A healthy ocean is critical to solving global issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food insecurity. However, the health of the ocean has steadily declined in recent decades.
To understand the big moments for 2023, it’s important to look at the commitments made in 2022, which the international conservation community called the “Super Year for the Ocean.”
Was 2022 a ‘Super Year for the Ocean’?
Last year, there were multiple high-level opportunities for decision-makers to take significant, meaningful action and raise the collective ambition in pursuit of a healthy and sustainable ocean, but did 2022 live up to its “Super Year” name?
It began with the passage of a resolution by the UN Environment Assembly 5 to produce the world’s first international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. Later, the World Trade Organization’s agreement on harmful fisheries subsidies was met after 21 years of negotiations.
These moments were followed by the UN Ocean Conference, where $1 billion was promised from philanthropic organizations to help protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.
And later at COP15, countries adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, with the ”30 by 30” commitment to protect at least 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, aiming to ultimately put humanity on course for “living in harmony with nature by 2050.”
Despite this global progress toward a more sustainable world, the ocean and the benefits it provides remain at risk. Analysis shows the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the ocean in 2022, creating a serious cause for concern.
The 2022 commitments will not enact change in the water without meaningful implementation and action to back them up. Moreover, the “super year” is perhaps an unhelpful label when the window of opportunity to tackle the existential threats to our planet is closing. This year is therefore another critical year where commitments made must translate into ambitious tangible action. Ensuring the ocean’s health must now become a continuous aspect of life on earth.
This year, there will be five major moments that can help make progress in restoring and maintaining ocean health:
1) Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty Negotiations (Feb. 20 – March 3, New York)
There is currently no overarching treaty to protect global ocean biodiversity in marine areas not included in national jurisdictions, known as the high seas. The high seas comprise over 95% of the ocean by volume and provide invaluable ecological, economic, social, cultural, scientific and food-security benefits to humanity.
The existing legal frameworks are also insufficient to prevent biodiversity loss.
After negotiators for the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions (BBNJ) Treaty failed to reach an agreement in August 2022, talks will resume in February to create a legally binding treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity within the high seas.
With so much at stake, the final round of negotiations will be a vital moment. Even with the success of COP15, most of the ocean is not within national jurisdiction, so an international treaty is critical for safeguarding marine biodiversity.
2) A Focus on Marine Tourism and Pollution at Our Ocean Conference (March 2-3, Panama)
The eighth annual Our Ocean Conference is an important international event that enables collaborative dialogue between heads of state, the private sector, civil society and academic institutions to advance action for a healthy and productive ocean. The conference is built around voluntary, measurable, impactful commitments to protect the ocean.
Since the first conference in 2014, over 70 countries have announced more than 1,800 commitments worth more than $108 billion. This year the host, Panama, has proposed the key focus areas include sustainable marine and coastal tourism, marine plastic pollution and the ecological connectivity of the ocean.
Recent reports show marine and coastal tourism represents at least 50% of total global tourism equalling $4.6 trillion or 5.2% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). However, tourism is not without its negative impacts, contributing 8% of global emissions pre-Covid and putting pressure on local environments. Marine and coastal tourism heavily relies on ocean ecosystems to draw in tourists and so transitioning to a more sustainable tourism model is crucial to ocean health and industry longevity.
The topic of marine plastic pollution is an equally important focus as it has infiltrated every aspect of the ocean from microscopic tissues of plankton to the depths of the Mariana trench (the world’s deepest ocean trench in the Pacific).
Ocean ecosystems and the organisms within them are interrelated with changes in one affecting another. This ecological connectivity can impact local economies through changes such as fish population decline and coral reef degradation which can influence trades such as food production and tourism. Because of this ecological and economic connectivity, more holistic management methods are needed to ensure the longevity of both.
Addressing these focus areas through commitments from private and public sectors in addition to unlocking finance to enact necessary changes in these areas would have considerable implications on ocean health.
3) Advancement of Deep-Sea Mining Regulations
The deep sea — generally defined as the depth where light begins to dwindle, typically around 200 meters (656 feet) — is home to unique species and plays a critical role in life systems that keep our planet healthy. However, as demand has risen for minerals and metals found on the seabed, countries have announced plans to map these areas and begin mining for materials including silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN body overseeing the controversial deep-sea mining industry, was given two years to finalize governing regulations after the island nation of Nauru triggered the “two-year rule” by announcing their plans to begin mining. If plans are approved, commercial seabed mining could begin as early as July 2023.
Already, the ISA has issued mining exploration contracts that cover 1 million square kilometers. This remains a controversial issue, with some countries calling for a moratorium or a precautionary pause put in place to minimize the environmental impact and some pushing for regulations to be established as soon as possible. This pause would also allow time to gather evidence and fill knowledge gaps relating to potential socio-economic and ecological impacts of mining activities in the deep sea.
4) Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights
The Ocean Race has launched a campaign for a Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights to give the ocean legal rights within a multilateral governance system. The campaign will collect signatures across the world during 2023 to be presented at the UN General Assembly in September. Monaco, Cabo Verde and Panama have already voiced their support.
Many Indigenous and coastal communities have embraced nature’s rights for centuries, and the concept is gaining traction. Countries including Ecuador, New Zealand, Colombia, Australia, the U.S., Bangladesh and India have all recently included legislation in their own nations on nature’s rights. Furthermore, Spain approved a law that will grant the Mar Menor (Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon) and its entire basin legal personhood, making it the first ecosystem in Europe to have its own rights recognized.
For the ocean to have its rights recognized, it would legally have the same protection as people and corporations; having the legal rights to exist, thrive and regenerate. This could open new pathways for litigation in protecting and preserving essential ecosystems and the benefits they provide to communities.
5) Recognition of the Ocean as a Fundamental Climate Component
UN climate negotiations in 2022 (COP27) strengthened the mandate for the UNFCCC Ocean and Climate Change Dialogue — an annual stepping-stone towards greater and more comprehensive climate change dialogue that began last June.
It is hoped that the second dialogue and COP28 in Dubai will continue to highlight the ocean as a fundamental component of the climate system. More than that, these discussions must seek to integrate ocean-based climate actions into countries’ climate goals, as research shows that ocean-based climate solutions can deliver up to 21% of the annual greenhouse gas emission cuts needed in 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). Given this potential, it is essential that the ocean is recognized as a key part of decision-making at COP28.
However, among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by the United Nations in 2012 to end poverty and protect the planet, the ocean SDG remains the most underfunded. Therefore, a critical outcome of COP28 would be a commitment from both state and private sectors to make sufficient funding available for ocean-based climate solutions, ensuring they are adequately implemented to unlock their maximum potential for people, nature and planet.
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