The COVID-19 pandemic has given humanity a first-hand experience of what an unhealthy planet has in store for its residents. Increased awareness of the need for nature-based solutions has also increased the appetite for change, including through green and blue recovery strategies. The Ocean, which is suffering from triple planetary crises, namely climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, also offers avenues for a blue post-pandemic recovery.
The UN General Assembly (UNGA) High-level Event on the Ocean took place at UN Headquarters with many participants joining virtually from around the world due to travel constraints caused by the ongoing pandemic. The event aimed to highlight progress made on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 on life below water, and address, among others, the impacts of the pandemic on the Ocean economy, and opportunities and challenges to achieving the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
During opening remarks, Volkan Bozkir, UNGA President, said that there is no scenario where humans can prosper without the Ocean. He noted that since SDG 14 targets are among the first to mature, four of which were meant to be achieved by 2020, we must ensure we are prepared to upscale actions at the Second UN Ocean Conference. Peter Thomson, UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, pointed out how six years after the inauguration of the SDGs, progress on Ocean action has been more tangible compared to the “indifferent waters we sailed before SDG 14.”
The meeting took place through four panel sessions:
Bringing Together UN Processes on the Ocean: This panel addressed synergies between key UN Ocean processes and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Liu Zhenmin, UN Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, called for enhanced collaboration, especially on addressing and preventing inequalities on access to and use of ocean resources. On the ten-year initiatives – the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, and UN Decade of Action for the SDGs – Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO), said this unprecedented decade will provide clear guidance, data, and the knowledge needed to achieve a sustainably managed ocean.
Towards a Pollution-free, Protected and Climate Stable Ocean: During this session, panelists discussed holistic approaches in order to make the Ocean "protect, produce and prosper." Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), described how a siloed world has disadvantaged our relationship with nature and its conservation. Other panelists discussed, among other things, the multiple benefits of the ocean beyond traditional views and the innovative thinking and solutions needed to limit the consumption and production of plastic pollution.
Fisheries and Aquaculture: This panel addressed obstacles and opportunities in this sector, and highlighted the need for recognition of seafood in the UN Food Systems Summit to be held in Rome in October 2021. Panelists drew parallels between global inequities and how aquatic food consumption and accessibility patterns and subsidies adversely impact vulnerable populations. They also noted the opportunities of the blue economy to allow developing countries to “catch up” in trade revenues through food exports and how sustainable fisheries and aquaculture can enable the attainment of a number of the SDGs. Several others urged for conclusion of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations on fishing subsidies that threaten sustainable fishing and encourage illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUU).
A Sustainable Ocean Economy: This panel highlighted the global interest and effort to “build back better” from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlighted how a sustainable ocean economy can realize that achievement. Speakers included Achim Steiner, Administrator, UN Development Programme (UNDP), who explained the need to regulate and shape opportunities to manage “mixed blessings,” such as aquaculture’s promise of new income coupled with its threat to mangrove forests.
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, CEO, Global Environment Facility (GEF), recognizing that the current economic system aims for growth without respect for planetary boundaries, called for an institutional transformation to deliver new tools to incentivize multi-sectoral integrated strategies.
The UN High-level Thematic Debate on the Ocean closed with a Call-to-Action video that was narrated by UNDP Ocean Advocate Cody Simpson, who highlighted that the ocean agenda is too important to fail. Participants thereafter viewed a video performance of Handel’s Water Music, Suite No.1, IV by UN Chamber Music.
The meeting closed at 5:47pm EDT.
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