Our civilization is inflicting major damage on the ocean, the dominant feature and largest ecosystem of our planet. The decline in its health is undermining the ocean’s crucial life-supporting functions for humanity. The consequences of human inability to live in harmony with nature and the ocean are accruing in three very closely connected and interacting domains: climate, biodiversity, and the economy. As customary, the worst scenario awaits the poor and underprivileged.
The compliance with and the rate of implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement will shape future changes in ocean physics, dynamics, biogeochemistry, and biology. Already these are manifesting in warming, acidification, deoxygenation, sea-level rise, sea-ice melt, and so on. Increased severity of storms and alterations in patterns of long-term atmospheric variability are expected. The ability of the ocean to continue to absorb carbon from the atmosphere may weaken, potentially requiring adjustment of climate scenarios. Expanding economic interests still prevail over the conservation considerations.
Practically all ocean ecosystems, especially coastal, are affected by unsustainable fishing, human activities, habitat destruction, and various facets of climate change. Multiple stressors are negatively impacting many marine species and disrupting natural food webs. Warm water corals that host one third of all marine species are practically doomed to bleach and die. This is the image of the sixth major period of species extinction in the last 450 million years occurring now. Growth scenarios of some key ocean-economy sectors (such as fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism) are strongly climate-change dependent.
Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015, several authoritative global assessments on the ocean have surfaced: In 2016, the UN published the first edition of the World Ocean Assessment and in 2021 released its second edition. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued its Global Assessment Report. In 2019 to 2020, multiple experts associated with the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (HLP, comprising 14 heads of state or government) authored more than 20 reports on the status of the ocean and potential solutions.
In light of the aforementioned assessments, the existential issue of sustaining the ocean, previously believed to be a limitless resource, is starting to be mainstreamed in the international agenda. Notable is Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life below Water), with 10 useful targets. The Paris Agreement has just a single reference to the ocean in its preamble. However, after the presentation of SROCC to the UNFCCC, its Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice has initiated an Ocean and Climate Dialogue. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction refers to coastal vulnerability. Various global and regional international conventions on ocean protection and fisheries are in action. The UN is working on an international legally binding instrument (ILBI), under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The approach to ocean protection that, up until now, has been based more on goodwill should become both legally binding and based on science.
Awareness about the ocean as a common heritage of humankind is broadening and strengthening. The ubiquitous threat of plastic pollution is widely known. The Our Oceans conferences have been instrumental in attracting voluntary support for ocean protection. The UN Ocean Conference in 2017 saw previously unimaginable interest and inspired more than 1,600 voluntary commitments towards ocean sustainability. There are now high-profile individuals and multiple groups of influencers advocating for the ocean. Since 1992, World Oceans Day has been celebrated annually on 8 June. There is great potential to proactively expand the awareness through ‘ocean literacy’ activities. Lessons about the ocean should be systematically taught in schools, as part of the curriculum.
All sustainable solutions seeking to protect the planet’s largest ecosystem need to follow a two-pronged approach:
- continue mainstreaming the ocean in the international political agenda
- on a number of key issues, as detailed below
Overall, there is a need to urgently move towards integrated ocean management through coordinated and comprehensive planning based on sound science. The developments have been promising. The unprecedented scope and depth of the HLP analysis of ocean issues (health, economy, governance, and so on) resulted in the publicly announced commitment by the 14 countries to start sustainably managing 100% of the ocean area within their national jurisdiction by 2025. The HLP calls on other countries to follow suit by 2030. The HLP analysis concluded that if the ocean is sustainably managed, it could generate six times more food than it does today through fisheries and aquaculture. It could also produce 40 times more renewable energy (mostly through wind turbines and solar batteries) and massively increase the scale of the ocean’s contribution to the world economy. The key conditions needed for this sustainable ‘sea change’ include adequate planning based on data, links to national accounting, de-risking investments, and stopping pollution from entering the ocean from land.
These previously non-existent or not recognized possibilities call for significant strengthening of governmental support towards expansion of ocean management, namely:
- coastal zone management
- maritime spatial planning
- establishment of effective marine-protected areas
- development of real-time oceanographic services and early-warning systems
The prerequisite for success is reliance on capable science. The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021 to 2030) is expected to:
- mainstream ocean science
- co-design and realize a new global ocean observation and data system
- offer a new level of certainty and transparency about the state of the ocean
- bring the capacity of all countries to the level needed to sustainably manage their exclusive economic zones and the ocean beyond them, focusing on science for solutions
The Decade of Ocean Science aims to develop ‘the science we need for the ocean we want’ (that is, a scientifically and sustainably managed ocean). With humankind living now in the geological epoch of the ‘Anthropocene’, only this approach can stop the “suicidal war on nature”, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
In addition to the systematic approach outlined above, we must meet a number of milestones on the way to achieving the ocean we need for the future we want. These are:
- bringing the issues of climate change impact on the ocean and ocean-based climate solutions to the core UNFCCC debate
- satisfactory conclusion of negotiations at the World Trade Organization on stopping harmful state subsidies for large-scale fisheries
- completion of the BBNJ ILBI and developing an implementation plan for the instrument
- establishing by 2030, on the basis of science, well-chosen and effective marine protected areas covering 30% of the ocean area
- implementing science-based, transparent, and fair fishery and sea food management, with effective port state control and end-to-end food origin tracing
- eliminating food wastage and better using food resources from fisheries and aquaculture to combat hunger and malnutrition, support human health, and reduce environmental impact from agriculture
- increasing investment in ocean-based renewable energy, turning it into a significant share of the global energy supply
- establishing measures that strengthen the resilience and insurability of coastal zones, building on ocean-borne risk assessment and build-up of early-warning systems for storms, tsunamis, floods, harmful algal blooms, and so on
- equitable inclusion of local coastal populations in sustainable coastal and ocean planning and related economic development
Humankind has tested the limits of the ocean’s ability to support life. On multiple fronts, ocean ecosystems are approaching tipping points. The causes and consequences of these threats are known, but capabilities to remedy the situation exist. Even more than that, the ocean can function as an amplifier whose sustainable management can help solve the major challenges that humankind faces and be an ally in climate action and delivering the SDGs. Action on the ocean should be at the core of international efforts to build forward better. But most of the action toward managing the ocean sustainably should occur at a national level, embracing not only leaders, but many other categories of stakeholders. In return, a healthy ocean will share its health with people.