United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly, Statement by Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

All courtesies observed. Wherever you are situated, I hope that you and your loved ones are faring well during these times of pandemic. I also hope you are taking strength from the knowledge that we are all inextricably connected. Of all the lessons of this pandemic, the lesson of connectivity, not just between humans, but of all life, is surely the most fundamental one.

I have been asked to say a few words today about the connection between SDG6 and SDG14. As you all well know, SDG6 is our agreed goal of ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; while SDG14 is our agreed goal to conserve and sustainably use the Ocean’s resources.

At the heart of the connection between these goals is the planet’s hydrologic cycle, which describes the continuous movement of water as it makes its eternal circuit from the Ocean to the atmosphere to the earth below. The sun is the engine driving the cycle, giving rise to evaporation from plants, lakes, rivers and the Ocean; while gravity turns the wheels as rain and snow fall from the clouds to earth into the surface and underground waterways that return all that precious liquid back to the Ocean.

Along the course of the hydrologic cycle, plants and animals like us, tap into the water we need to sustain life. But we now see that intense human intervention, principally in the form of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, has impacted the course of the hydrologic cycle through climate change. Scientists have long warned of the effects of climate change which we are now witnessing on a daily basis: rapidly melting glaciers, ravaging floods and droughts, and tropical storms of increasing frequency and ferocity.

But there is another aspect to humanity’s impact on the hydrologic cycle on which I’d like to focus on today, namely anthropogenic pollution. On its way back to the Ocean through streams and rivers, above and below ground, water is subjected to an onslaught of industrial, agricultural and human-waste pollution. It is reliably estimated that about 80% of all marine pollution originates from land-based activities.

Why is this important to us? Firstly, I ask you to consider this maxim: there can be no healthy planet without a healthy Ocean. This would be a ‘ho-hum’ truism were it not for the fact that so many of us still do not recognise the Ocean’s role as the planet’s ultimate governor, covering 70% of its surface, moderating its climate, and serving as the largest repository of life on the planet.

It is doubly important because many people still turn their backs on the fact that anthropogenic activities have caught the Ocean’s health in a cycle of decline.  That decline is clearly observable through marine science’s observation of accelerating rates of Ocean acidification, deoxygenation and warming, destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems, over-fishing and pollution. You have no doubt heard that expert sources have calculated business-as-usual human behaviour will result in there being more plastic than fish in the Ocean by 2050.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The time has passed when we can with impunity disregard the effects of our pollution of the hydrologic cycle. The positive news is that we have universally formulated and agreed to, in the form of SDG6 and SDG14, a set of targets to correct our ways. But let me emphasise that when it comes to SDG14, the attainment of its first two targets, relating to preventing marine pollution and protecting marine ecosystems, will be impossible without major progress in attaining SDG6.

From the years when we were working on the creation of the SDGs at the UN, two of them always assumed huge importance in my mind. Without fresh water, life is impossible, so SDG6 was front and central. And then, since human behaviour was clearly the source of the existential challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and the decline of the Ocean’s health, SDG12 was the pathway to new patterns of sustainable consumption and production. In my mind, without real progress on these two goals, all others would falter.

As I’ve said, everything is connected, and what could be more rudimentary than the connectivity of fresh and salt water through the hydrological cycle. And yet, as has become all too prevalent in human endeavour, we have so often been stuck within our silos. I’m happy to tell you that through application of the Source to Sea or Ridge to Reef ethos, those silos are now being surmounted when it comes to the fresh and salt water communities. In that regard, I applaud the work of the UN agencies and programmes involved, of the UN regional commissions, regional organisations, and such organisations as the Stockholm International Water Institute. I was very pleased to recently witness the latter working closely with IOC-UNESCO in the design and implementation of the UN Decade of Ocean Science that got underway last month.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My allocated time is up. So please allow me to conclude by saying that the time of Ocean science is upon us. We only know about 10% of what the Ocean contains: its genome; its seafloor, its fast-changing ecosystems. The next ten years aim to deliver that 90% of the Ocean’s unknown. This is vital work for us all. Why? Because by 2030 there will be some very important decisions to be taken on humanity’s relationship with this planet. Since the Ocean covers 70% of the planet, full knowledge of its priorities will obviously be essential to us making the right decisions, thus the Decade of Ocean Science assumes existential importance for us all.

I have four grandchildren. All four are girls and if for no other reason than the preservation of our species, I will be encouraging them all to turn to science. Hopefully one will fulfil their grandfather’s dream and become an Ocean scientist. The youngest of the girls was born last year, so she will be eighty by the end of this century. By then if we continue with current behaviour and trends, the World Meteorological Organisation forecasts we will be experiencing a global temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a world on fire, a scenario which is quite obviously unacceptable to any loving parent or grandparent. We have work to do. And that is why a net-zero carbon world by 2050 has become the inescapable demand of every responsible citizen of this planet.


I thank you for your attention.