Covering over 70% of the earth's surface, oceans have massive unlocked potential to fight climate change, and to drive robust, sustainable economies. This is the upbeat assessment of 14 coastal and ocean nations banded under the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, or Ocean Panel. The global collective that comprises almost 40% of the world's coastlines has today announced its commitment to sustainably manage 100% of national ocean waters by 2025.
Fighting climate while growing economies
The pledge includes measures to mitigate climate change as warming oceans plunge coastal nations into a climate emergency. The Ocean Panel notes that the protection of mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes that comprise 'blue carbon' ecosystems can help sequester carbon in order to meet the 2050 Paris climate agreement emissions-reduction targets needed to limit global warming to 1.5 °C.
"[Blue carbon] can sequester carbon dioxide at rates up to four times those of terrestrial forests on a per area basis," said Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy, a US-based NGO dedicated to protecting oceans.
Meanwhile, the 2050 target can be further met via the boosting of clean ocean energy such as offshore wind farms and tidal and wave power. Ocean Panel sustainability plans will include targets, incentives, and infrastructure improvements that could generate 40 times the current ocean energy output.
The sustainable ocean plans also aim to arrest biodiversity loss, to tackle pollution, and stop widespread overfishing and illegal fishing - which is currently threatening the highly biodiverse marine life in the Galapagos Islands, as Chinese trawlers are in the spotlight over the plunder of Latin American waters.
The end goal is to sustainably revive marine-based economies and cultures that rely on fisheries and tourism. As detailed in several Ocean Panel special reports that inform today's announcement, such blue economies will create 12 million net jobs and produce up to six times more food from the ocean by 2025.
"We had to decide between protecting the ocean and using it," said Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and co-chair of the Ocean Panel's expert group who headed the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during Barack Obama's first term as president. Calling this a "false dichotomy," she asserts that the ocean must be viewed "as a solution, not just a victim."
The current 14 Ocean Panel members comprising Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal want to inspire the leaders of all other coastal and ocean states to commit to 100% sustainability by 2030.
"The Ocean Panel calls on every leader of ocean and coastal states to join us and turn our 100% goal into reality," said Tommy Remengesau Jr., president of Palau and Ocean Panel co-chair.
Can non-binding targets succeed?
Founded in 2018, the Ocean Panel has shown much early ambition, also aiming to protect 30% of the world's oceans by 2030 — a significant target since much of the high seas are subject to highly complex treaties.
Though the current commitments are not legally binding, Jane Lubchenco says voluntary agreements are the way forward.
"They are the decision-makers," she said of the presidents and prime ministers who have signed onto the commitments that are termed 'transformations'. "They have the power to deliver on the commitments that they are announcing."
Rather than scientists trying to push their research and recommendations into the policy realm, Lubchenco says the Ocean Panel has worked for two years to "connect that knowledge to policy and action."
A country like Australia has been dragging its feet on climate change, maintaining "insufficient" Paris targets and opting for a gas-led pandemic recovery. Yet its conservative prime minister Scott Morrison has personally embraced the goals of the Ocean Panel to help shore up its ocean-based fishing, tourism and recreation industries. The jewel in the crown of the island nation's marine and coastal ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef, where 50% of corals have died since the 1990s, is set to benefit from a sustainable ocean plan.
Plans for a blue economy aim to protect oceans that form Earth's life support system from climate-linked temperature rises that are not only bleaching coral reefs but reducing the oxygen required for life. Marine life is disappearing at twice the rate of land species.
While today's announcement is "a seminal moment in international efforts to support and sustain oceans," according to Peter Thompson, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Ocean and supporting member of the Ocean Panel, there is some fear that changed governments may not maintain the pledges, and that monitoring is necessary.
"Sustainable management of the ocean needs a sustainable system of governance, too," states an editorial in Nature journal published on the occasion of Ocean Panel announcements.
"[A] potential pitfall is the follow through on the plans and commitments," says Janis Searles Jones. "Failure to implement the plans and commitments would be a huge missed opportunity."
League of ocean nations
Making good on what Erna Solberg, Norwegian prime minister and Ocean Panel co-chair calls "one of the greatest opportunities of our time," has required that major economic powers like Canada and tiny Pacific island nations like Palau, with a population of some 17,000 people, work together.
"The threat that climate change poses to the ocean is a common challenge that requires collective action," said Namibian President Hage G. Geingob in the Ocean Panel statement. "Therefore, we hold hands with the global community in charting a pathway towards a low carbon, climate-resilient future that secures a healthy ocean and human well-being."
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ocean Panel's end goal is as much economic as environmental.
"We understand how vulnerable we are to financial shocks and health crises," said Palau president Tommy Remengesau Jr. of the still-unfolding coronavirus crisis. "We need the ocean more than ever to drive a sustainable, long-term recovery."