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UN Oceans meeting – Opening Remarks by UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Ambassador Peter Thomson

Excellencies, Under-Secretary-General, Dear Colleagues,

All courtesies observed and greetings to one and all. Wherever you may be, I trust that you and your loved ones are safe and well during these troubled times. I thank you for the privilege of addressing the annual meeting of UN Oceans.

To set the scene for our discussions today, I have been asked to give my views on the progress of SDG14 and to touch on areas where accelerated action is required in the lead-up to the next UN Ocean Conference. To set the scene for the work of implementing SDG14 we must view it within the context of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When we reach consensus to bind ourselves to painstakingly negotiated international agreements, we are obliged thereafter to honour the intent and actions required of us by those agreements. The alternative to staying true to them, is to give primacy to the self-interests of our nations and groupings, progressing haphazardly, some would say freely, in the direction of what used to be called progress but which is increasingly coming into focus as a state of unprecedented unsustainability.

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 three degrees-plus 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 in the shape of the Covid-19 pandemic. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it this way in his State of the Planet speech last week; he said that humanity is at war with Nature and that it’s time for us to make peace.

Dear Colleagues,

It is through this peace-making lens that we must see our work on the 2030 Agenda, and within it SDG14 awaits its faithful implementation by us all. Speakers from the specialised agencies and organisations will address us in more detail during today’s meetings, but in the short time available to me, I will highlight a few points on the progress of SDG14.


On SDG14.1, only a fantasist would claim we are winning the war against marine plastic pollution, but the good news is that awareness has reached levels that have provoked positive action in countries around the world, from government legislation to community and individual behavioural change. But we are still very much at the beginning of this battle and much hope rests upon UNEA and the creation of a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution.

SDG14.2 calls for sustainable management of marine and coastal ecosystems, and here I would point you to the outcomes of the seminal work of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which has arrived at a commitment by the 14 serving Heads of Government concerned to manage 100% of their national EEZs by 2025 under Sustainable Ocean Plans. They have called upon their peers to have all EEZs of the world managed in this way by 2030.

SDG14.3’s target of addressing Ocean acidification can be said to be progressing positively as a result of the dedicated and well-organised groups involved, but the problem of Ocean acidification, along with Ocean warming and deoxygenation continues to trend in the wrong direction. These trends are driven by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, so all eyes are now on the level of transformation to be achieved at the Glasgow COP in November.


On SDG14.4, FAO’s SOFIA report this year showed that of the global fish stocks assessed, 34.2% are being fished at biologically unsustainable levels, in other words over-fished. This unpalatable reality remains as big work ahead for us all, with greater resource and partnership required to tackle over-fishing both within problem RFMOs and some of our EEZs. When it comes to SDG14.4’s overall progress, there are some strong positives in evidence, including increasing signatories to FAO’s Port States Measures Agreement, and firm evidence emerging of well-governed RFMOs resulting in biologically sustainable levels of catch.

On SDG14.5 and the conservation of at least 10% of marine areas, even though great advances have been made, we will fall short of the 2020 target. UNEP-WCMC’s World Database on Protected Areas currently shows a figure of 7.72% registered, but I should note this doesn’t include recently declared MPAs such as that of Tristan da Cunha and many others that are in the pipeline. Much work remains to improve the governance of existing MPAs, and without doubt, a healthy Ocean will require 100% effective governance of both the High Seas and EEZs within the coming decade.

SDG14.6 calls for an end to harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020 and negotiations at WTO have been ongoing, with increased intensity in recent months in spite of the pandemic’s restrictions. Convergence on an agreed text is progressing and I’m confident negotiators will complete the job next year.

Economic benefits for SIDS and LDCs covered by SDG14.7 are hard to gauge in the middle of this pandemic, especially with the global collapse of tourism so cruelly affecting many SIDS. This target will require much greater attention as we set out on the Blue-Green recovery that lies ahead.

On the scientific knowledge aim of SDG14a, over the last two years, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has done an exceptional job in preparing us for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which gets underway next month.

SDG14.b calls for provision of access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets. This is of course largely a matter for governments to realise through provision of resources, regulations and legislation, and I’m advised by FAO that there’s an observable positive trend in that regard.

The implementation of international law, UNCLOS in particular, as reflected in SDG14c, is of course the rock upon which all our work stands. In this regard much global attention has and is being given to the fourth session of the BBNJ Conference now scheduled to be held in August 2021, with dates to be formally determined after PBI and the GA resolution adoption expected to occur around Christmas.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Time dictates I wrap up my remarks, but I look forward to addressing you all again in 2021, in particular the Member States of the United Nations, so that we can further assess SDG14’s progress, and action required, as we advance upon the next UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon. I conclude by thanking all those within the UN system, many of whom are present today, for the support they’ve given my work in 2020, and convey warm best wishes to you all for the Festive Season.

I thank you for your attention.