UN Ocean Conference 2022. What to expect?
World leaders will convene in Lisbon from June 27th-July 1st to conserve the future of our Ocean. Here we explore factors and challenges to success
18 Jun 2022

Amidst economic and geopolitical turmoil, we have been ignoring the threats to our ecosystems due to our destructive actions. One of such existential threats to humanity is the turmoil in our Ocean Ecosystems.

The concern?

– Marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean of 80,000 tonnes is now thrice the size of France. (UNDP)

– More than 1M seabirds and 100,000 mammals are annihilated by plastic debris every year. (UNESCO)

– More than 10M tonnes of fish are wasted annually due to destructive fishing practices. (UNDP)

~ 500 dead zones across 245,000 km² globally are now identified due to fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems. (UNESCO).

And the stakes?

USD 3 Trillion or about 5% of global GDP per year (the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries). Furthermore, marine fisheries provide 57M jobs globally and provide the primary source of protein to over 50% population in the least developed countries. Hence, there is a lot to forfeit if inaction prevails, but there’s a lot to revitalize, attain and develop. 

The UN Oceans Conference (UNOC2022): the next collective attempt of leaders across the globe.

Will it create major structural transformations? The principal reason to keep the hopes high is that this time, the conference will primarily focus on green technology, innovative uses of marine resources, and their implementations. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson hinted about launching a fleet of technological solutions and their implementations on ocean acidification, marine litter, pollution, unregulated fishing, loss of habitat, and more. This fleet of solutions will be supported by ideas on governance, partnerships, and innovation crowdsourced via an online global stakeholder consultation held by UNOC. The report summary of the same was recently released by UN DESA. A wide range of participation in the same via stakeholders like NGOs, IGOs, Academic community, Youth, Indigenous people, and other marginalized communities has brought a plethora of diverse views to the table. However, the absence of any incentive to participate in the consultation might have lowered the total number of participants and the depth of the responses, which is an area for development.

Path and challenges to exceptional success

The previous edition UNOC 2017 (the first of its kind), successfully built up the momentum for tangible action on SDG 14. The real challenge for UNOC 2022 is scaling up ocean action based on science, innovation, and advocacy. 

In terms of voluntary ocean commitments, we have already seen thousands of pledges since 2017. However, only 24% of them so far report their progress. Although the pledges are voluntary, UNOC can develop an internationally agreed set of incentives (such as funding via intergovernmental bodies) to ensure the completion of the actions pledged by civil society. Also, Governments – the most impactful actors in many cases – have made only 17% of all the promises made. Thus efforts to encourage governments to commit more and review their commitments regularly will be the main effort during this convention. Furthermore, UNOC 2022 will need to cope with the targets of UNOC 2017, like the target set for 2020 to achieve 10% of the Ocean covered in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is still at 8%, while a more ambitious target of 30% MPA by 2030 is being looked up to.

Even if these targets might seem a formidable reach, our progress so far is appreciable and provides hope. For instance, in 2000, the area covered by MPAs was approximately 2 million km² (0.7% of the Ocean). Since then, there has been over a ten-fold increase in MPA coverage with around 8%. Hence, the set targets are achievable with more ambition and at an exponential pace, as seen in the past few years.

To amplify the impact, the forum will need to identify potential funding sources to accelerate the MPA commitments via smaller states and islands that might not have the resources to develop such areas independently. Here, collaborations of multiple countries to form protected areas shall be an effective solution for which UNOC can be the perfect stage. Past efforts in this direction include The Ocean Highway (Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor), International Partnership on MPAs, and more. While setting new collaborative MPAs, countries must aim to develop the highest levels of protection in the MPA to ensure maximum result and protection. To tackle the issue of marine plastic pollution UNOC shall need to collaboratively work with UNEP (who recently facilitated the historic international binding declaration on ending plastic pollution) to accelerate the action on ending pollution and to track the progress of every nation. The technology-based solutions that shall be discussed to tackle ocean acidification, marine plastic pollution, enhance fishery, and blue economy must also be accompanied by technology-sharing mechanisms so that all states can implement them without creating a situation like the vaccine inequity.

It will be crucial and gripping to witness to what extent governments can anchor on ocean action amidst the chaos of geopolitical crises, inflation, and the rising and falling tides of the pandemic. It’s upon all of us, the stakeholders, to work towards international cooperation and with the ambition to protect our Ocean. 

* Vedant Kulkarni is an advisor at UNIDO, former Governance Committee member at UNFCCC (Pre-COP26).
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