With Marine Pollution at ‘Alarming’ Levels, Speakers at Ocean Conference Dialogue Demand Urgent Action to Clean World’s Seas, Call for Political Will
LISBON, 27 June — Exploring solutions to address marine pollution — from toxic chemical dumping and wastewater runoff to sewage emitted from ageing extractive industries — speakers called for urgent action to be taken even before the adoption of a global legally binding treaty to regulate plastic use, as the international conference on ocean conservation continued into an afternoon interactive dialogue.
The dialogue — titled “Addressing marine pollution” — followed the opening of the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14. It featured presentations by guest speakers and discussion among senior government officials and civil society alike.
In opening remarks, Flavien Joubert, Minister for Environment, Energy and Climate Change of the Seychelles, co-Chair of the dialogue, said today’s gathering underscores the conviction that the course of events can be changed. The problem of marine pollution requires a global approach through the multilateral system, and the Ocean Conference is an important opportunity to deliver on Goal 14 (life below water). Emphasizing that combating marine pollution will bring global benefits, and also address the needs of the most vulnerable who depend on the ocean, he said the international community must act on ocean governance and resources in order to touch all populations. While many organizations around the world are addressing marine pollution and its related effects, continued acidification and plastic pollution demonstrate the need to tackle all societal systems affecting the ocean.
Co-Chair David Parker, Minister for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries of New Zealand, added that action to address marine pollution can be taken at the local, regional and global levels. The extent of pollution is alarming, and if no urgent action is taken, it will undermine the global community’s ability to deliver on the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals. New Zealand phased out single-use plastic products, with similar actions taken in many other countries. Welcoming negotiations on a plastic pollution treaty, he said such an instrument could elevate local action to the global level. He also stressed the importance of engaging civil society and forging robust partnerships, as well as boosting investment in capacity-building so that all countries can achieve Goal 14.
Moderated by Charles Goddard, Editorial Director of The Economist Group, the dialogue featured panel presentations by Kitack Lim, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO); Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Janis Searles Jones, Chief Executive Officer of the Ocean Conservancy; Alexander Turra, Professor and Coordinator of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Chair on Ocean Sustainability at the University of São Paulo; Andrea Meza Murillo, Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; and Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility.
Setting the scene, Mr. Goddard said the current moment in addressing marine pollution “is bursting with possibility”. It is an exciting time for those working to eliminate marine plastic pollution following agreement in March to begin negotiations on an international legally binding treaty. This development has taken many years and promises — at least on paper — solutions that span the entire life cycle of plastics. How much of a watershed moment this proves to be depends on whether countries have the political will to agree on an ambitious treaty. Turning to other forms of marine pollution — such as wastewater runoff, toxic chemicals used in “virtually every product in modern societies” and agricultural pesticides and fertilizer — he pointed out that little public awareness and only marginally more policy awareness exists for these pollutants. He stressed, however, that this group of pollutants represents an equally grave threat and is just as deserving of similar urgent global efforts as are currently directed towards plastics.
Mr. Lim said addressing marine pollution is at the heart of IMO’s work. The agency sets global standards for international shipping and the prevention of pollution from the dumping of waste at sea. IMO has adopted more than 50 conventions to make shipping safer and protect the marine environment. Over the decades, IMO measures have been enhanced, contributing to the continuous greening of the shipping industry. For example, recognition of shipping’s role in the transfer of invasive aquatic species led to the 2004 adoption of the Ballast Water Management Convention, which set standards that stimulated research and development, and technological advances that have minimized the risk of transferring harmful invasive species via ballast water. IMO is proud to be the Secretariat for the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection, as well as an active partner in UN-Oceans, the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and the United Nations Environment Management Group.
Ms. Gardner provided an overview of the critical elements required for an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, stressing that the instrument must be broad, but clearly defined, ambitious and inclusive, covering the full life cycle of plastics, while considering various types of polymers and plastic products. All negotiations towards such an agreement must also rely on science to identify hotspots for action “from source to sea and along the value chain”, examining the most impactful polymers, products, sectors, geographic locations and waste systems. Further, the deal must account for the realities and complexities of the market, hearing and understanding all voices, including those of plastic-dependent industries and grass-roots communities. She underscored that the development of such an instrument is not simply about ending an environmental threat — it is also about creating new economic opportunities and alleviating poverty, as a new plastics economy means new business models, jobs, market opportunities, designs, materials, products and services.
Ms. Jones said life below water is critical to protect and conserve life above water. “We cannot have one without the other,” she said, stressing the critical importance of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in addressing current gaps in knowledge, to support informed and inclusive decision-making and accelerate new, science-based voluntary commitments. Goal 14 touches every aspect of Ocean Conservancy’s work. She remarked that the “International Coastal Cleanup” initiative is among the world’s largest single day volunteer efforts on behalf of the ocean and is vital in supporting individual and community action on ocean plastics. Through this effort over the last 35 years, more than 156 million kilograms of plastics and trash have been removed from beaches, rivers and lakes worldwide. The “Global Ghost Gear” initiative is a network of 20 Governments, 135 civil society groups and private sector partners working together to prevent and remove lost, abandoned and discarded fishing gear, she said, urging Member States to include specific language on ghost gear, as well as binding measures for upstream source reduction in the plastics treaty negotiations.
Mr. Turra pointed out that marine pollutants come from various pathways that are difficult to manage. This complexity can prevent action from being taken to address this issue. Science, education and action are required. He spotlighted the need for more global data, stressing that every State and subdivision should be engaged in producing data to identify “contaminant hotspots”. Institutions in these places must be given this mandate, along with the necessary staff and resources to implement it. He went on to emphasize that action also must be based on an understanding of where marine pollution originates. It is a symptom of human activity — such as mining and shipping — and therefore, the sources of pollution must be regulated. One way to do so is through environmental impact assessments, he explained, which must be conducted by independent institutions with the freedom and resources needed. Adding that pollution is linked with poverty, he cautioned against addressing a problem without addressing its causes.
Ms. Murillo stressed the need for a major transformation of certain big industries, including the waste and plastic sectors. Pointing out that the global plastic treaty must be concluded in two years, she called for creating momentum, notably by working to transform of the fossil fuel and agricultural industries. These changes can create “green” and “blue” jobs. Ocean action can also generate political benefits, she added.
Mr. Rodriguez, recalling a recent visit with his children to a polluted beach in Costa Rica, said he was asked to pass along the message: “we are angry with your generation because you have compromised our future”. Stressing the moral imperative to act urgently, he said Government action and policy — while needed — is not enough. He cautioned that people still manage the ocean as hunter-gatherers. However, sustainable management is needed. Detailing his previous legislative efforts to ban single-use plastics in Costa Rica — which 87 per cent of the legislature voted against — he said that successful action in this area requires a re-evaluation of business practices, along with greater public awareness and collective activism.
In the ensuing discussion, world leaders and other senior officials from across the globe, joined civil society representatives and others in considering the practical realities of reducing marine pollution and exploring the drivers of change.
Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, speaking for the Pacific Islands Forum, noted that pollution takes many forms and stressed that “the Pacific feels all of it, despite contributing almost none”. Stemming plastic pollution starts with crafting sustainable alternatives, and he condemned the dumping of radioactive nuclear waste and other radioactive material in the ocean, urging Japan not to discharge water treated with an advanced liquid processing system into the ocean.
Molwyn Joseph, Minister of Health, Wellness and the Environment of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of Alliance of Small Island States, pointed to the issue of disproportionality: those who contribute the least to marine pollution suffer the most from the problem, he said, calling for justice for small island States. It is not enough to reduce new pollution, he emphasized. He urged the global community to “clean up what is already there”.
Mariam Mohammed Almheiri, Minister for Climate Change and Environment of the United Arab Emirates, said that her country — as an oil and gas producer — has implemented policies to cut down on single-use plastics and mitigate their negative impacts. Further, the Government has announced its goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, and she encouraged all States to address the elimination of marine pollution in their net-zero initiatives.
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, President of the Republic of Maldives, said his country is extending the protected area to 20 per cent of its ocean and banned shark fishing in the territorial water. It also banned 13 types of single-use plastics, he said, describing that effort as “ahead of the treaty”.
Peter Barclay, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said that a recently released report by the 38-member association confirms the need to implement a policy package addressing the full life cycle of plastics. The economic cost of implementation is very small, but urgent action is needed, as even if the “plastic tap” is turned off today, plastic stocks in the ocean would still triple by 2060.
Espen Barth Eide, Minister of Climate and Environment of Norway, said ocean action does not need to wait for a treaty, also stressing the need to bridge the gap in the science-policy interface on chemicals.
Nelson Adrian Peña Robaina, Minister for Environment of Uruguay, detailing national initiatives, pointed out that his country implemented legislation to prevent and reduce the harm arising from the use of plastic bags, along with guidance encouraging public bodies to reduce their plastic consumption. Calling for an international binding instrument on plastic waste, he said that “the problem is not plastic, it is what we do with plastic”.
Also participating in the dialogue were Heads of State and Government and other senior officials of Tonga, Netherlands, Latvia, Bahrain, Australia, Japan, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Kenya and Slovakia. A member of the United Nations Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment, including Socioeconomic Aspects, also spoke, as did representatives of Young Environmentalists Programme Trust and Andean Development Corporation.
The Conference will hold two interactive dialogues on Tuesday, 28 June.