Save our seas

The UN's first conference to save the oceans is a grand show of intent to reset our relationship with the largest sink of carbon dioxide and the biggest receptacle for human wastes. But will governments, industries and organisations stand by the big voluntary commitments they have made? Vibha Varshney reports from UN headquarters in New York

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Wednesday 28 June 2017

English business magnate Richard Branson’s tongue-in-cheek description of Puerto Rico trench in the Caribbean Sea near his home perfectly sums up our fascination with oceans. At the very first Ocean Conference convened by the UN at its headquarters in New York City, Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, talked about the 8.8-kilometre-deep trench where Spanish, Portuguese and British galleons laden with gold could still be found and how the area has been barely studied till a depth of 60 metres. He also mentioned about the biodiversity found in the trench but only as a deliberate afterthought. Branson was present at the five-day conference, which commenced on the World Environment Day, to deliver a petition with over one million signatures, urging President of the UN General Assembly Peter Thomson to save at least 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030. This was for the first time the 193 member states of the UN, academia, scientists, civil society activists and business executives congregated to find ways to make money while ensuring that the oceans remain healthy and vibrant.

With the US announcing that it would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the meeting had an urgency to it. After all, the health of our oceans, which cover almost three-quarters of the planet, is inexorably linked with the state of our climate. Not only the temperature pattern of oceans—the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, the Arctic and the Southern oceans—influences and drives the climate and weather systems, they also act as a buffer against climate change by absorbing carbon emissions. Over the past two centuries, oceans have absorbed 525 billion tonnes, or about half of the carbon emissions released due to human activities. If they were not there, the average temperature of the earth would have increased to an extent making tropical regions inhabitable. But polluted with garbage, carbon dioxide and effluents from the land for decades, their stressed ecosystems may not safeguard us for long.

However, this conference could be a game-changer, said Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden. She was Co-President of the conference, along with Frank Bainimarama, Prime Mini ster of Fiji, an archipelago of over 300 islands in the South Pacific. Bainimarama, also the president of the next Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to be held later this year, said that time is running out for both the ocean and climate. “Climate change poses the biggest threat the world has ever known. And the quality of our oceans and seas is deteriorating at an alarming rate,” he said. If action is not taken, said Lövin, the oceans would be the biggest victims of climate change.

Fiji's Prime
Minister Frank
opened UN's
first Ocean
Conference in
the traditional
Fijian style (Source: IISD.CA)

Attempt to reverse the damage begins

Changing climate is not the only risk factor to the oceans. Humanity’s growing appetite for marine resources causes further damage to them. With a multitude of economic benefits, right from fisheries, tourism, minerals, medicines, renewable energy, transport and trade, the estimated gross marine product of the oceans is US$2.5 trillion a year—this is equivalent to the GDP of major economies like France and Australia. This blue economy is no doubt critical to the global economic development. To ensure that the oceans remain protected from the damage caused by the quest for economic benefits, guidelines have been set forth in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14. The UN member states had agreed to the 10 targets detailed in the SDG 14, which aim to conserve oceans, seas and marine biodiversity, while using the resources sustainably. Many of these targets have to be achieved by 2020, just three years from now.

“We are here today to turn the tide. We created these problems. With decisive, coordinated global action, we can solve them. SDG 14, the Goal of the Oceans, must be our road map to clean, healthy oceans,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres as countries adopted legally non-binding “Call for Action” to support implementation of SDG 14 through advancement of science and research.

As delegates engaged in discussions that were a rich mix of policy, research, business and human rights, member states took part in partnership dialogues and plenary sessions on the targets of SDG 14. Civil society groups organised at least 150 side events to sensitise participants about what ails the oceans. The discussions were worthy of the cause. After all, life originated in the oceans, and it would be the biggest failure of humanity if it fails them.

Countries single out problems

The conference comes at a time when the oceans have become the final receptacle for all wastes generated on the land. The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment released at the conference says the oceans have reached their carrying capa city. Though it does not provide information on which ocean is the cleanest or which country is the most polluting, it says urgent action on a global scale is needed to protect the oceans from the many pressures they face. But unfortunately, we know very little about oceans around us. Indian Ocean, which unlike any other oceans is landlocked on the northern side, is not studied much. One of the reasons it is so poorly understood could be the fact that countries that share the Indian Ocean are too poor to invest in research. So far, two international expeditions have been undertaken to explore it; the second expedition was sent off in 2015. But their objectives are largely limited to looking for new fishing grounds.

But what we do know is that over 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year. A figure quoted widely at the conference suggests that by 2050, the number of plastic entities would be equal to the number of fish in the sea. At present as much as 80 per cent of all the litter in the oceans is made of plastic. More than 800 species have been affected by the debris. Plastic waste alone is estimated to kill up to 1 million birds, 100,000 sea mammals and countless fish each year.

Microplastics, or small plastic particles from cosmetics, tyres, artificial grass, paints and clothes, are emerging as another threat to marine ecosy stems. Ingested by phytoplanktons (microscopic plant-like organisms), microplastics pass through the food chain and find their way to our plates. It is estimated that some 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than the stars in our galaxy—are out there in the ocean. But we are yet to assess their impact on human health.

Scientists present at the conference also raised concerns about the growing extent and duration of dead zones. These zones are hypoxic regions that exhibit oxygen levels that are too low to support aquatic organisms. One trigger for the dead zone is eutrophication, or excessive growth of plants and algae due to nutrient loads that may eventually result in oxygen depletion of the water body. In their reports, the scientists have identified five large marine ecosystems, including the Bay of Bengal, that are most at risk from eutrophication.

Scientists also presented evidence to establish that land-based activities are responsible for almost 80 per cent of the entire pollution in the oceans. About 60 per cent of the coral reefs are threatened by ocean warming, acidification and other human impacts and this is likely to rise to 90 per cent by 2030. Fish is unable to grow to its full potential due to a mix of low oxygen level, acidification and rising water temperatures. However, said Andreas Oschlies, professor, marine biogeochemical modelling, at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany, deoxygenation is a bigger problem than ocean acidification and “we are hoping to get the issue of deoxygenation high up on the agenda”.

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

This wilful destruction is counter-intuitive to humankind. For one, phytoplanktons produce 50 per cent of the oxygen on the earth and form the base of the food chain. But 30 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are already over-exploited and 50 per cent fully exploited. Speaking at the conference, Martin Visbeck, expert on ocean circulation and climate dynamics at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre, put down wasteful eating habits as one of the reasons for the depleting fish stocks. “We eat fish that is equivalent to lions and elephants in the food chain,” he said. Then we consume only a part of the fish. Shark fin soup is a good example of this, he explained.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, dubbed pirate fishing, emerged as another major cause of concern at the conference. Africa, with its rich fish stock, is a victim of IUU fishing. A Greenpeace report released at the conference said that China illegally fishes in the ocean west to Africa. “Illegal fishing is a crime and the international community has to come together to fight,” said Johnson Weru, Kenyan Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the EU, whose mandate includes forging partnerships with other African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.

Industries, nations make pledges

The purpose of the Ocean Conference was also to identify ways of exploiting marine resources sustainably. The UN Global Compact, an initiative that encourages businesses worldwide can unlock economic opportunities worth $12 trillion by 2030 if they pursue sustainable business models. Businesses can tap economic opportunities worth US $1 trillion in India alone. Global Opportunity Explorer, a joint project of international sustaina bility think tank Sustainia and UN Global Compact, has received over 300 ideas that show businesses can help meet SDGs. Only 22 of these ideas were on SDG 14.

Besides, while all businesses affect oceans in some or the other way, very few were willing to pledge voluntary commitments towards SDG 14 targets to protect the health of the oceans. Of the 1,328 voluntary commitments made during the five-day conference to ensure that oceans remain safe and productive enough for people to benefit from them, only six per cent were by the private industry (see 'SDG reinforced'). Lila Karbassi, chief of programmes, UN Global Compact, pointed out that collecting commitments on SDG 14 was more difficult than anticipated.

Among the few industries who pledged a major rehaul in the way they operate is the shipping industry, which directly depends on the oceans. Sturla Henriksen, chief executive officer, Norwegian Shipowners' Association, said the association looked at all the SDGs and identified five opportunity areas where they could make interventions. For one, the association has started the ocean data initiative. Ships have been regularly collecting data since 1991 on the geology of the oceans and now this would be made available for free to research institutions worldwide. The data pertains to water temperature, salinity and weather among others. To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on emissions and to decarbonise by the end of the century, the shipping industry is looking forward to go green. At present, ships run on diesel and are like floating industries. There are plans to shift to alternative fuels. For example, hydrogen fuel cell technology could be one such option. Though these new technologies are expensive, Simon Bennett, director, policy and external relations, International Chamber of Shipping, feels that the economy of scale would keep the prices down. “We faced a similar problem when shifting from coal to diesel but we managed to keep the prices low,” said Bennett, adding that the shift would take around two decades. Sweden-based Echandia Marine has completed its first electrically-propelled passenger ferry installation, shuttling citizens throughout the city’s archipelago. The ferry operates at 90 per cent energy efficiency, compared to 28 per cent to 35 per cent for a standard diesel engine, according to the company.

Source: www. oceanconference.un.org; Note: IGOs: Intergovernmental organisations
Petroleum Geo Services, a Norwegian marine geophysical company, also announced its plans to help reduce plastic waste in the oceans by collecting the wastes, compressing them on the site and preparing them for recycling.

Other businesses also showcased their initi atives of going green. These include Adidas and Parley for the Oceans that are using ocean plastics to make sports shoes. The upper part of the shoe is made of yarns and the filaments from reclaimed ocean wastes. The green wave pattern across the shoe uppers is made from reclaimed and often illegal gillnets, while the rest of the upper portion is made from plastics collected from beaches on the Maldives. After collection and processing of the plastics, the shoes are brought to life using a 3D-printing technology. They plan to manufacture a million shoes by the end of 2017.

However, nearly half of the 1,328 voluntary commitments were made by governments and government bodies. Norway committed to reduce the amount of microplastics ending up in the ocean. Indonesia committed to reduce 70 per cent of its plastic debris by 2025, Germany provided money for mangrove protection, whereas China committed to comprehensively control marine environmental pollution, gradu ally improve water quality in offshore areas and eliminate illegal sewage outlets. Palau, an island country in the western Pacific Ocean, announced the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act at the conference. The Act aims to protect marine resources, particularly tuna stocks, of ocean. The Cook Islands, another island country in the South Pacific Ocean, dedicated its entire Exclusive Economic Zone Marae Moana, spanning 1.9 million sq km, for integrated management.

Commitments were also made to prohibit pirate fishing and certain forms of fishery subsidies that contribute to overfishing. Howe ver, since the issue of subsidies comes under the purview of the World Trade Organization, it would be taken up at Buenos Aires in Dece mber this year. There were over 300 commitments dedicated to regulating harvesting and ending overfishing and nearly 70 addressing fisheries subsidies. The IUU Tuna Traceability Declaration, which aims to address the challenge of unsustainable, illegal and destructive tuna fishing by creating a fully traceable tuna supply chain, was endorsed by over 50 retail majors, tuna processors, marketers, traders and harvesters. Fish Forever by Rare (non-profit) committed to mobilising US $100 million by 2021 to support sustainable small-scale fisheries. The non-profit committed to reduce the threat from overfishing in 32 million ha and engage over 1 million fishers in sustainable fishing practices across 10 countries. New Zeal and, Germany, India, European Investment Bank and others made significant announcements of investments to strengthen ocean and climate action for SIDS (small island developing states), oceanic and coastal fisheries and develop the next generation of Pacific fisheries leaders. Seychelles, supported by the World Bank, advanced efforts to issue the first ever sovereign “blue bond” to raise money from private investors interested in supporting sustainable development. The South- ern African Development Community committed to the establishment of and strengthening of existing Regional Fisheries Monitoring Control and Surveillance mechanisms in the Eastern Africa, Southern Africa and Indian Ocean Region. Even India pledged 17 commitments (see ‘India makes old promises...’,).

The five-day conference was unlike any other at the UN. To ensure that action is taken quickly, the organisers have focused on voluntary commitments. The Call of Action is also not mandatory. Some experts were happy with this non-binding arrangement, saying the time taken over the negotiations is not worth the outcome. Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of Global Marine and Polar Programme at IUCN, said that negotiations generally lead to mediocre agreements as countries do not like to be told what to do. For example, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which was ratified in 1994 has still not been signed by countries like the US. International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments took 10 years to be negotiated upon and just got ratified. During this time, invasive species continued to be dispersed across the world. These were the 20 years when action would have helped, said Lundin.

However, other experts said that they would have liked the UN to have stepped up a little bit more. “We need an action plan from the UN and the governments, and not just a Call for Action,” says Maria Damanak, global managing director for oceans at The Nature Conservancy. But voluntary commitments can be followed by action on the ground. “Governments could take local action to ensure that the commitments are met. The commitments need to be accompanied by policies, laws and changes in one’s buying habits—to buy sustainable products, sustainably harvested fish and other products that do not harm the oceans,” says Dan Shephard, information officer at the UN Department of Public Information.

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