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A fish and coral community is seen in the Great Barrier Reef

A coral and fish community is pictured in the Great Barrier Reef on August 28, 2018. (Photo: Francois Gohier/ VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

UN Chief Warns of 'Ocean Emergency' as Leaders Confront Biodiversity Loss, Pollution

"We must turn the tide," said Secretary-General António Guterres. "A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future."

Julia Conley

With the goal of hammering out a declaration to protect the oceans and their vast resources from exploitation, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday opened the body's Ocean Conference by warning that the world faces "an ocean emergency."

"The ocean must become a model on how we can manage the global commons for our greater good."

"We must turn the tide," said Guterres. "A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future."

The secretary-general told the leaders of more than 20 nations who are gathering in Lisbon this week that "our failure to care for the ocean will have ripple effects across the entire 2030 Agenda," referring to the U.N.'s sustainable development goals regarding tackling the climate emergency, economic inequality and poverty, and the empowerment of women and girls.

Guterres outlined four recommendations that leaders must prioritize as they finalize the declaration expected Friday, which has been called, "Our Ocean, Our Future: Call for Action":

  • Invest in sustainable ocean economies and management, which "could help the ocean produce as much as six times more food and generate 40 times more renewable energy than it currently does";
  • Replicate ocean success by "scaling-up effective area-based conservation measures and integrated coastal zone management";
  • Protect people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the oceans by investing in climate-resilient coastal infrastructure; and
  • Support more science and innovation to propel the world toward a "new chapter of global ocean action."

The world's oceans have absorbed nearly 90% of excess heat trapped in the atmosphere since humans began extracting fossil fuels, leading to mass coral bleaching and biodiversity loss, and contributing to the melting of crucial glaciers.

As Anna-Marie Laura of the Ocean Conservancy, who is attending the conference this week, told The Washington Post, "There has been an incredible recognition of the role the ocean has to play in solving the climate crisis."

According to the World Resources Institute, the oceans could deliver up to one-fifth of emissions cuts needed to limit the planet's temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2050.

The restoration of "blue carbon" ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, and kelp forests; the decarbonization of the shipping industry; and ocean-based renewable energy such as wind farms are all key to protecting both the oceans and the planet at large, WRI said in a 2019 report.

"The ocean must become a model on how we can manage the global commons for our greater good; and this means preventing and reducing marine pollution of all kinds, both from land- and sea-based sources," said Guterres.

The declaration expected on Friday will not be legally binding, and campaigners are still pushing world leaders to forge an international treaty which would provide a legal framework for protecting the oceans.

"The U.N. Ocean Conference must get us on track to creating a better, sustainable future for our blue world," said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.

Negotiations regarding such an agreement will take place in August in New York.

The conference this week will partially focus on some steps that have been taken by the public and private sectors to protect the oceans, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) recent proposal to stop forced labor in the seafood industry and U.S. President Joe Biden's plan to crack down on illegal and unregulated fishing.

"There are some big announcements and commitments that have been made, and there's a lot of enthusiasm," Jean Flemma, co-founder of the think tank Urban Ocean Lab, told The Post. "But people also feel an urgency, and some of us are worried that we're not acting fast enough."

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