United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development
News

UN General Assembly’s High-Level Thematic Debate on the Ocean, Opening Session speech by Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean

Mr President,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen

My apologies for not being present in person, in spite of best endeavours. I spent all yesterday at Heathrow airport, but due to Covid restrictions was unable to board a flight to New York.

Mr President,

On the 25th day of September 2015, with the bang of a gavel up on this high podium, SDG14, our universal goal of conserving and sustainably using the Ocean’s resources, began its fifteen-year journey.

Six years later, it is fitting that we are called to the General Assembly Hall to consider SDG14’s progress. As President Bozkir put it in his convening letter to you all, “this gathering will serve as a drumbeat to generate momentum towards the Conference in Lisbon.”

Mr President, on behalf of all who are striving to faithfully implement SDG14 around the world, I thank you for bringing us together for today’s high-level SDG14 debate.

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen

When I ask myself, “How is the implementation of SDG14 faring?”, the answer I arrive at is this. Compared with the indifferent waters through which we were sailing before SDG14’s arrival, Ocean Action is now flourishing around the world. Progress is tangible in Ocean literacy and awareness of Ocean issues; marine protected area coverage is growing steadily, as is scientific knowledge of the Ocean with the timely launch of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The Ocean Decade will have a leading role to play at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon next year, as the flag-bearer of SDG14.a’s target of increasing scientific knowledge to improve the Ocean’s health.

But truth be told, how can we claim anything near success when a third of assessed global fish-stocks are being overfished; when with no tangible end in sight, we have dumped around 150 million metric tons of accumulating plastic waste, microplastics and discarded fishing gear into the Ocean; and while the rates of Ocean acidification, deoxygenation and warming are all continuing to head in the wrong direction? We cannot. Therefore, we have much work to do and should not be satisfied until the Ocean’s well-being has been secured, until we have reached a net zero carbon economy, and restored our relationship with the Ocean to one of respect and balance.

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen

At the heart of SDG14 is the Sustainable Blue Economy. Based upon principles of circularity and sustainability, from nutrition to medicine, from energy to carbon sequestration and pollution-free transportation, the sustainable blue economy is the bedrock upon which a secure future for humanity can be built.

This reality has been confirmed by the many expert reports published by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, emphasising that with the expected surge in Ocean science, and a global spread of science-based sustainable Ocean plans, that finance will start flowing at scale into a truly Sustainable Blue Economy.

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen

Between now and the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon next year, there is much that can be accomplished in implementing SDG14.

More countries can support SDG14.4 and combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, by signing up to, and vigorously applying, FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement.

Likewise, overfishing can be overcome by reinforcing Regional Fisheries Management Organisations and fastidious Member State compliance with FAO and RFMO agreements.

It is well within the competence of the WTO Ministerial Meeting this July to bring an end to harmful fisheries subsidies. Doing so will carry SDG14.6 to a successful conclusion and will provide coastal ecosystems and small-scale artisanal fishers with the relief they need from the industrial fishing fleets that have been the chief beneficiaries of these subsidies, thereby assisting our efforts to achieve both SDG14.7 and SDG14.b.

Marine protected areas have been scientifically demonstrated as crucial for a healthy Ocean, for growing fish populations and conserving ecosystems. Moving from SDG14.5’s target of conserving 10% of the Ocean by 2020, to the 30% target envisaged for the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, will be a game-changing result of the CBD COP in Kunming this October. It should be noted by all that success in reaching these global protection targets, will heavily depend on CCAMLR designating further marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean.

There is growing support for a global plastic pollution treaty and UNEA5 in Nairobi next February presents the best opportunity to bring this to reality. What is called for is a robust agreement that gets to the root causes of marine plastic pollution and enables a truly recyclable plastics economy, including international measures to shift from virgin polymer production to recycled polymers.

In the meantime, such is the extent of our dependency on plastic that we find no silver bullet for the plague of marine plastic pollution. Many moves will be required to meet SDG14.1 and 14.2, including exponentially increased funding for developing countries to invest in fully functioning waste collection and disposal infrastructure, and implementing widely advocated systems of reduction, recycling, and plastic substitution.

Adoption by all countries of the Source-to-Sea ethos, and diligence in applying it, will overcome the damage we are currently doing to coastal ecosystems through our industrial, agricultural, urban and sewerage effluence.

Mr President,

I close my remarks today with a deep bow to connectivity. It is after all, the fundamental lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are connected to Nature, not on an equal footing, not as in a relationship with a business partner, not connected in such a manner that disconnection is a sustainable option. We are connected within Nature’s nurturing embrace, such that if we choose to poison Nature through pollution and extermination of biodiversity, we are in fact poisoning ourselves.

The IPCC has reported that 70 to 90 per cent of tropical coral reefs will be gone when we reach global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile WMO informs us we are heading to over 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

The Ocean is acidifying at the fastest rate in the history of the planet. It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many Ocean ecosystems and species to adapt to such rapid change, and the SDG14.3 target will only succeed if we can control our anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will assure us a net zero global economy by 2050.

It is thus that the road to next year’s UN Ocean Conference leads through the CBD COP in Kunming in October, UNFCCC’s COP in Glasgow in November, and through UNEA5 in Nairobi in February next year. The Ocean’s massive contribution to required mitigation and adaptation in the face of Climate Change and Biodiversity loss is readily at hand; but if we wish to receive those benefits, henceforth protecting its well-being must be at the centre of considerations.

Excellencies

Ladies and Gentlemen

In your collective wisdom, you have mandated a theme for the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon that focuses on science, innovation, solutions and partnerships. Performing to this mandate and ruling our thoughts, decisions and actions with the principles of sustainability and intergenerational justice, I do believe that coming out of the Lisbon conference, we will find ourselves on a true course for delivery of the targets of SDG14 by 2030.