Seas The Day

The time to protect our oceans is NOW. That's the subject of an annual international conference that kicks off today. But does the Our Ocean summit go far enough?

October 23, 2019

10:42 am

When the author of this blog was a kid, there were nine planets and four oceans. Today, there are eight planets, and five oceans.

That 25% increase in the number of Earthly oceans (the Southern Ocean is the one most recently recognized) is, well, pretty much the only good ocean news we’ve had since.

Marine pollution, overfishing, the devastating weather impact of the climate crisis, and rising sea levels are just some of the ocean’s major challenges, which will impact all of us, whether we live on a Small Island Developing State or in a landlocked country far from the shores of one of the five oceans.

These will be the primary topics on the agenda at the sixth annual Our Ocean conference, underway today in Norway (Oct. 23-24). The Our Ocean conferences are an ocean-centric version of the annual COP (Conference of the Parties) conferences, the most well-known of which is COP21, aka the 2015 Paris Conference, at which the 196 members of the UN unanimously agreed “to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low-carbon future.”

The Our Ocean annual event began as a U.S. State Department-sponsored affair, and for its first three years was held in Washington, D.C. Then the European Union took over for the fourth (in Malta), and has now moved to a country-sponsored model, with Indonesia hosting and sponsoring last year’s fifth conference, and Norway handling this year’s. (The event will move to a Small Island Developing State next year, as Palau will host the seventh Our Ocean conference).

But the staging of the annual event is recognition by the public and private sectors and civil society that the oceans carry a disproportionate responsibility for the health and sustainability of the planet. According to Norway’s Our Ocean website,

  • “The ocean has absorbed 90 % of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, as well as 30 % of the CO2 generated by humans.”
  • “Marine pollution is causing major ecological shifts, serious losses of biodiversity and reduced commercial yields. The amount of plastic litter in the ocean is rapidly increasing. Higher levels of nutrients and wastewater are leaking into the ocean because of climate change and coastal degradation. The result is large dead zones where there is no oxygen.”
  • “Many human activities take place at sea. For example, 90 % of world trade is supported by maritime transport. That means that safety and security at sea are vital for prosperity and peace.”

The Our Ocean conferences, by design, seek commitments to the obstacles on the agenda, and to this point has posted nearly 1,000 commitments from civil society and public and private sector entities. Those include:

  • The Republic of Congo’s special marine conservation zone, a 1,970 square-kilometer effort in Loango Bay, in the city of Pointe-Noire, to protect sea turtles and sharks.
  • Tulane University’s international Nitrogen Reduction Challenge, which in 2017 awarded $1 million “to the most effective solution proven to reduce marine nutrient pollution from crop fertilizer runoff while enhancing crop yields”
  • The Seychelles government’s Marine Spatial Plan Initiative, a plan to protect 1,374,000 km2 of ocean and 115 islands
  • The Coca-Cola Company’s World Without Waste, a goal of helping “collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle and can we sell globally by 2030,” a program that “will contribute to a circular economy through a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment that includes ongoing work to make all our packaging 100% recyclable by the year 2025 and to include 50% recycled content across all our primary packaging globally by 2030”

All of the commitments can be tracked at the Our Ocean website (on the “Commitments” tab), thus holding the commitment makers accountable. For example, while the Tulane University effort has indeed been awarded, the Republic of Congo’s progress stands at 0%.

There will be a number of international dignitaries speaking on panels, as well, including the heads of state of Norway, Palau (hosting the 2020 conference), and Senegal, as well as current and former foreign ministers from another 10 countries, including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The conference is not without its detractors, however. Greenpeace, for one, notes that, while the Our Ocean conference “is an event for governments, corporations and NGOs to discuss what needs to be done to protect the ocean,” that “all too often it amounts to baby steps and empty words. That’s not the scale of action we need to meet the existential threats facing the ocean.”

Instead, Greenpeace is calling for stronger commitments: “This time, we’re demanding more than empty promises. We are calling on governments to step forward and commit to fighting for a strong Global Ocean Treaty that will allow us to protect at least 30% of the global oceans by 2030.

Greenpeace also openly worries that Norway is using the conference to greenwash its reputation. “The conference is hosted by Norway — a country that is in NoWay doing all they can to solve the crisis our blue planet is facing. Of course they still want to look good, and hosting this conference is one of the ways they try to do that. But our oceans don’t need leaders to look good, they need real solutions and concrete action.”

There’s no argument here that we need real solutions and concrete action. Here is hoping that more commitments are made, and that we can hold accountable those that are making them — as well as those who are not.

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