It represents force and tranquillity; a seemingly endless resource which, through our own neglect, is reaching its limits. An essential contributor to life on Earth, covering 70% of its surface, the ocean plays an invaluable role. It supports millions of living species that provide half the planet’s population with food. Globally, 15% to 20% of protein intake comes from fish and shellfish. Ocean ecosystems are essential to the carbon cycle by producing 60% of the oxygen in the atmosphere and absorbing the majority of human-induced carbon dioxide. Considering the number of “services rendered”, the ocean warrants our full care and attention so as to preserve its integrity. But that’s not the case. Through overfishing, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, homo sapiens is transforming the ocean bed into a sickbed, and this spells environmental disaster.
Where else to begin than global warming. As the ocean soaks up ever greater quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the pH of its water lowers in a process known as acidification. This causes changes to organisms including the phytoplankton that produce the majority of the oxygen we and other living creatures breathe. Next up: chemical and toxic metal pollution from oil spills, wastewater, discharge of pollutants from ships, chemical contamination, etc. Then there is plastic pollution, a problem so vast it forms a seventh continent: a floating vortex of plastic spanning 1.6 million square kilometres between Hawaii and California. And to conclude, there is our overexploitation of the ocean for shipping – 90% of international trade is by maritime transport – and for fishing, literally emptying its waters of certain species.
It is not a pretty picture. Fortunately nations are waking up to the ocean’s plight and beginning to deploy measures to save what can still be saved and give the ocean a chance to regenerate. We have yet to see the effects of the numerous summits, conferences and other international gatherings that have the ocean at heart, but at least the tide is turning.
December 1960 – Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO
Now with 150 member states, the IOC/UNESCO supports governments in coordinating their marine scientific research programmes to improve the management of oceans, coasts and marine ecosystems.
October 2010 – Convention on Biological Diversity (Aichi)
The 20 targets set in Aichi formed the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 that was adopted at the convention. Signatories agreed to halve the rate of loss of natural habitat in order to conserve biodiversity in 17% of land areas and 10% of coastal and maritime areas, and to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems.
June 2014 – Ocean & Climate Platform (Paris)
On World Ocean Day (June 8) 2014 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, a group of 20 research and non-governmental organisations announced the launch of the Ocean & Climate Platform 2015 with the purpose of integrating the ocean in climate negotiations.
December 2015 – COP21 Climate Conference (Paris)
The global agreement on climate change that was reached in Paris was a historic moment for the planet as it laid the foundations for a gradual transition towards a non-carbon economy. By noting in the preamble of the adopted text “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans,” the agreement sent a powerful message that confirmed the connection between ocean health and the climate.
June 2017 – Ocean Conference (New York)
The United Nations hosted its first Ocean Conference to promote progress in the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14. Nations and organisations gathered to take stock of initiatives to conserve and sustainably use the ocean, which produces more than half the oxygen on Earth.
September 2019 – IPCC Special Report
The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate concluded that substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and restoration of marine ecosystems and better management of resources could preserve the ocean and cryosphere; a source of solutions for adapting to future change.
February 2021 – UN Decade of Ocean Science
UNESCO proclaimed the launch of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030, described as “the most critical decade of our lives”. It provides a common framework of scientific understanding to boost international cooperation towards the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A total of 361 actions were endorsed.
February 2022 – One Ocean Summit (Brest)
Heads of state and government from 37 countries attended the summit whose four main themes were protection of marine ecosystems, the fight against pollution, the fight against climate change and ocean governance. Attendees pledged to reduce carbon emissions from maritime activity, preserve marine protected areas and implement stronger controls and sanctions against plastic pollution and illegal fishing.
March 2022 – Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity (New York)
International negotiations for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction continued in 2022 with the fourth and fifth sessions in New York. Negotiations focused on marine genetic resources, marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments of activities in the high seas and technology transfer to developing economies.
April 2022 – Our Ocean Conference (Palau)
The seventh edition of the conference brought state and non-state actors together with a focus on six action areas: climate change, sustainable fisheries, sustainable blue economies, marine protected areas, maritime safety and marine pollution. Participants worked to identify solutions to improve the management of marine resources and strengthen the ocean’s resilience to the effects of climate change, with the objective of protecting 30% of the ocean.
May 2022 – Blue Climate Summit (Papeete)
More than 200 scientists, policymakers, business and financial experts, government representatives, community leaders and environmental activists convened in French Polynesia to advance collaborative projects to protect the ocean, safeguard the planet and address climate change.
June 2022 – Stockholm +50 Summit (Stockholm)
For the 50th anniversary of the world’s first global environmental meeting in the Swedish capital, the United Nations held the Stockholm +50 Summit. This was an opportunity to take stock of half a century of multilateral environmental action since the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Collective reflection encouraged ambitious solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
June 8 – World Ocean Day
Each year, World Ocean Day reminds us of the ocean’s essential role in sustaining and supporting life on Earth through production of oxygen, as a source of food and medicine, and as a vital part of the biosphere. The theme in 2022 is Revitalisation: Collective Action for the Ocean.
June 2022 – WTO Ministerial Conference (Geneva)
A last-minute agreement was reached to prohibit subsidies for illegal and unregulated fishing and ban support for fishing in overfished stocks. Negotiations, launched more than two decades ago as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, have led to the creation of a fund to help developing economies make the transition towards more sustainable fishing.
June 2022 – Ocean Protection Coalition (Los Angeles)
Nine countries on the American continent with access to the Pacific Ocean – Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and the United States – signed a joint declaration on “Americas for the Protection of the Ocean”. The coalition aims to establish a network of ecologically interconnected marine protected areas from Canada to Chile, protect marine species, develop tourism and promote sustainable development among coastal communities.
June/July 2022 – United Nations Ocean Conference (Lisbon)
This second edition of the conference responded to urgent calls to preserve the ocean, a vital but neglected resource. Despite the threats facing the ocean – plastic pollution, destruction of coral reefs, overfishing, climate change and piracy – Sustainable Development Goal 14 receives the least funding of all the SDGs.
November 2022 – COP27 Climate Conference (Sharm el-Sheikh)
After the final decision of COP26 strengthened recognition and institutionalisation of the ocean in international climate negotiations, efforts must now converge to transform these advances into action. As carbon sinks, marine and coastal ecosystems play an essential role in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. Their potential is, however, underexploited. COP27 is an opportunity for delegates to announce concrete solutions as part of their national strategies.
December 2022 – COP15 Biodiversity Conference (Montreal)
Held in two parts, in 2021 and 2022, the 15th Convention on Biological Diversity will take stock of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 whose 20 targets (the Aichi targets) have globally not been met. It must also reach an agreement on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework which includes targets to ensure the conversation of at least 30% of land and sea areas, to restore at least 20% of degraded freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems by 2030, to develop adequate financial resources and strengthen synergies between international conventions. Other key ambitions are to adopt a motion to preserve 80% of the Amazon rainforest and to support more sustainable agricultural practices.