24 June 2022

We are all inextricably connected to the ocean. Think only of the fact that 50 per cent of the planet’s oxygen is produced in the ocean for evidence of that connection. Think of the nourishment that billions of us receive from the ocean, and then of how the ocean absorbs most of the heat trapped in the Earth’s atmospheric system, thus stabilizing our climate. In return for all this bounty, human activities are causing the ocean’s health to spiral into decline.

Increasing anthropogenic carbon emissions are making the ocean more acidic, weakening its ability to sustain life underwater and on land. Plastic waste is permeating the ocean’s ecosystems, while atmospheric and ocean warming is leading to the death of coral and inexorably rising sea levels. If current trends continue, more than half of the world’s marine species may be all but extinct by 2100.

There are many solutions that can help restore the ocean’s health, but they will require action—action from world leaders as well as everyday citizens from all parts of society. Our planet cannot be healthy without a healthy ocean, and the ocean is increasingly unwell.

But in spite of this measurable decline, it remains within our power to make 2022 the year we stop the decline of the ocean’s health. Many global endeavours are underway. In 2022 we mark the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture, and both aquaculture and artisanal fisheries are central to achieving sustainability. Last year we launched the United Nations Decades of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and on Ecosystem Restoration to support the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, the twenty-sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference—COP 26—held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021, decided that ocean considerations had to be built into the ongoing work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), raising our optimism that real progress will be made on addressing such issues as ocean warming and acidification. Effectively dealing with those two issues will strengthen the ocean’s health and help secure its unique capacity to sequester carbon.

Six major international gatherings can together result in a halt in the ocean’s decline.

Added to these positive factors and to the many other ocean-related meetings taking place this year, six major international gatherings can together result in a halt in the ocean’s decline. One of those events—the resumed fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, held in Nairobi earlier this year, agreed by consensus to start negotiations on a binding global treaty to end plastic pollution. We currently dump 11 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year, and that amount is projected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050. The proposed treaty can stop this unconscionable trend.

Secondly, the twelfth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference took place from 12 to 15 June in Geneva, where after two decades of negotiation, WTO succeeded in reaching general consensus on banning harmful fisheries subsidies. Over $20 billion in public funding goes to such subsidies every year, mainly benefiting industrial fishing fleets, an action described by many as the most harmful thing we do to the ocean’s ecosystems. The next task is for countries to ratify the agreement, after which we can expect the ocean’s health to hugely benefit.

Ambassador Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean. Photo provided by author.

Thirdly, this year’s resumption of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction provides an opportunity to conclude a robust and functional treaty for governance of the high seas, thereby safeguarding one of the planet’s most critical global commons. If Member States can reach consensus, we could have that treaty ready by the end of 2022.

Fourthly,  the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15), to be held later this year, could well adopt a new target to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s land and seas by 2030. Such a decision would be a major game-changer for marine protected areas and thus the ocean’s health.

Fifthly, the UN Ocean Conference will be co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal in Lisbon, Portugal from 27 June to 1 July. There we will launch a fleet of innovative, science-based solutions. These will be advanced through well-funded partnerships, representing effective implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14—to conserve and sustainably use the ocean’s resources.

We must not squander the opportunities presented by the unique confluence of moments in 2022 for decisive ocean action.

And lastly, at UNFCCC COP 27, to be convened in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt in November, we must deliver on the ambition and political will for the climate adaptation measures and financing required to bend the curve in the direction of security, equity and sustainability.

To halt the decline in the ocean’s health this year, we will be required to take positive action at all six of these meetings. And while “we” primarily refers to Member States, it also means every one of us individually. We must not squander the opportunities presented by the unique confluence of moments in 2022 for decisive ocean action. Let us all commit to reforming our relationship with Nature to one of respect and balance. And let us do this for our children and grandchildren, so that they may live the secure lives we wish for them on a healthy planet.

For more on oceans and historical background on the first Ocean Conference, please see our 2017 special thematic issue, "Our Ocean, Our World", which includes a keystone essay by Ambassador Thomson, then serving as the President of the seventy-first session of the United Nations General Assembly.