Most of the world’s ocean is unprotected. This is why that needs to change

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sharon Ikeazor, Minister of State for the Environment, Government of Nigeria & Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice and the North Sea, Government of Belgium

  • More than three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, most of them in developing countries.
  • Only 7% of the world’s ocean, a vital resource for fighting climate change, is under any protection, and just 3% is highly protected.
  • The ‘Blue Leaders’ campaign urges countries to join international treaties that would protect the ocean and all the benefits it provides to humanity.

The ocean is a vital life support system for the planet, and we are running out of time to preserve the marine biodiversity that it is home to and upon which we all depend.

Having played a key role thus far in the mitigation of climate change, our blue ally is quickly running out of steam. With water temperature and sea levels rising, acidification, pollution, unsustainable exploitation of marine resources, depletion of fish stocks, the near disappearance of coral reefs, and the destruction of fragile ecosystems, the ocean is being disproportionately impacted by human activities.

Now, more than ever, we must consider the possible implications of its demise.

The ocean plays an indispensable role in providing and regulating resources that are vital to sustaining life on Earth — from rainwater to drinking water, and as a source of our food, weather, and the oxygen we breathe.

Securing our ocean’s future

Recognizing the key role that the ocean plays for people all over the world, the United Nations has adopted a sustainable development goal focused on conserving the ocean, with targets for action on an array of problems. While some progress has been made, more is yet needed to secure our ocean’s future.

Scientists have called for securing at least 30% of marine waters as fully or highly protected sanctuaries, free from damaging human activities like bottom trawl fishing and seabed mining. By doing so, we can give the ocean a fighting chance in the face of climate change.

Today, just 7% of the world’s ocean is under protection, and only 3% is highly protected. Moreover, there is no legal mechanism in place to establish fully protected marine areas in the high seas and deep seabed areas, our shared international waters that constitute nearly two thirds of the global ocean.

Marine coastlines are home to 2.4 billion people — approximately 40% of the world’s population. More than three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, most of them in developing countries. Degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems threatens the physical, economic, and food security of communities around the world.

Continuing along our current path towards ocean destruction will impact human lives and livelihoods.

The role of the ocean and coastal and marine ecosystems in climate change mitigation is often overlooked. Protecting and restoring ocean habitats such as seagrass beds, salt marshes, and mangroves, and their associated food webs, can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at rates up to five times greater than tropical forests.

Choosing not to prioritize the protection of our ocean is depriving us of the tools we desperately need to achieve our climate mitigation goals.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Commitments are needed

With multiple high-level ocean negotiations planned in 2022, this year is one filled with opportunity for the preservation of our oceans. Our only hope for a better future lies in the adoption of unprecedentedly bold ocean conservation commitments.

The science is clear: to maximize the health and resilience of the global ocean, at least 30% of it must be protected through a network of “highly” and “fully” protected Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2030.

To achieve this goal, a new treaty for the conservation and management of marine life in the high seas must be concluded to ensure that human activities are managed to prevent significant adverse impacts, with robust oversight mechanisms and provisions to establish fully protected MPAs in the high seas.

Governments who have joined the “Blue Leaders” campaign call on all countries to rally behind these commitments at the upcoming meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP15), expected to take place in Kunming, China in August 2022.

Another key moment is the UN Ocean Conference, which is scheduled to be held in Lisbon, Portugal, from 27 June to 1 July. Each of these meetings offers an opportunity for countries to come together, join the Blue Leaders, and take the action that our ocean desperately needs.

The ocean knows no boundaries: it unites us all as a physical link between coastal countries, communities, and individuals, and as the source of our food, water, and air. We all face similar challenges and similar opportunities. Let us be bold for the ocean together.


  1. Sea level rise is the biggest problem in terms of the climate crisis. Thank you 🌍

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