Why the UN Ocean Conference is a key step on the road to recovering ocean health

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

Author: Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair, Friends of Ocean Action


  • A healthy ocean is critical to all life on Earth, and the UN Ocean Conference is a step in this direction.
  • However, the ocean’s health is declining – from overfishing to acidification.
  • We can take the steps necessary to stop this decline though, writes Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and the Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action.

With every breath we take, we are connected to the ocean. The planet-defining blue covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, providing half of its oxygen, stabilising our global climate and weather system, and providing food and livelihoods for billions of people.

A healthy ocean is critical to all life on Earth, and yet through humankind’s witting and unwitting activities, the ocean’s health is measurably in decline.

How the Ocean Conference can help improve the health of our oceans?

Overfishing continues to deplete precious marine resources and jeopardise sustainable, smaller-scale fisheries. Excess anthropogenic carbon emissions are warming the ocean, causing the death of coral, raising sea levels and making the ocean more acidic, weakening its ability to sustain life. Plastic and chemical pollution are permeating the ocean, putting many marine species in trouble.

There can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. The positive news is that – on our watch – we can take the necessary steps to stop the decline of the ocean’s health. In 2022, we have important opportunities to take bold, meaningful action to put our ocean onto a path of recovery. Solutions exist to restore the health of the ocean, but they will require action from each one of us, from every sector of industry and all parts of society, from world leaders to CEOs, and from scientists to citizens.

In February 2022, we witnessed world leaders at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi commit to the drawing up of a legally binding global treaty to tackle the pernicious issue of plastic pollution. This month, in Geneva, members of the World Trade Organization finally reached an agreement targeting the distorted behaviour of harmful fishing subsidies. Negotiations to conclude a robust and operable High Seas Treaty are expected to conclude later in the year, while the Convention on Biological Diversity conference, also to be held later this year, holds the promise of a new target to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. And then there is the next UN climate change gathering, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, in November, which more than ever includes explicit focus on the ocean as a critical ally in both mitigating and adapting to climate change.

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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.

The ongoing International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration also remain key threads in supporting and advancing the realisation of the UN’s 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Next up on the global agenda, we have the UN Ocean Conference, co-hosted by the governments of Kenya and Portugal, in Lisbon, from 27 June to 1 July. The conference is held in support of SDG14, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to conserve and sustainably use the ocean’s resources. It is my firm belief that SDG14 and the continued development of a sustainable blue economy around the world are crucial for humanity’s future on this planet.

I am confident we will see the launching in Lisbon of a great fleet of innovative, science-based solutions. These solutions will be carried forward in well-funded partnerships, that will propel the effective implementation of SDG14. I am urging every attendee to bring the best of their ideas and resources to Lisbon. We need all hands on deck.

The UN Ocean Conference will be focussing on the major challenges and opportunities faced by the ocean today. The programme features plenary meetings, a suite of interactive dialogues, and a rich series of side events complementing the main programme. Sessions will cover topics ranging from strengthening sustainable ocean-based economies, to addressing ocean acidification, deoxygenation and warming; and from making fisheries sustainable, and fair for small-scale artisanal fishers, to conserving and restoring marine and coastal ecosystems.

The UN Ocean Conference will culminate in the adoption of a political declaration on “Our Ocean, Our Future, Our Responsibility” which has already received support from all UN Member States. All this will be complemented by a range of now over 1,700 voluntary ocean commitments from around the world – an array of ocean action covering all targets of SDG14, submitted by a broad range of stakeholders online. All are welcome to go to the UN Ocean Conference website to submit a voluntary commitment and become part of the drive for progress.

If we are to halt the decline in the ocean’s health this year, we must not squander the unparalleled opportunities presented by 2022’s confluence of moments for decisive ocean action. And when I say “we”, I am referring not just to the leaders of UN Member States, but also ultimately to each and every one of us. We and our children and grandchildren are all citizens of Planet Ocean, and it falls on our watch to do the necessary work to secure the healthy, thriving ocean on which humanity’s future depends.

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