A Shared Goal for a Healthy Ocean

© Joe Bunni

As the international community came together for the 8th session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, a side event for over 100 attendees provided an opportunity to explain why the Ocean must be part of the solution.

The Ocean is key in all of the cycles of life on Earth, including the climate and hydrological cycles, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the oxygen cycle. In fact, the Ocean provides the oxygen for every second breath we take, and 2/3 of the value of all the natural services offered by the planet. It has cushioned the blow of climate change by absorbing 25–30% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions and 80% of the heat added to the global system. It regulates our weather, provides food for billions of people, and supports many industries such as shipping, oil and gas, marine and coastal tourism. A healthy Ocean supports human development, poverty eradication and economic growth.

© NOAA
Separated from the rest of the island by high cliffs, the beach at Kanapou Bay, Hawaii, collects debris from throughout the Pacific.

The Ocean is not only central to sustainable development but also universal, because the multitude of services and goods that it provides are enjoyed by all nations of the world, whether coastal or landlocked. It is a part of our common heritage.

Yet, as the result of unsustainable practices, the Ocean is now one of the Earth’s most threatened ecosystems. There is only one interconnected Ocean on this blue planet, which means that what we do in one part of it will ultimately affect the others. The cumulative impact of these human activities, whether land or sea-based, has already been estimated to affect almost all of the Ocean.
The picture is clear: the problems are global and require global action, but will most often require local response and local management tools. 

The Ocean’s contribution to sustainable development

(cc) Annabel Symington.
Coastal activities including fishing, tourism and commerce are economically important in Northwest Africa, for example this fishing market in Gambia

Given its central role, the Ocean must be included in sustainable strategies to eradicate poverty, promote access to basic needs such as drinking water and sanitation, conserve biodiversity and improve human well-being.

It is clear that the failure to stem ocean degradation will further exacerbate poverty and could impoverish many more. For instance, the negative impacts of coastal degradation are great, as traditional livelihoods are lost and populations are forced to migrate, whereas healthy coastal ecosystems are known to increase food security, create job opportunities, provide many economic and cultural services and reduce risk from marine hazards such as storm surges or tsunamis.  

The more healthy and resilient the ocean, the more positive its contribution to the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development and vice versa. As such, all nations should have an interest in a healthy and resilient ocean, supporting human development while preserving its capacity to deliver food, income, transportation and other components of sustainable development.

What goals could we set for the Ocean?

© JCOMMOPS. A global array of over 3400 Argo floats and 1250 surface drifters contribute to ocean monitoring efforts.

The Ocean may be interconnected, but its management is deeply fragmented. Setting common goals for the Ocean could trigger much needed reform in ocean governance and international cooperation.
Further research is needed to better understand current phenomena, such as the potential effects of climate change on ocean species and ecosystems. International collaboration around common goals could help us close knowledge gaps and steer towards more effective policies.

All nations would benefit from the reduction of ocean stressors and the restoration of the structure and functions of ecosystems through initiatives such as implementing Ocean acidification monitoring programmes and adaptation strategies and targeting specific amounts of Protected Coastal/Marine Areas for conservation.

Targets could be set to reduce vulnerability of coastal populations to ocean related risks through establishing early warning systems and investing in coastal adaptation plans to address climate change impacts. A crosscutting target could focus on increasing capacity for sustained ocean monitoring, marine assessments and integrated ocean management, through capacity building at the national level, Marine Spatial Plans and investments in national ocean observation systems linked to the Global Ocean Observing System or GOOS.

© J. Barbière/ UNESCO
Side event "Towards a Sustainable Development Goal on the ocean: a Healthy, Productive and Resilient ocean for People"

The case for Ocean-related Sustainable Development Goals was made by representatives of the Pacific Small Island Developing States and Timor Leste, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO), and the International Coastal and Ocean Organization (Secretariat of the Global Ocean Forum), with the participation of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Council of Science (ICSU). The event aimed to underscore the importance of the ocean for sustainable development at the global and national levels, discuss the existing proposals for a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on the Ocean and next steps to mobilize governments, international organizations, and civil society.

As from 2014, the Open Working Group will focus its work on finding agreement among the government representatives on a set of proposed SDGs and is finalizing its report to be submitted to the September 2014 session of the UN General Assembly. From 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals will follow on from the Millennium Development Goals.

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