Ocean Conference: Our best and last chance to get things right
Africa Renewal: Could you please tell us why the UN is organizing such a major conference on oceans now, and what you expect to achieve?
Mr. Thomson: The ocean conference is in support of [SDG] 14, which is mandated under the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to conserve and to sustainably manage ocean resources. This conference is probably the best and possibly the last opportunity to reverse the cycle of decline the ocean is currently caught in. That may sound alarmist, but, coming from an island country, I know the ocean is in deep trouble. The science is clear. Marine pollution is taking us to a point where, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there will be fish. We just need to look at the effects of climate change on the ocean to see how much trouble the ocean is in. Take a look around to see what human sewage and runoff from agriculture and industry are doing to coastal ecosystems. This ocean conference is very timely. We will have scientists, civil society and the private sector present. This is not just about governments; it’s about humanity responding to the woes that have been put upon the ocean and correcting them.
You recently said that human-induced problems require human-induced solutions. What did you mean by that?
The Paris Climate Agreement is a human solution to a human-induced problem. Our big job is to stay true to that agreement. When you look at ocean acidification, the solutions will emerge. I don’t pretend to have them on my desk, but I have talked to experts; it’s about understanding the problem and then working out solutions. We have to stop these crazy subsidies that are given by industrialized nations to fishing fleets. We have to identify what species are under threat and agree to only fish to quota or stop fishing those species altogether. Those are human solutions. We’re tipping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day. We have to have better rubbish collection systems. We have to do what Rwanda has done: ban plastic bags. Just don’t use plastic bags, even if your government can’t get around to banning them.
You mentioned the effect of climate change on fish. How can we reverse the trend and support the worst-affected regions?
The overall problem is climate change—bringing ocean warming and ocean desertification. That’s the mother of them all in terms of problems with fish stocks. We have to stay true to the Paris Climate Agreement. But beyond that, we can set up marine protected areas where we can sustainably manage our fish stocks. We have to stop illegal and harmful fishing practices such as bottom dredging. We have to end those ridiculous fish subsidies and use that money to restore coastal ecosystems.
As you pointed out, some parts of the ocean are heavily polluted. What are the other main pollutants besides plastics?
Microplastics, which are bits of plastic inserted into things like toothpaste and face creams and other cosmetics, are a big problem. We have to stop the industrial use of microplastics because they get ingested into the biosphere. Their implications are far-reaching. When I was in Indonesia recently, I talked to a minister who said they have come to realize that by not paying more attention to how garbage, which is basically plastic, gets into the ocean, they were hurting employment. This is because it puts tourists off when they start getting hit by plastics at a beach. Basically, the minister was saying they’ve come to realize that if they want tourism to flourish—it’s a great job provider and earner of foreign exchange—they’ve got to clean up the plastic pollution on their beaches and in their seas.
Since, as you said, plastics are the main pollutants, and given how the global economy is dependent on plastic products, can the world survive without plastics?
Absolutely! Human ingenuity knows no bounds, and I have no doubt that we will break this problem. It was within my lifetime when plastic problems emerged in the world, and within my children’s lifetime that it should be solved. Hopefully in my lifetime, but I doubt it. There’s a lot of thought being put into a more circular economy to reuse plastics so that they’re not thrown away. If you must have a plastic cigarette lighter, why can’t it be a refillable one? Likewise with plastic straws, they’re one of the big things that end up on the beaches. Why not substitute that with paper straws?
You have talked about fishing subsidies. Are countries that provide these subsidies willing to stop them? And if not, what should be the solution?
First of all, let’s look at the problem. The problem is we have massive fleets of industrialized fishing boats out there basically depleting the world’s fish stocks. Let’s sort this out: an easy target from my point of view is fishing subsidies. Where do you address that? It’s at the World Trade Organization [WTO], which is the best forum for dealing with subsidies. But it should also be among the domestic populations of the countries concerned. They should be saying, “Why is our money being spent on these fleets which are no longer economically viable?” There also needs to be international action at WTO level. The Ocean Conference will be a good platform for us to articulate that.
Obviously it won’t be easy given the experience with talks at the WTO.
No, but they need to start waking up to some of the realities. I was in West Africa recently and I saw the huge infrastructure in artisanal fishing. Thousands of boats line up on the beaches. As the fish is depleted by these big, industrialized fleets, what can these guys do with the boats which are basically their only family possession of value? People will turn to things like human trafficking as an alternative if there’s no fish out there anymore. And the pirogues that I saw are fully capable of moving from the West African coast to Europe. This is the consequence of irresponsible industrial fishing. If you’re going to be killing off the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen, expect there will be negative consequences. And it’s also a driver for migration if people lose their traditional livelihoods.
You mentioned the effect on small island developing states (SIDS) to changing weather patterns, particularly rising sea levels. What are we doing about it?
SIDS are particularly vulnerable to these changes in the ocean. This is one of the reasons why the SIDS were the ones that were really at the forefront of the formation of SDG 14, the call for the Ocean Conference and the call for ongoing action between now and when [by 2030] we are mandated to achieve success. In fact, some of the targets within SDG 14 fall earlier than that. For SIDS, ocean warming is one of the biggest of threats—I think it’s about 40% of the drivers of the rise in sea levels. For some countries, this means going totally under water.
How do you respond to critics who say, “Well, the UN is very good at talking and organizing conferences but we do not see much action on the ground”?
One of the things I say about the United Nations is that we are not the be-all and end-all. We are basically the gathering of humanity. We don’t come from another planet. What we are trying to do with the Ocean Conference is say to humanity, “We’ve caused this problem. What are we going to do to fix it?” This is a conference not just for governments. It’s open to civil society, the private sector and NGOs. We are hoping to raise hundreds, hopefully thousands of voluntary commitments through an online register—that’s an action agenda we can work with in the coming years.
How far are African countries involved in the conference?
Africa has a massive coastline. I’ve been encouraging African countries to participate at the conference at a high level because this is existential business for many of them who rely on the ocean so heavily for their protein. When I was in Ethiopia, they said, “SDG 14? Glad to hear you’re working on that, but we don’t have a coastline.” I said, “Look, 50% of the air you are breathing comes from the ocean. If something goes wrong with the ocean’s health, it’ll affect you. Think in terms of getting behind SDG 14 even if you are a landlocked country.”
So how much cooperation have you been getting from African countries?
I was in Senegal and they’re very fired up about it. They will be one of the co-chairs of the partnership dialogues, so I’ve encouraged them to speak to the rest of the West African community. Kenyans are very involved and I’ve encouraged them to speak to the rest of the East African community. This has been my approach. When I was in Egypt, I told them, “Please make sure this is not a forgotten corner of Africa. You’ve got the Red Sea. You’ve got the Mediterranean—both with big problems. Be [at the conference].” So there’s a lot of skin in the game for Africa at this conference, and I hope to see many African leaders present.
And finally, how optimistic are you about implementing the conference’s resolutions?
Look, two years of hard work have gone into this conference. It was clear to me after the preparatory meeting a month or so ago that the momentum is there. It’s clear to me from just talking to big civil society organizations, from talking to big member states, that everybody realizes that this is our best and last chance to get things right. I am very hopeful that we can turn things around. I’ve got grandchildren—I want them to have an ocean where they can see live coral, where they can see fish in the ocean. I’ve been to parts of the world—I’m a diver—where you swim in the water and see nothing. It’s beautiful and the water is clear. But you see no life, no fish. We don’t want that to happen to the ocean.