Time to turn commitments on saving the world’s oceans into actions

Over the past decade, the world has been slowly becoming more aware how fragile the oceans are and how capable mankind is of wrecking them. On Jun 28, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, delivered the country's statement at the United Nations (UN) Ocean Conference in Lisbon, underscoring the need for countries to urgently scale up actions to collectively protect the ocean and mitigate the impact of climate change.

He stressed: "Singapore is a tiny island, maritime city-state. Our history, our people, our economy are inseparable from the ocean. Our survival, our prosperity depends on the oceans.

"In fact, the same applies to all people, even those from landlocked states. The ocean provides food, jobs and livelihood. It enables global trade, and it plays a vital role in the climate systems and the water cycle, and is an important reservoir of biodiversity."

That is really significant because seaborne trade and the state of the oceans are far less prominent than in most other countries. In other words, the oceans matter more to Singapore. The flip side is that the oceans matter less than many other issues to most of the world's politicians.

He noted that the challenges facing the ocean had increased with each passing year. He stressed the need to "urgently scale up actions to collectively protect the ocean, and mitigate the impacts of climate change".

The minister made 3 points. The first was that the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean must be conducted under the aegis of international law, in particular United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), "which we believe is the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out".

He added: "Thanks to its drafters' far-sightedness, the framework provided by Unclos is dynamic and highly adaptable in order to respond to emerging issues."

However, complying with Unclos is not always going to be easy, especially where there are disputes over territory and resources.

"Second," he said, "our efforts should be based on data and science. This will help us take a more effective set of measures to conserve the ocean and to build consensus for global action. For example, the international community is only starting now to appreciate the ocean-climate nexus - in particular, how climate change affects the ocean's health and how the ocean regulates the climate."

Another issue that is being increasingly highlighted by scientific research is plastic pollution of the oceans. That could well be one of the hardest nuts to crack.

Finally, Dr Balakrishnan emphasised that "multilateral cooperation must be the foundation of our efforts". He called for renewed commitment to placing a rules-based, multilateral and coordinated approach at the heart of the management of the oceans.

He told conference participants: "While Singapore is tiny, we are doing our part. I am pleased to announce that Singapore is renewing 10 of the voluntary commitments that we had previously submitted at the first UN Oceans Conference and are undertaking 9 new ones."

It would appear that the conference was a success, at least in terms of commitment from the countries attending. A UN statement said: "The 5-day UN Ocean Conference ended ... with more than 150 countries collectively agreeing to scale up science-based and innovative actions to address the ocean emergency."

"The conference has been an enormous success," stated Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and UN Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares in his closing remarks. "It has given us the opportunity to highlight critical issues and generate new ideas and commitments. But it has also shed light on the work that remains, and the need to scale this up and raise ambition for the recovery of our ocean."

The UN outlined the scale of the emergency: "From rising sea levels and marine pollution to ocean acidification and habitat loss, the planet's largest biodiversity reservoir is in jeopardy, threatening to derail progress on Sustainable Development Goal 14, the key road map for global action on life below water.

"Additionally, cumulative human impacts on the ocean - the lungs of our planet - if not curtailed, will exacerbate the climate emergency, and hinder the aspirations of the Paris Agreement."

The statement noted that ocean-based economies had also been deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and there were many setbacks in ocean management, monitoring and science. It also pointed to the "multidimensional food, energy and finance crisis is further aggravating the fallout and weakening people's ability to cope".

Nevertheless, the statement struck an optimistic note: "But restoring the health of our ocean can be part of the solution. Resilient and healthy oceans are the foundations of climate regulation and sustainable development, with the potential to produce food and energy for billions."

Nearly 700 commitments were registered, adding to the substantial commitments made at the 2017 UN Ocean Conference. According to the UN, "these commitments showcase the critical need for innovation and science to revitalise the ocean".

Commitments are good. Actions are much better.


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