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Biodiversity and Oceans: Road to Sharm El-Sheikh


The blue vastness of the ocean makes our land-based lives possible. The ocean dominates the hydrological cycle. Phytoplankton produce at least half of the planet’s oxygen. Over three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods. The Blue Economy contributes about USD 2.3 trillion per year to the global economy.

We are causing untold harm to this incredible world through the triple planetary crisis: the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss, the crisis of pollution and waste.

The ocean is the planet’s largest carbon sink. The ocean absorbs 90 per cent of the excess heat in our atmosphere. This may sound like a boon for humanity, but it comes at a severe cost to the ocean. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have told us, the four primary measures of climate change – greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean temperatures and ocean acidification – are at record highs. Just as many of us have been baking this year, much of the ocean has experienced at least one strong marine heatwave – threatening ecosystems, fish populations, livelihoods.

Meanwhile, plastic pollution has increased ten-fold in the past four decades. Eutrophication and dead zones caused by land-based activities are growing. Fish populations fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 per cent in 1974 to 34.2 per cent in 2017 – driven in part by what the WTO estimates is USD 22 billion in annual public support that contributes to the depletion of marine resources.

We cannot expect the ocean to keep absorbing the punches we are throwing at it.

Yes, we have a seen a growing focus on planetary and ocean health. In February, at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), nations agreed to create an international legally binding agreement on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. UNEA also passed a resolution on source-to-sea nitrogen management, a critical source of dead zones and coastal eutrophication. At the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, world leaders adopted an action-oriented political declaration, committing to improving ocean health. The General Assembly this year recognized the universal human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

However – and this is particularly relevant for the road to the next climate COP in Sharm El-Sheikh – Nationally Determined Contributions remain weak on oceans.

Until recently, climate and ocean conservation efforts have been largely separate. At the end of 2021, fewer than 20 per cent of countries with coastal blue carbon ecosystems discussed the role of seagrasses, mangroves and kelp forests as carbon sinks in their NDCS. Oceans must be a priority at the upcoming COP, as Egypt knows only too well: the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of global warming means life or death for the unique and astoundingly beautiful Red Sea coral reefs, which attract three million divers annually.

So, action on the ocean is critical. Human prosperity and equity, and the success of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda, are hugely dependent on the ocean. Please allow me run through four action areas that could make a difference.

One, show real ocean ambition and implementation in NDCs – both on mitigation and adaptation.

This starts with updated NDCs that have real and meaningful ocean commitments – part of which includes building on the Glasgow Pledge and focusing strongly on Nature-based Solutions ahead of and at the COP.

There are examples of ocean pledges to draw on. The United Arab Emirates is rehabilitating coral reefs. Kenya is looking at mangroves and other Nature-based Solutions. The Seychelles is working on a Marine Spatial Plan. We need many more such commitments in NDCS – followed up, of course, with immediate and strong action.

Two, connect and implement policy agendas and actions on ocean.

We must integrate the agendas of the Rio Conventions, on climate, on biodiversity and on desertification. This can begin with strengthening the consideration of biodiversity at COP27 – which is already present through the Presidency’s Biodiversity Day.

Action can continue by reaching a real and ambitious agreement on the Global Biodiversity Framework later this year. We need a guiding light to steer us towards quality Marine Protected Areas within a holistic 100 per cent ocean management ambition – building on UNEP’s protected areas work. 

Action can be amplified by a stronger focus on land restoration and sustainable management – which can help the oceans by, for example, shifting agricultural practices to those that use fewer inputs and leak them into coastal waters.

The three conventions really are indivisible.

We must also ensure close coordination with Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee hammering out a deal on plastics, because plastic pollution hits the ocean hard.

The UN Decades on Ecosystem Restoration and Ocean Science for Sustainability offer a great way to unite all these agendas.

Three, on the road to Sharm El-Shiekh, match ambition with investment.

We know that investments must triple by 2030 to meet climate, biodiversity and land neutrality targets. Yet, out of all the Global Goals, #SDG14 has received the lowest investment. Scaling-up private investments for Nature-based Solutions, including though the Global Fund for Coral Reefs and a renewed focus on mangroves, is a central challenge to increasing ocean investments.

There are many actions we can take.

We can repurpose destructive subsidies paid to the global fishing industry: this means taking forward this year’s World Trade Organization deal, which could help secure the livelihoods of the 260 million people who depend on marine fisheries and preserve fish stocks and ecosystems.

We can use public finance to leverage private finance. Engage the private sector, while guarding against greenwashing. Innovate financial models and tools to unlock sustainable blue economy financing. Two practical actions financial institutions can take today are to stop financing the most harmful activities by using the UNEP Finance Initiatives recommended exclusions list and supporting efforts of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures.

Four, build the science and communicate it well.

The UN Ocean Decade on Science for Sustainable Development creates the conditions for a revolution in the way we generate and use ocean science. Science and innovation are key for appropriate action to deliver the Global Biodiversity Framework and the Paris Agreement. For example, applied ocean sciences are needed to enhance site-selection, design and management of marine protected areas.

And of, course, science has to be understandable and accessible so it can travel. We should lean into the ocean science decade to take advantage of the opportunities it provides.

Friends, the road to Sharm El-Sheikh is not a long road, and we have much to do along the way. Nor does the road stop at Sharm El-Sheikh – it continues far beyond. But the road is filled with opportunities.

Let’s make the decision to transform our systems and to work in harmony with our ocean, not against it. In doing so, we ensure our planetary stability. For people. For the planet. For prosperity. And for peace.





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