UN Ocean Conference Opens in New York, Providing “Last Opportunity” to Reverse Ocean Decline
Photo by IISD/Mike Muzurakis
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The UN Ocean Conference opened with calls for coordinated global action to improve the health of the oceans.

Conference Co-President Isabella Lövin, Sweden, expressed hope for the conference to be the “game changer” the ocean needs.

The opening day included a partnership dialogue on addressing marine pollution, and a showcase of voluntary commitments to address the issue.

5 June 2017: The UN Ocean Conference opened with calls for coordinated global action to improve the health of the oceans. The Conference is focusing on efforts to achieve the targets under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 (life below water), and related SDGs and targets.

The Conference opened with a traditional Fijian welcome, followed by a ‘Life on Earth’ video on the ocean, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, outlining the benefits of and the threats faced by the ocean, as well as opportunities to address them. An opening plenary featured statements from high-level representatives of UN Member States and UN officials, and the first partnership dialogue took place, with a focus on addressing marine pollution.

Recalling the borderless nature of the ocean, Conference Co-President Isabella Lövin, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate and Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, expressed hope for the Conference to be the “game changer” the ocean needs. Co-President Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, highlighted the threats of climate change and ocean litter, saying greedy nations and commercial interests threaten livelihoods in small island developing States (SIDS).

The UN Ocean Conference is the “best opportunity we will ever have” to reverse the ocean’s cycle of decline, said Thomson.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres described improving the health of the world’s oceans as a “test for multilateralism” that the world cannot afford to fail. He urged governments to jointly address the “problems of governance that have held us back,” calling for a strategic vision on how to govern the oceans and marine resources, strong political leadership, and partnerships and funding for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, among other actions. UN General Assembly (UNGA) President Peter Thomson said the Conference is “the best opportunity we will ever have” to reverse the ocean’s cycle of decline, and to “restore sustainability, balance and respect to our relationship with…the Ocean.” Many high-level representatives also stressed the Conference’s role as a “game changer” and “last opportunity” to reverse the decline of global ocean health.

The partnership dialogue on addressing marine pollution highlighted perspectives on challenges and solutions on marine litter, including addressing land-based pollution and reducing plastics and microplastics production and consumption. Moderator Elliott Harris, UN Environment, referred to action taken in countries such as Canada, France, Kenya and Rwanda to reduce land-based sources of marine pollution, including by banning single-use plastic items and micro-plastics in cosmetics. Kosi Latu, Director-General, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), highlighted the adoption of the ‘Cleaner Pacific 2025: Pacific Regional Waste and Pollution Management Strategy 2016–2025,’ which addresses marine plastics as well as legacy issues such as oil leaks from old shipping vessels. UN Environment underscored: the link between marine pollution and several SDGs, and between land-based sources of marine pollution and development agendas; and the Global Programme of Action on land-based activities as the only intergovernmental mechanism addressing freshwater/marine linkages.

According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, since the political outcome document of the Conference, the ‘Call for Action,’ has already been negotiated, its formal adoption should not be the only measure of the Conference’s success, some participants have said, noting that “the real work lies in the commitments that will be announced during the week.” One delegate noted that “So far, the smallest countries have set the bar quite high.” Gabon, Palau and the Cook Islands kicked off the showcase of commitments with ambitious initiatives on marine protected areas (MPAs), renewables and pollution prevention.

The day before the Conference, New York City hosted the inaugural World Ocean Festival. The event featured an “ocean march” with sailing vessels parading around lower Manhattan and along ten nautical miles of Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York. On land, an Ocean Village celebrated art and innovation and showcased exhibits on ocean and climate action. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) launched a joint publication titled, ‘Sea My Life: Protecting Oceans, Sustaining our Future.’

The UN Ocean Conference is convening at UN Headquarters in New York, US, from 5-9 June 2017. [UN Press Release on Opening] [UN Press Release in Advance of Opening] [DESA Press Release] [UNDP Press Release] [ENB Coverage of UN Ocean Conference]

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