How to create a healthy ocean that benefits everyone

(Credit: Unsplash)

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


  • The threat of global warming is an imminent, real danger to future generations.
  • Restoring the health of the ocean is a key part in combatting global warming.
  • Through the UN Plastic Treaty, we may have a real chance to make lasting, positive changes to protect our ocean and everyone that depends on it.

Restoring ocean health is not just about verdant mangrove forests, thriving fish stocks and pristine blue waters, although these are all vitally important in their own right. Enabling people everywhere to thrive, and ensuring we leave a liveable planet for generations to come, are the prime drivers of all we are doing today to restore the ocean’s health. If we do not address the main causes of the decline in the ocean’s health – as a matter of utmost urgency – we will be adding them to the effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, to the great degradation of this planet.

We are still on course towards global warming of around 3 degrees Celsius before the end of this century. That is a destination of fire, famine, plague and war; in short, an unliveable world. I describe this course as the highway to hell, and for the sake of our children and our grandchildren, without further obfuscation, we must divert from it onto the road that’ll take us to the security of 1.5 degrees.

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We have many opportunities for positive change

For a future of equitable, sustainable development in which people thrive in harmony with nature, we have to stop the decline in the ocean’s health. Looking forward, we can do that by seizing the raft of opportunities ahead. In that vein, the World Economic Forum’s Ocean Action Agenda has just released a guiding statement for our work in 2023, aimed at ambitious and specific ocean action. I have signed it in my capacity as Co-Chair of the Friends of Ocean Action, the community of ocean leaders from a broad range of sectors dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean’s resources.

The Ocean Action Agenda statement – in the ongoing Blue Thread series – acknowledges heartening progress across key areas that we highlighted a year ago in the statement No Healthy Planet Without a Healthy Ocean as major opportunities (and responsibilities) for the global community to seize upon. These range from the unanimous agreement and draft resolution to negotiate a global treaty to control plastic pollution at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly, to the World Trade Organization’s historic deal to phase out the harmful fisheries subsidies currently funding overfishing.

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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 new statement goes on to set out key opportunities to catalyze ambitious ocean action, all linked closely to the targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean, SDG14. I emphasise that in 2015, these targets were universally committed to by all nations at the UN General Assembly. We are therefore beyond ‘ifs and buts’, and must press on with ‘whens and hows.’ More action is needed across all fronts, for example:

  • Negotiations for the UN Plastics Treaty kicked off in Uruguay in November 2022, with government representatives sitting alongside business leaders, scientists and environmentalists. The spotlight on these negotiations must not dim until we have the robust, binding, global treaty we so desperately require to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution.
  • For it to enter into force, at least two thirds of members of the World Trade Organization must now deliver their formal instruments of acceptance of the deal reached in June 2022 to phase out harmful fisheries subsidies. Until the impact of ending these subsidies is felt in marine ecosystems and amongst the countless communities of small-scale fisheries around the world, this deal will remain a lame duck.
  • After the first-ever multilateral ocean-climate dialogues held in Bonn in June 2022, a UNFCCC process has been established whereby two (as yet to be appointed) co-facilitators will report back to annual UN Climate Conferences on pertinent issues on the state of the ocean and its role in mitigating the climate crisis.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Let’s accept the challenge and not give up

In my home country of Fiji, we have an expression signifying relentless grit and dedication to causes that matter. The expression is Tabu Soro, essentially meaning never give up. We must accept that the world will only improve through the dedication and creativity of those who care and are willing to stand up, defend and take the necessary action for good. On this we should never surrender!

Around the world, there is an increasing recognition of the indivisibility of humanity’s hope of meeting the existential challenges of the climate crisis and our communal responsibility to ensure the ocean’s wellbeing.

There can be no healthy planet – and no healthy people – without a healthy ocean, and I challenge all across the globe, whatever our walks of life, or community or experience, to do what we can to ensure we bequeath a healthy ocean to sustain those who will follow in our footsteps.

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