United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Implementing SDG 14 with the Communities of Ocean Action, Opening Remarks by UNSG’s Special Envoy, Ambassador Peter Thomson


Ladies and Gentlemen

In his State of the Planet address delivered at Colombia University in New York last December, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said humanity is waging a suicidal war upon Nature. A year earlier at the Climate COP in Madrid, he had warned that three major reports of the IPCC confirm we are knowingly destroying the life-support systems of our planet. We have to ask ourselves whether we have sufficiently accepted the reality of that message and whether we are making the necessary transformations and preparations with the speed required.

In the midst of the message, we are confronted by a looming predicament, one I describe by linking the fate of coral to that of humans. The IPCC has confirmed with a high degree of certainty, that 99% of coral reefs will be dead when we go through the dreaded level of 2 degrees Celsius. At this point, remember that we cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy Ocean, and corals are vital to a healthy Ocean.

Our great predicament is that we are not heading to a destination of 2 degrees; on the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, we are heading to a temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. That is a direct quote from the head of the World Meteorological Organisation, and that, if we continue on this misguided path, is a world on fire. As a loving grandfather, I refuse that future for my grandchildren.

I hope you believe in the dictum, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” That is my lodestar of hope. None of us should imagine we are powerless. There is so much that has to be done, as members of families, companies, communities and countries; so many choices to be made to secure the common good; so many transformations necessary to get us to the haven of a net zero world by 2050. And so, with every day that passes, the question has to be, “What am I doing today to help us reach the haven.”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the Secretary-General’s State of the Planet speech, he also stressed the need “to deal with direct climate action, but simultaneously protect the Ocean and protect biodiversity.”

And more recently I heard the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, Senator John Kerry, say, “For far too long, an Ocean meeting was an Ocean meeting and a climate negotiation was just that, a climate negotiation, without people recognising the interconnectedness and the majesty of the ecosystem. So, we need to say goodbye to silos. When you are meeting about the Ocean, you are meeting about the climate.” And of course, vice-versa applies.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are all on the virtual road to Kunming, Glasgow and Lisbon, and if we meet silos in the course of that journey they must be confronted. If in spite of best efforts, their doors remain closed, we’ll have to just walk around them, and continue along the direct path to our common destination: which is that of a net zero world by 2050.

At this late stage, we no longer have the luxury of time. We must press on, and if we manage to finesse the connectivity between Climate Change, Biodiversity loss, and the decline of the Ocean’s health, we may find in our hands the key that unlocks the solutions to our great predicament.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I said in a speech a few days ago during the Monaco Ocean Week, there is every reason to draw confidence from the exponential accumulation and open sharing of the knowledge we will acquire from the UN Decade of Ocean Science. We can see from IOC-UNESCO’s implementation plan for the Decade that this is no straw horse, it is already apparent that the Decade will be the great leap forward, long-demanded, in our understanding of the Ocean’s properties.

The positive implications of equitable sharing of this accumulating scientific knowledge of the Ocean could prove to be the existential bedrock of humanity’s future. From renewable energy to carbon sequestration, from sustainable blue foods to new medicines in the wake of the declining antibiotic age, we look with hope and determination to the findings of the UN Decade of Ocean Science. I say again to everyone, get involved in this momentous collaboration. There is one Ocean, and it is our future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

May I take you back to the approach to 2015 and the negotiations leading to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Plastic pollution was massing on tidelines, overfishing and illegal fishing were on the rise, coral reefs were bleaching and dying, mangroves disappearing, sea levels rising, the evidence was in front of our eyes; yet let’s not forget what an uphill battle it was to bring SDG14 into existence.

Then came the 2017 UN Conference to support SDG14’s implementation, when the world’s Ocean activists, from academia to NGOs, from youth representatives to the business world, joined with Member States in New York at the UN in a show of global concern. That proved to be a turning point in the world’s attention to the Ocean’s problems.

Out of the 2017 conference came the voluntary commitments, initiatives from around the world aimed at implementing aspects of SDG14. These now number over 1640, and we’re having a good look at them today courtesy of the report commissioned by UNDESA – “Assessment of the Impacts of the United Nations Ocean Conference Voluntary Commitments”.

Between now and during the UN Conference in Lisbon next year, these commitments will grow in number and content. It is therefore timely that we learn from their experience to date, before elevating to the next stage. In all of this work, the Communities of Ocean Action, formed after the first UN Conference to shepherd the voluntary commitments, have played and will continue to play a key role. It is therefore a pleasure to welcome many of the focal points of the Communities of Ocean Action as speakers and panellists today.

I greatly look forward to hearing from them over the next ninety minutes.

Thank you for your attention to these opening remarks.