Ocean Conference has potential to be a ‘global game-changer’

WMO/Ulla Nordlinder Norrmjöle Beach out of Umeå in northern Sweden.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


The second global Ocean Conference taking place in Portugal in a few months’ time promises to be “a critical moment” for the health of life under water and on land, the President of the UN General Assembly said on Tuesday, as preparations got underway.

Life under water is essential to life on land”, said Tijjani Muhammad-Bande. The ocean produces “half of the oxygen we breathe” and provides food for millions of around the world, playing a “fundamental role in mitigating climate change as a major heat and carbon sink”.

The Ocean Conference, which will run in Lisbon from 2 to 6 June, aims to propel science-based innovative solutions in the form of global ocean action.

The worldwide ocean economy is valued at around $1.5 trillion dollars annually, as aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector and 350 million jobs world-wide are linked to fisheries.

“A healthy marine environment holds untold potential for achieving the entirety of the Sustainable Development Agenda”, he said. “Yet the unsustainable use – and misuse – of ocean resources, climate change, and pollution all threaten the ability of our ocean to provide for us all”.

Boosting life under water

In this first year of the Decade of Action and Delivery, acceleration is needed on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) targets that are due to be met this year, two-thirds of which relate to the health of our environment.

Mr. Muhammad-Bande spelled out: “We must reach several targets related to SDG 14: Life Under Water…to reframe our understanding of nature as an accelerator for implementing the 2030 Agenda”.

Life under water and on land have a “symbiotic relationship”, he said, noting that “pollution hampers the ocean’s ability to provide for people”.

He referred to last year’s UN Environment Assembly’s ministerial declaration calling for a reduction of single-use plastic products by 2030 as demonstrating “multilateral commitment to forging a better world” and maintained the importance of emulating this leadership at the Ocean Conference “to ensure that the declaration has a transformative impact on life under water”.

Ocean health

While coral reefs are home to a quarter of all marine life, half have been lost, adversely impacting global food security. And illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing further burdens ecosystems.

Moreover, sea level rise induced by climate-change poses an existential threat, with small island developing States at the frontline.

“We must stand with them in solidarity and support. This is for us all”, the Assembly President stated, further emphasizing improving ocean health as “key to safeguarding our future”.

Transitioning to a green economy is “essential to protect our oceans and our world”, he said, recalling that next year marks the beginning of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Sustainable use of the ocean

Peter Thomson, Special Envoy for the Ocean, and himself a former President of the General Assembly, outlined five major problems facing the oceans.

Pollution – from plastics to industrial agricultural sewerage – and the sustainability of fisheries in the face of harmful practices, are both “eminently fixable by 2030”.

However, more difficult to fix are problems associated with acidification, deoxygenation and ocean warming, all of which are linked to greenhouse gas emissions.

“We find ourselves in a much longer fixing period when it comes to those three”, he said, noting that although they would continue for hundreds of years “even if we do the right thing tomorrow”, indeed we must start doing, so “we can start turning the corner”.

‘Positive tipping points’

Mr. Thomson urged everyone to focus on the “positive tipping points”, claiming they “are closer than you think”.

These include “scaling up of science and innovation” and other solutions “that we will be concentrating on in Lisbon”, he elaborated.

The UN envoy spoke about the “strong will” of developing countries to participate in sustainable agriculture, windfarms and the greening of shipping, stating that “we are now on the cusp of a great positive revolution”.

Vicious climate crisis cycle

And speaking at a press conference for correspondents in New York, UN chief António Guterres highlighted the importance of oceans to the on-going climate crisis, and solutions to alleviate it.

He explained that “as oceans warm, ice melts and we lose the vital service the ice sheets perform – reflecting sunlight, thus further increasing ocean warming”.

And, as ice melts and the oceans warm, sea levels rise and more water evaporates, “fueling ever greater rainfall, threatening coastal cities and deltas”.

The UN chief pointed out that last year, ocean heat and mean-sea level reached “their highest on record”, revealing that scientists now say “that ocean temperatures are now rising at the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs a second.”

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