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United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

World Ocean Summit speech by Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Greetings to one and all. Though we may be far apart I celebrate the fact that we are in each other’s virtual company and are able to share our ideas over the next half an hour. We are connected. I’ve been invited to speak to you for about ten minutes, after which I understand Martin will moderate a twenty-minute Q & A session. I greatly look forward to our interchange of ideas.

Before I launch into my prepared remarks, I repeat the phrase “we are connected.” Personally, I think this is the most fundamental lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all connected. No man is an island, connected as we are to our genetic inheritances, our place in societies and economies, through our families, our communities and our nations. But most importantly 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.

Two tiny entities have rammed home the message of connectivity. Over the last year, a minute zoonotic coronavirus has travelled around the world, passed from human to human, killing over two and a half million people so far, and sickening well over one hundred million. It has backed human society and economies into cowering corners from which we are only now beginning cautious steps of emergence. Post-pandemic, it is still unclear how much this minute coronavirus will have changed the world.

We are intimately connected to a second tiny critter that most people have never heard of. This little creature is named prochlorococcus and it’s the smallest, and probably the most abundant, photosynthetic organism on the planet. You guessed it, prochlorococcus lives in the Ocean, where the majority of life on Planet Earth resides. What’s amazing about prochlorococcus is that this tiny being produces up to 20% of the oxygen in our entire biosphere. I say again, we are all connected.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to put my words at this year’s World Ocean Summit within the context of the times in which we are living. 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. 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.

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 for up 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 we cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy Ocean.

Our 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 the twenty-first century. That is a direct quote from the head of the World Meteorological Organisation; and that, my friends, is a world on fire.

And so, this is the context of our times, the years in which 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. This is the time of choice; the time when we decide whether we’re actually willing to change our ways. Before it is too late, and that hour is near, surely we must make peace with Nature.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me turn to what we are doing to correct our ways, how we are dragging ourselves to the peace table, and hopefully committing to return humanity’s place on this planet to one lived in respect for, and in balance within, Mother Nature’s eternal embrace.

In the shape of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda we have drawn up the blueprint for a secure and equitable future. The great challenge is faithful implementation of the blueprint’s provisions and it’s no secret that we have been lagging. In his address to the UNFCCC COP in Madrid in 2019, UN Secretary-General Guterres said 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 that of 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.

How does all this relate to the Ocean and the implementation of SDG14? Well, you’ve already heard my mantra that there can’t be a healthy planet without a healthy Ocean, to which I should add the Ocean’s health is currently in decline. As I’m sure you are all aware, the chief cause of that decline is the burgeoning levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere, which are then absorbed into the Ocean causing acidification, deoxygenation and warming. Therefore, getting to 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. 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.

You may ask how should elevate the Sustainable Blue Economy to a level at which it ushers 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 at the beginning of this year. 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.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’ve been talking for close to ten minutes and I still haven’t dug down into how we’re doing on the targets of SDG14. I trust that your questions will allow me to do so, but let me say at this juncture that compared with apathetic waters through which we were sailing before SDG14’s entry into force back in 2015, 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. Countries are increasingly implementing international agreements to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the prime instrument being FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement to which close to one hundred countries have now put their signature.

But truth be told, how can we claim anything near success when a third of assessed global fish-stocks are being overfished; when we have dumped around 150 million metric ton of accumulating plastic waste, microplastics and discarded fishing gear into the Ocean; and while the rates of Ocean acidification, deoxygenation and warming are continuing to head in the wrong direction? We cannot. So, do we hang our heads in shame and turn away in apathy or despair?

Of course not! We are a sentient species that cares more than anything about the well-being of its offspring and of theirs. Therefore, we have much work to do and we will not be satisfied until their well-being has been secured, until we have reached a net zero carbon economy and restored our relationship with the Ocean, and Nature as a whole, to one of respect and balance.

I thank you for your attention and look forward to discussing these ideas and others with you now.