“The Pacific Ocean overflowed the map. There was nowhere to put it. It was so big, unruly and blue that it did not fit anywhere. So they left it outside my window.”
That’s how Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described the sea he gazed out upon most days in his 1966 collection Una casa en la arena (“A house in the sand”). And while our oceans comprise around 70 percent of the planet’s surface area, it seems that we still struggle to make sense of them – let alone manage them effectively or sustainably.
Oceans have frequently been left out of international discussions about climate change and sustainable development. For instance, during the 2015 negotiations for the Paris Agreement on climate change, the world’s oceans were “not present at all…they were just a side event,” said Karmenu Vella, the E.U. commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries at the international Our Ocean 2019 conference in Oslo, Norway last month.
The conference has run annually since it was initiated by former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in 2014 to bring oceans more explicitly into international conversations about climate change mitigation, biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods. This year, delegates pledged a combined total of USD 63 billion toward ocean conservation and sustainable management, as well as announced a number of new marine protected areas (MPAs).
In the past five years, evidence and public awareness has also mounted about the role of oceans in buffering against weather events that link back climate change and the importance of coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and saltwater marshes for carbon sequestration.
“Thank god,” said Vella. “The next UNFCCC Climate Change conference (COP25) will be the ‘Blue COP.’ So I think we have succeeded in bringing the oceans to the forefront.” He shared his hope that the revised nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement – which countries will submit at the aforementioned COP in Madrid next month – will include ocean-related initiatives and the protection of marine biodiversity. This also preludes the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science, which will begin in 2021 and aim to rapidly increase the amount of scientific knowledge on global waters.
The world’s oceans also play important roles in our daily lives, said Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. “We depend on the oceans for much of what sustains us as human beings: food, medicine, livelihoods, welfare.”
But climate change puts some of those roles in peril, said Senegalese President Macky Sall. “Historically, the ocean has always been a source of life. But for how long can the ocean still perform these actions across a backdrop of global warming?” he asked.
Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group II, said that around the world, there are 600 million people living in low-lying coastal areas who will be directly impacted by sea-level rise, 65 million of whom are in small island states where there are few options for relocation. He also said that changes in ocean temperature are already reducing the number of fish and species in certain areas, and communities with high dependency on seafood are facing food security risks. “We need policy frameworks in place to address this; catch limits and MPAs are very important in this regard,” he said.
Solberg stressed the ‘business case’ for private sector investment in sustainable ocean management and cited the Seychelles’ pioneering ’blue bond’ initiative launched last year – a financial instrument designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects – as a profitable pathway for expansion. “Those that invest [in this area], they will make money,” she affirmed.