Governments, experts and civil society representatives recently gathered in Lisbon, Portugal for the second UN Ocean Conference. They agreed that measures to protect the world’s oceans are running dangerously late, and several commitments were made to accelerate their implementation.
After two years of delays due to Covid-19, more than 6,000 people from over 120 countries attended the conference from 27 June to 1 July, which ended with the adoption of a non-binding political declaration, “Our Ocean, Our Future, Our Responsibility”. High-level delegates said they were “deeply alarmed by the global emergency facing the ocean,” the sustainability of which is “critical” for the planet.
The UN under-secretary-general for legal affairs, Miguel de Serpa Soares, said at its closing that the conference “has given us the opportunity to unpack critical issues and generate new ideas. It also made clear the work that remains, and the need to scale up that work for the recovery of our ocean.”
However, environmental NGOs have criticised the non-binding nature of the closing statement, and questioned why there wasn’t a report on progress towards goals set out during the first UN ocean conference, in New York in 2017. Neither was there a means of control for the implementation of new targets ahead of the next conference, they said.
Pepe Clarke, oceans practice lead at WWF, said: “The real test of success for the second UN Ocean Conference will come in the months ahead. WWF wants to see global policies, like robust new treaties for the high seas and plastics, continued action to curb harmful fisheries subsidies and achieving 30% protection of the world’s ocean.”
Pledges and commitments
Participants registered nearly 700 voluntary commitments at the conference, according to organisers. Many of these were related to marine protected areas (MPAs), which are seen as one of the best tools to protect habitats for people, economies, biodiversity and the climate.
More than 100 countries have now joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, a group of nations championing a goal to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030. The goal is also a target in the current draft of the global framework for protecting nature in the years 2021–2030, which is expected to be adopted under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) later this year. Currently, around 8% of the world’s ocean is protected.
“The ocean can’t operate on its own, especially when we are looking at solutions. It’s connected to the entire world’s biodiversity,” said Elizabeth Mrema, the executive secretary of the CBD. “We are now working on a new biodiversity framework, which will also cover ocean action. The oceans cut across most of the biodiversity targets.”
Colombia’s outgoing president Iván Duque attended the conference, announcing the creation of three new MPAs and the expansion of the no-take zone in the Malpelo sanctuary, off Colombia’s Pacific coast – a critical habitat for many marine species. The country now has more than 30% of its territorial waters covered by MPAs. Guatemala also pledged to create or expand eight MPAs, while Uruguay presented a roadmap to create a network of MPAs.
A group of philanthropic organisations, including the Bezos Earth Fund, pledged to invest US$1 billion towards ocean conservation efforts over the next eight years. The European Investment Bank said it will invest an extra 150 million euros (US$151 million) in the Caribbean region, while the CAF Development Bank of Latin America committed US$1.2 billion for the region.
Other pledges focused on banning destructive fishing practices. Thailand vowed to stop issuing commercial fishing licences to bottom trawlers, while Norway became the first European country to share its vessel-tracking data with the Global Fishing Watch initiative, thus making its fishing operations far more transparent. A coalition of NGOs also unveiled an atlas to track illegal trawling in the Mediterranean.
Seabed mining featured heavily on the agenda in Lisbon, with several high-level sessions chaired by Michael Lodge, head of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body tasked with developing a set of rules to govern the extraction of minerals from the sea floor.
At the moment, seabed mining is only in the exploration phase. But last year, the Pacific island state of Nauru triggered a clause that allows mining to commence by July 2023 – whatever the rules in place at the time. Scientists and campaigners have long been calling for a moratorium on mining until more data on its impacts is collected.
In Lisbon, these calls were given political backing at a packed side event at which a global alliance of countries backing a moratorium was launched. Leaders from Palau, Fiji and Samoa, together with representatives of indigenous groups and environmental NGOs, called for more countries to join the alliance.
“This is an injury we can stop before it starts,” said Frank Bainimarama, the Fijian prime minister. “We must demand of our elected leaders to put science and precaution first. This is an extractive industry we don’t need and cannot afford.” The alliance was supported by renowned marine biologist and ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, who called seabed mining the “headline issue of our time”.
French president Emmanuel Macron also attended the conference, and appealed for the creation of a legal framework “to stop high seas mining and not to allow new activities that endanger ecosystems.” France, alongside other G7 countries, had previously called for strict environmental rules for the activity.
Discussions in Lisbon also drew attention to plastic waste, as UN members work towards consensus on a legally binding global treaty to regulate plastic by 2024, following successful discussions in Nairobi this March. A group of 21 governments announced their intention to join a plastics circular economy commitment, following 11 other governments that had joined early this year.
“Keeping our oceans healthy and addressing plastic pollution at all stages of life cycles is really key,” said Mari Pangestu, the World Bank’s managing director of development policy and partnerships, at a panel in Lisbon.
The conference highlighted the problem of overfishing, another major challenge faced by the oceans. The US signed a memorandum to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, a leading cause of global overfishing, and announced an IUU Fishing Action Alliance with the UK and Canada to improve monitoring of fisheries.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched its latest “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” report during the conference, which revealed that a surge in aquaculture drove the world’s aquatic food production to a record high of 214 million tonnes in 2020. It is projected to increase another 14% by 2030.
Representatives across sectors at the conference widely recognised aquatic foods as a solution to the growing concern of food security. But the challenge of how to keep production sustainable and equitable was at the centre of discussions among FAO officials, small-scale fishers and experts.
“Aquatic food is a great contribution to the solution, as they produce less greenhouse gas than land-based animal protein production,” Manuel Barange, the director of FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division, said. “They are part of the solution. But they have to be done sustainably.”
The president of the African Confederation of Professional Artisanal Fisheries Organisations (CAOPA), Gaoussou Gueye, led calls for more sustainable management of fish stocks that would benefit local communities, and a greater role for artisanal fishers in decision-making.
More than 90% of small-scale fishers live in the global south… and face countless challengesCristina Pita, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development
The secretary-general of CAOPA, Dawda Saine, stressed a vital link with food security: “Small-scale fishers improve nutritional intake, employment creation, economic growth and foreign exchange earnings through regional and international trade in fish and fishery products – but only a few countries are giving them subsidies.”
Cristina Pita, a specialist in small-scale fisheries and researcher in sustainable markets at the International Institute for Environment and Development, said: “More than 90% of small-scale fishers live in the global south… and face countless challenges related to unequal allocation of and access to resources, coastal space, and markets, to add to the challenges of poverty, food insecurity, habitat degradation, and resource depletion.
“They have to compete with larger-scale fleets for access to resources and tenure rights, and with other more powerful sectors of the blue economy, like tourism and conservation for access to fishing areas. They are often left out of decisions about fisheries management and conservation and suffer negative impacts such as loss of income and livelihoods.”
Blue carbon and coastal communities
One of the key themes in Lisbon was the protection and restoration of marine ecosystems. During several sessions, environmental scientists and activists raised concerns over the continued degradation of habitats such as mangroves, seagrass and tidal marshes, which can help protect coastal communities from extreme weather events driven by global warming.
During the opening address, the mayor of Lisbon, Carlos Moedas, urged delegates to increase efforts to stop ocean degradation, while intensifying measures to preserve the ocean and ensuring the sustainability of coastal ecosystems. UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised the great need for investment in early warning systems, to protect coastal communities.
Representatives from China attended the conference, and pledged to launch 31 marine ecological preservation and restoration projects during the next five years, and assist developing countries, particularly small island states, via the Belt and Road Initiative.
The potential of “blue carbon” – the carbon stored in the ocean – was a prevalent topic in Lisbon. Many see it as vital in the mitigation of climate change and its impacts. The Marine Conservation Society released a new report during the conference which said that salt marshes and seagrass ecosystems across the globe sequester an estimated 235 million to 450 million tonnes of carbon every year.
The greenhouse gas emissions of the shipping industry were also discussed in several side events. Each year, the sector is responsible for around 3% of all emissions caused by human activities. Without further action, its emissions will not fall fast enough: by 2050, they are projected to be 90–130% of their 2008 levels.
“The emissions from the shipping sector are not on a trajectory compatible with the Paris Agreement,” Sue Biniaz, US deputy special envoy for climate change, said at a side event. Biniaz highlighted that if shipping were a country, it would be among the world’s top ten largest emitters.
Also visible throughout the week was the presence and participation of young people. A two-day UN Youth and Innovation Forum held over the weekend before the main conference brought together hundreds of youths from 165 countries. They were told by António Guterres: “Your generation will be essential now to lead tomorrow to be able to manage and reverse this trend and rescue the planet.”
Peter Thomson, the UN special envoy for the ocean, also relayed a “deep apology” from Secretary-General Guterres to the youth of the world, stating that “our generation will spend our remaining years implementing solutions for the problems we have created for them.” In the middle of the week, hundreds of activists took part in a Blue Climate March that finished outside the conference centre, demanding increased and quicker action from leaders.
During the main conference, Abdulla Shahid, president of the UN General Assembly, spoke of the passion and commitment of young people to the environmental cause. Side events highlighted different forms of youth participation in marine protection in different countries. Meanwhile, groups such as the UN’s Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) encouraged delegates to seek “real and meaningful” engagement with youth and scientific experts in policy making.
A crunch year for the ocean
The Lisbon conference came in the middle of a crucial year for progress on environmental protection. In June, members of the World Trade Organization ended more than 20 years of talks to finally reach an agreement on eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies.
Later this year, the UN will also try to finalise a vital new agreement on biodiversity in international waters, also known as the high seas treaty. In Lisbon, ministers from several countries pledged their support for the conclusion of the treaty at the upcoming negotiating session in New York this August.
“The main tragedy of our time is happening beneath the surface of the ocean,” Antonio Costa Silva, Portugal’s minister of economy and of maritime affairs, said at a side event. “There’s a political will to have a [high seas] treaty in August. The ocean is demanding this.”
Progress in Lisbon will also feed into the agenda of two other critical meetings later this year. In November, international climate negotiations will resume at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, before the UN’s COP15 biodiversity negotiations finally take place in December, having been relocated from China to Montreal, Canada. That conference should pave the way for a long-overdue global framework for the protection of biodiversity – including several targets that refer to the ocean.
The next UN Ocean Conference will be co-hosted by France and Costa Rica in the French city of Marseille in 2025, following a preparatory meeting in 2024.
Contributing authors: Fermín Koop, Jessica Aldred, Kebba Jeffang, Regina Lam, Yedan Li, Jack Lo, Mustapha Manneh and Flávia Milhorance
A Chinese translation of this article will be available soon.