then the wider sphere, the island, Tasmania and island state of Australia. And then beyond that, on this planet, what are the tools we need to continue survival? So it became very much a passion for me to learn about that. And so surfing, surf, lifesaving diving, all these activities were just part of that process for me.

Makhtar Diop: It's true that for my generation who grew up a bit far from TV, and games, and things like that, outdoor life was so important, but you just didn't only surf, dive and discover the rocks, you did more. From that you became a great filmmaker. You feature in two well-known movies, A Plastic Ocean and The Last Glaciers, and you have taken the ocean depth to the peaks of the highest mountain to uncover the impact of climate change. So when you first heard our oceans and mountains are affected by our environmental damage, how did you come to say, I need to share all this with the public at large?

Craig Leeson: I became a journalist and I found with journalism a voice and that I could actually highlight problems that were impacting local communities and where I grew up, there's a lot of heavy industry. And they were pouring effluent from a pulp and paper mill from a paint pigment plant from a battery acid plant straight into the ocean. Because in those days, we had no real idea about the impact and the ocean was just an endless place that you could put these products and forget about them. That's how it seemed. But for someone who was involved in the ocean and surf lifesaving and surfing, and not just myself, but many others on the coast, we felt the effects. We would go training or surfing and we'd come home with red eyes, and our eyes would be stinging, we would feel sick. So we felt the impact of that. And that was something I wanted to explore. And as a journalist, I was able to open the door to scientific studies on that. And we found that a lot of these compounds that were going into the ocean were causing problems, and were in fact dangerous to humans. And so I published those stories, and it had a national impact. We had journalists from around the country coming down to see what was happening. And that particular story demonstrated to me that I could have an impact if I've concentrated my storytelling in a particular area. And so when I became a foreign correspondent and I worked with television companies all around the world with CNN with the ABC, with Channel 7, the national broadcaster in Australia, I had a real desire to tell a lot of the stories. But I found that with news, you spend a lot of time to create a very small product, a minute and a half. And then it goes into the ethereal. And it's not seen again. So documentary filmmaking attracted me because I realized that I could explore these concepts and these stories in depth, and that they would then become a historical record. And they could be referenced by people for decades. And so I moved into the documentary space and found a lot of personal satisfaction in being able to spend more time telling a greater story that I found had a larger impact. When we made A Plastic Ocean, that was an issue, the single use plastic issue that even I as a surfer and oceans person didn't understand, until I was asked to look at that by scientists that we were having this profound impact. And so it demonstrated to me that if myself as an oceans-based person doesn't understand that some of these products are impacting the environment, then many people who aren't closely associated with the ocean also wouldn't understand that issue. So that's why we went in to make that film, because we thought that the awareness simply wasn't there. And the idea behind A Plastic Ocean was to shed light on single use plastics, on how humans we had become addicted to that product, how they had been very generous to our lifestyle, and helped us solve many problems, medical problems, transporting food from around the world, so that we could eat avocados in Australia from Mexico, for example. But yet, we hadn't properly considered the impact that this product would have. And it took seven years to make A Plastic Ocean because as we traveled the oceans of the world to look at how pervasive plastic was and we found it everywhere. We found it in pristine environments, in sub-Antarctic waters, in South Pacific islands on beaches uninhabited by humans. We realized that this product was getting into the food chain, and therefore if it was in the food chain, and we are consuming it because we're consuming marine products and proteins and fish from the ocean, then what does that mean, in terms of the human health equation? How is it affecting us? So, the film turned from being an oceans-based film into being a human health film, and therefore it took another several years to explore that problem. Because there was very little science about that at the time. And so we actually instigated science to try and help solve some of those questions as we made that film.

Makhtar Diop: It's fantastic. In your journey, you have collaborated a lot with scientists. And after you move to social science, because you say, okay, the science is good, you understand what’s happening in the ocean, but the need now to understand the impact it has on people. So tell us a little bit of various collaborations that you had with scientists first and after with social scientists.

Craig Leeson: Yea. We drew on scientists from all over the world. So, for example, Lindsey Porter was our sanitation expert. And we took Lindsay on several of our trips to see the impact on plastics. For example, off the coast of Sri Lanka on the local blue whale population. We went to the Mediterranean, and we worked with other scientists there on fin whales, and dolphins, and to look at how the plastics and the pollutants that are getting into the ocean were impacting their health. So we're taking skin biopsies from whales and dolphins and one of the scientists was using a crossbow to do that very harmless practice where she'd fire a dart at the animal. It would hit the animal take a small sample of skin, and they're able to analyze that and previously to that, the only way to do that was to actually kill an animal or wait for an animal to die and be close enough to get relevant data from the animal whilst its cells were still alive. And so from that data, we're able to tell the heavy metals that exist within the blubber and the skin of these animals. And we're also able to take scientists to measure the quantities of plastic that were actually in the ocean. So we did manage patrols from the North Pacific gyre, the Indian Ocean gyre, in fact, the five big gyres around the world. In the very first sample that we took in the North Pacific gyre, we found 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. That was the data that we're able to gather from that. And in fact, that initial research expedition was the catalyst for us being able to continue with a documentary because when we realized that there was that much plastic in the oceans, and these are tiny particles that break down as they break up in the ocean, we realized that there must be at least this amount in the other ocean gyres because these gyres are interconnected. And so as they swirl around, they mix and they transfer weather systems, food, fish species, marine species, and of course, plastics. And in fact, that is what we found. As we did man patrols all around the world, we found plastic pervasive, absolutely everywhere. And in fact, I was on another expedition to Antarctica just last year, and we found plastic in every sea that we trolled in off the peninsulas and coastlines of Antarctica. And it's the first time that scientists have found it to that degree. And we also took air samples, because now the microplastics are so light, and these microfibers are so light, they're actually in the air, and they're getting into the air-river systems that travel around the world. And we actually found plastics were in the air over Antarctica. So that means that there is no place now on the planet that we can't escape from plastic, from microplastics, from nano-plastics. And, of course, since we’ve discovered all that the latest science has shown us that in terms of human health, a lot of these tiny particles are now getting inside us we're finding it in the placenta of mothers. We've even found it crossing the blood brain barrier. And so we know that these products are capable of getting inside us. And now what we need to know is exactly what that means in terms of how it's affecting us, our longevity, and how it's affecting young people. All these sorts of things now are scientific questions that need to be answered.

Makhtar Diop: That’s fascinating. It's alarming just the sense of urgency that we need all to have. You spent a lot of time in Asia, and a lot of the plastic, the vast majority of the production of the plastic in the ocean is found in Asia. What did you learn from your experiences there?

Craig Leeson: Well, initially, when you look at it, and you're correct, there is a lot. In the top 20 ocean polluting countries on the planet, the first six come from Asia, and of course, China and Indonesia, and Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, these are countries that contribute through their river systems primarily into the problem that we see in the oceans. But when you look deeper at the problem, and you actually analyze the plastic that we're finding, we realize that these are plastics that are from packaging, and they in fact, come from developed countries. They're coming from the US. They're coming from Europe. They're coming from Australia. So they're not actually being produced in Asia. These are products that we are trading, we're sending these products that we're trading to Asia, wrapped in plastic packaging, and we're sending it to countries that don't have the infrastructure to be able to deal with plastic. That is to be able to recycle or collect or somehow dispose of this product. And so it's very unfair to blame these countries for the problem that exists there. They're merely trading as they're required to do under a lot of the agreements that exist between these countries. It's just that developed countries haven't provided them with the infrastructure to deal with that problem. And so that's why I strongly recommend banning the product, banning single use plastics because we can't recycle our way out of this. Recycling has never worked. Recycling was an idea that was actually formulated by the plastics manufacturing industry to shift the idea of blame to the consumer so that manufacturing could continue. Now, there are countries that have tried to address this. And we show in a plastic ocean how Germany legislated in 1991, to make manufacturers responsible for the products they produce, including packaging, and what that has allowed for is a circular economy to be developed in Germany and now in other countries in Europe, where these plastics are put back into the system. They're collected by quasi government organizations that are funded by levies and taxes that are placed on companies that produce plastic packaging, and it's collected and then put back into the system. And new plastics are created from that. So they've monetized it. And that means that they're now able to collect and recycle up and beyond more than 40% of plastics 50-60% in some cases. Whereas countries like Australia, and the US are still only recycling 7% to 9% of this product. And that's just not good enough. So, we're not doing enough. We will never be able to do enough. So we need to ban the product and redesign our way out of this problem.

Makhtar Diop: You’ve been working with a lot of scientists, and I know that a lot of startups are working on alternatives to plastic using plant based packaging or other types of packaging, any breakthrough that you see on your side as being promising from the technology standpoint.

Craig Leeson: Absolutely. We just had the Ocean Summit here in Lisbon, a Global Summit hosted by The Economist. And at that summit, there were many companies that are coming with alternatives and many of the scientists I talked to say they believe one of the biggest solutions is design. We designed a plastic packaging. We designed single use plastic products. We can design other products that do the same job and design our way out of this problem. And to that degree, there were interestingly four or five seaweed companies that were there demonstrating products that look like plastic feel like plastic are, in fact plastic because they're polymers made from seaweed, and algae. And they're able to produce products that mimic cling wrap made from hydrocarbon-based plastics. Even the plastic coating that's on the inside of paper, coffee cups and food containers, they're now able to replace with this seaweed product. So there are products out there, and it's not just seaweed, it's now cassava, it can be other carbon-based products that can be even slotted into the production stream now, so that we don't have to even redesign the infrastructure to make these products. So there is the design there. We need the capital investment to help these companies and these entrepreneurs, further develop their products, engage in further research to bring them to market so that everybody can benefit from them. And then we can leave the hydrocarbon-based products behind.

Makhtar Diop: That brings us to finance because you are working with BNP Paribas as a sustainability partner. For full disclosure, BNP Paribas is one of our strongest clients and we are working with them also on sustainability and environment. So we have something in common in the financial space. And one of the things that we're trying to do is to develop what we call the “Blue Bonds.” And we have been developing it and working so closely with UNEP, Inga, we just released a report on “Blue Economy” and “Blue Bonds.” And we are trying to standardize them to make sure that when people are issuing bonds, which are called blue bonds, they meet a certain number of criteria so there is no washing there. So that's one of the important areas that we are working on, on taxonomy to make sure that we are able to mobilize finance, but finance for the right thing and the good thing. So tell us a little bit about your work and the financial solutions that you are seeing when you are working with BNP Paribas.

Craig Leeson: Yes, I realized very quickly that finance is one of the big solutions. I mean, ultimately, the number one solution is we've got to change the economic model that we have, because we can't continue drawing infinite resources from a planet with finite resources. So we have to rethink that and rethink the financial paradigms that we operate under. And BNP Paribas has engaged in that. And they have been looking at changing their policy in terms of the way they deal with investment in coal, oil and gas, for example, in single use plastics and all these other products. And so that interested me very much so because we need to bring these industries to the table to discuss how we move towards the transition. And there's no doubt that we need to move to the transition or that we already are. In fact, we're moving there very, very quickly. And so as I work with BNP Paribas, I was able to understand how the financial industry works and how we can use the access that we have to corporate leaders, executives, to government leaders, executives, to investors, to people with capital and how we can share the knowledge, share the awareness, and then help people towards the transition so that we can bring capital into these areas. And we need coordination across all sectors. That includes nature, we need to recognize nature as being a primary stakeholder in everything we do. Because without nature and the life support systems that are provided by all species on the planet, we don't have access to these resources because they're not produced. We need to coordinate policy and capital and the commercialization of the low carbon economy provides, I think, a catalyst for emerging markets. And so there is an opportunity there to support young entrepreneurs to support new businesses, as these emerging markets reveal themselves and take place. As you're aware, the blue economy is the seventh largest economy on the planet. It's massive, we need to protect it. But currently, I think the UN's figures demonstrate that in order to sustain the Sustainable Development Goal number 14, which is life under water, we need about $175 billion a year. Currently, there's only between 10 and $25 billion a year being injected into that economy and into that resource. And so I think what we need to see going forward is more money, more capital being provided for that blue economy. And at this present point SDG Number 14 is probably the most underdeveloped of the Sustainable Development Goals. So I personally would like to see and would encourage more investment and more capital being directed into that area. And as you mentioned, with the bonds that are now available, and the blended finance, they are the investment possibilities there and I think that as they reveal themselves, they're going to become more blue lucrative as we head into this territory, and as we move towards the transition.

Makhtar Diop: That's why we are focusing on energy now on developing products which are responding to the needs, but the ocean economy will grow. Because now we're talking more and more about mining. A lot of the rare metals which are needed for the digital transition and so forth are located in the sea. So you're having more and more conversation about regulating and trying to ensure that it's done the proper way? What is your take on that?

Craig Leeson: Yes, that's concerning for me. Anytime that we look at pulling a resource out without understanding the science behind what we're doing, sets off alarm bells. There's a couple of things about deep sea mining that provide difficulties for all of us. Firstly, these nodules, and these are living rocks that we're looking at accessing, they sit at the bottom of the ocean, sometimes four kilometers below the ocean surface. They're a long way down. The technology hasn't been tested at that depth. We are only just starting to discover the life that lives at these very depths because the bottom of the ocean is largely unexplored. And what we're finding is that the emerging life is critical to what happens with the rest of the ocean. As soon as we start disrupting that seabed. We're disrupting other potential benefits that these animals could provide us these could be medicines, there's carbon sinks that lay in the sediment there that we're going to be disturbing. We really do not understand the impact that mining at that depth will have other than if we compare it to what the impact of mining has on the land. And when we look at the impact on the land, we're looking at forests and ecosystems that we actually do understand. We don't have that science with the bottom of the ocean. So I have grave concerns about going ahead and allowing that to happen until we have the data. And there are 36 nations that agree with that point that have said that we shouldn't start mining until we have that data. And many of them say we just shouldn't be disturbing the bottom of the ocean floor at all. You're right, we do need these rare earth minerals if we are going to continue, particularly with renewable technology. So it's very difficult for us to juggle the needs that we have at the moment. But once again, I think we need to look at how we can design our way out of this, how we can improve technology so that we can be able to achieve what we need to without these rare earth metals and to see what can be implemented there. Because if you look at the treaty that's currently underway, the high seas treaty, we're looking at 30 by 30, which is protecting 30% of the oceans by 2030. In order to do that, we need to start to take what we do to the oceans very seriously and that includes deep sea mining. It includes the pollution that we dump into our river systems that we're allowing to the oceans. It includes particularly international industrialized fishing, and these are critical issues now for the oceans. And therefore for us.

Makhtar Diop: I wanted to have your view on that, because it's a topic before us. And it's not something that will happen in the future. But it's happening, it's important that we have a conversation about it, as you are rightly indicating the consequences can be quite serious. And we need to really offer science and I really like your approach to rely on data, on science before making something which might have a long term impact on future generations. But let's come now to something that you're doing. You have your media company, and you are supporting short films and documentaries. How did you arrive at creating this company? Tell us a bit more about this initiative in Hong Kong that you launched?

Craig Leeson: Yes, storytelling is incredibly powerful. And we've witnessed that through the films that we've made with A Plastic Ocean, it changed the policy of many governments. In fact, Prime Minister of Australia back in 2022, Scott Morrison told me that that film had actually changed policy in the government and was why Australia was moving to ban single use plastics by 2025. Likewise, with the former Chilean Environment Minister. They implemented bans on single use plastics and plastic bags initially, because he and his wife watched that film. So they are incredibly powerful, and art is incredibly powerful, because what we can imagine can be achieved. And if you can imagine a stairway to the moon, if you can imagine different modes of transportation, personal flying cars, all of these things begin in the brain as an idea. And if it can be imagined there, then it can be realized. And we're seeing that with a lot of technology that no one believed 30, 40, 50 years ago was even ever possible. So art is critical, I think, to the whole process of the economy. It's critical to understanding. It's critical to cultural awareness. It's critical to design and for me, it's been always about embracing all different kinds of arts so that everybody has a voice. And whether it's a sculpture or a painting on the wall or a film, each piece tells a story that can be incredibly impactful. And with our new film, The Last Glaciers, we wanted to do something very similar with that. We wanted to tell the story of climate and the story of disappearing glaciers. But we didn't want to oversize it. So we wanted to involve an adventure, a story about extreme sports, so we could take people on a journey. So through creating that storytelling procedure, we tell the story of disappearing glaciers, and personal challenges of the key people that are in the film as well. So back to your point, art, for me, is something I think that should be slotted into the economic equation. It should be considered in terms of the way that we think holistically about a lot of these problems that we're facing: biodiversity loss, climate, pollution, all of these issues are something that each of us can be a part of help solving these problems. And art, I think, shares a great deal of responsibility in that.

Makhtar Diop: It's great, Craig Leeson, extremely refreshing, because I didn't hear you saying the chair is one solution. If you do this, everything will be fixed, but I heard from you that there is a lot of pragmatism. You know, you say let's work with the financial industry, let's work with the government. Let me make sure that the science of the variable is known. We're really looking at things in a very holistic way, and you say, above all this, if you don't tell your story properly, nobody will know your story because if you just stay in a dark room of researchers. So I really like your approach. And it's not a surprise that you are Australian of the Year at some point. I think the ocean is very complicated, very, very complicated. One of the reasons is it is a part of the universe that maybe we know the least, except maybe space. And there's a lot of things that we need to discover. So I was very, very glad to talk to you about it Craig. Do you want to leave it with the last word.

Craig Leeson: Ultimately, the only thing of value we all leave on planet Earth, once we've had our time here is the legacy we leave the next generation. And it doesn't matter how much money you make, or how many assets you collect. It's ultimately not very helpful to the next generation unless they actually have a planet to enjoy. So my advice to everybody is to think about that legacy to think about what you're giving on to the next generation by what you were left by the previous generation and improving that. Because ultimately, we want our kids and their children to be able to experience this incredible world and all of the species, the animals, the insects, the things that we need for it to continue. And there's one thought that I always leave with children, when I do talks around the world at educational institutions, is: don't think about saving the planet, because the planet will always continue. It was here before we arrived, it will be here after we leave as a species. We need to save the human and we need to concentrate on how to do that. And saving the human means saving all of these other life support systems, all these other species, making sure that they're able to thrive, restoring ecosystems that we've damaged so that we can continue our life on planet Earth and our generations that follow us can also have that privilege.

Makhtar Diop: That's an excellent way of closing our conversation. And I hope that all the younger people, the Z generations, the future generation will be listening to it carefully. And I know actually I’ve listened to that. And have been helping us to change our state of mind as we're older by bringing that to our attention and asking us for action. Thank you very much for your leadership. And I look forward to continuing working with you on this agenda, which is, for me, very, very, very important for all of us.

Craig Leeson: We have a lot of work to do.

Makhtar Diop: Thank you so much. And I hope that one day I will visit Australia. Yeah, that was the beauty of your birthplace.

Craig Leeson: I'll be glad to host you there. Thanks so much.

Makhtar Diop: Thanks so much.

Makhtar Diop: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your network and tell a friend.