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United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

The Ocean that Belongs to Us All, Clube de Lisboa Conference, Closing Remarks by Ambassador Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean


Ladies and Gentlemen,   

All courtesies observed and greetings to you all as we together in cyberspace. I hope that wherever and whatever your circumstances, that you and your families are safe and well. And I trust that everyone is finding it in their hearts to exercise the best of human traits: of sharing, of empathy and of kindness to our fellows and those who are suffering the most in our communities as a consequence of this pandemic.

As you may know, my role as Special Envoy is to lead the charge around the world for the implementation of SDG14, the Ocean Goal to conserve and sustainably use the Ocean’s resources. We universally agreed to this Sustainable Development Goal at the United Nations back in the year 2015. As such I’m deeply grateful to the Clube de Lisboa for organising the conference in which we have participated these last two days. It has done much to advance Ocean literacy by better informing us all on crucial marine issues; thus ,as well as the Clube de Lisboa, I would like to praise the commitment of the other partners and supporters of the conference, including the Japanese Embassy in Lisbon, the European Maritime Safety Agency, the Oceano Azul Foundation, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, the Portuguese Hydrographic Institution, the Institutu Marquês de Valle Flôr, and the Municipality of Lisboa. Obrigado a todos!

I would like to put my closing remarks to this conference within the context of the times in which we live. 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. He reported that one million species are at risk of extinction and that ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes. He said the Ocean is being overfished, is increasingly choking with plastic waste and that due to anthropogenic GHG emissions, coral reefs, the great bunkers of Ocean biodiversity, are bleaching and dying. 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.

From the reports of the IPCC, of IPBES, and of WMO, to the daily ecological disasters witnessed around the world, we are coming to understand the scale of the environmental effects of global warming; and only the shameless now deny the anthropogenic causes of our predicament. Continue on the current track of global warming and throughout the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren, Malthusian effects will be kicking in with increasing frequency and ferocity. We are in the middle of one of those effects right now with this Covid-19 pandemic.

I sum up our predicament in the shape of coral. The IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, states with high confidence that 99% of coral reefs will be lost when we go through the dreaded level of 2 degrees Celsius. Coral reefs are home to 30% of marine life, they are the bunkers of marine biodiversity, and it’s an understatement to say their loss will have major consequences for the health of the Ocean. At this point, remember that we cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy Ocean.

Our predicament is that we are not heading to a destination of 2 degrees; the world is currently on track for warming of over 3 degrees by the end of the twenty-first century. That is a world on fire and that is a timeframe within the life of my granddaughter, Rose Thomson, who was born last year and has been the light of my life throughout this pandemic.

And so, this is the context of our times, the time when we all became aware of the boiling seas of jeopardy into which we are casting our children and theirs if we continue with this war against Nature. Before it is too late, and that hour is near, we must make peace with Nature. In short, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the time to be among the peacemakers or suffer the bitter consequences.

And so, let me now turn to what we are doing to correct our ways, to bring ourselves to the peace table, and commit to returning humanity’s place on this planet to one lived in respect for, and in balance within, Mother Nature’s eternal embrace.

We have in the shape of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda the blueprint for a secure and equitable future. The challenge is to implement the provisions of the blueprint and it is no secret that we have been lagging. In his address to the UNFCCC COP in Madrid in 2019, in the midst of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Secretary-General Guterres said that even if the Paris commitments were fully met it would not be enough. He said then that the only solution was rapid, ambitious, transformative action by all governments, business and civil society working towards a common goal.

The transformative action to which all of us are called is moving to a net zero economy by 2050. Science has established that this is the destination we must reach, one in which we emit no more carbon dioxide than we remove from the atmosphere. Get to a net zero economy by 2050 and we will keep global warming well below that fateful level of 2 degrees Celsius.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Permit me here to paraphrase Shakespeare. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune…On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current while it serves or lose our ventures.” The full sea to which I refer is filled by the EU Green Deal, by President Xi committing China to a net zero economy by 2060, the re-entry of the United States to the Paris Agreement, and the heightening of national ambitions as we approach the all-important UNFCCC COP in Glasgow this November.

In his annual letter last month, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the American company managing nearly nine trillion dollars’ worth of global assets, addressed the move to a net zero economy. Mr Fink wrote, “I believe that the pandemic has presented such an existential crisis – such a stark reminder of our fragility – that it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives.” He goes on to say, “From January through November 2020, investors in mutual funds and ETFs invested 288 billion dollars globally in sustainable assets, a 96% increase over the whole of 2019. I believe that this is the beginning of a long but rapidly accelerating transition – one that will unfold over many years and reshape asset prices of every type. We know that climate risk is investment risk. But we also believe the climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity.”

As they say, money talks, and if the CEO of BlackRock speaks in favour of taking the current while it serves, the voyage to our destination of a net zero economy is looking ever more auspicious.

How does all this relate to the Ocean and the implementation of SDG14, Ladies and Gentlemen? Well, you may have heard my mantra that there cannot be a healthy planet without a healthy Ocean, to which I should add the Ocean’s health is currently in decline. The chief cause of that decline is the burgeoning levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere, which are then absorbed into the Ocean causing acidification, deoxygenation and warming. Thus, a net zero economy is absolutely fundamental to ending the cycle of decline in which the Ocean’s health has been caught.

Secondly, at the heart of SDG14 is the Sustainable Blue Economy. In this regard I urge you to read the many reports published by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, reports prepared by over 250 experts from around the world, guided by fourteen serving heads of government, including Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa. From sustainable aquaculture to the greening of shipping, from marine genetic resources to offshore energy production, developing the Sustainable Blue Economy will mitigate climate change, create massive employment in blue-green industries, and provide us with the medicines and healthy nutrition we need for a secure future.

Ladies and Gentlemen, how can we elevate the Sustainable Blue Economy to a level that it may carry us to a prosperous net zero world? The answer is that it needs massive intensification of science, planning and finance. 90% of the Ocean is unknown to science, so we are going to set that deficit right through the UN Decade of Ocean Science that got underway last month. On the basis of good science, we are expecting over the next decade to see Sustainable Ocean Plans put in place in every Exclusive Economic Zone on the planet – the fourteen heads of government on the High-Level Panel have agreed to have their countries Sustainable Ocean Plans done by 2025. And on the basis of these science-based plans, we are confident finance will start flowing at the scale necessary to enable global transition to a truly Sustainable Blue Economy.

In closing, Ladies and Gentlemen, since the outset of Kenya and Portugal being mandated to co-host the next UN Ocean Conference, it has been an honour and a pleasure to work alongside the representatives of these two countries. May I say that Portugal’s deep commitment to the Ocean’s well-being has been a very inspiring national ethos to have witnessed from the inside.

Reflecting back on yesterday’s address to this conference by Portugal’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Francisco Duarte Lopes, he clearly set out the many steps being taken by the international community to reverse the decline in the Ocean’s health. It is my lucky fate to have served alongside him in setting many of these steps in place. Chief amongst them is the UN Ocean Conference to be held in Lisbon next year, for this will be a moment of innovation, of truth, of sharing, and of strengthening our resolve for SDG14’s implementation.

From all my engagements with Ocean-oriented communities and countries around the world, I can assure you that expectations for the Lisbon conference are high. I believe that given the importance of the Ocean’s well-being to the future of life on this planet, and never forgetting the context of the times in which we live, the setting of such a high bar is as it should be. So, I will close my words today by affirming to you all in Lisbon that I share with you in both aspiration and responsibility to deliver on that high expectation at the UN Ocean Conference next year. Let us take the current while its serves.

I thank you.