The UN Ocean Conference from the eyes of a cautious optimist

Q&A with Maria Honig, WWF Accelerating Coastal Community-led Conservation Initiative Leader

The UN Ocean Conference was held in Lisbon, Portugal, the last week of June, after two years’ delay due to COVID-19. Maria Honig attended the highly anticipated event and came away with a mixture of disappointment and cautious optimism.

Q: Start with the positive. What made you feel optimistic?

A: The UN Ocean Conference was an important moment for countries to remember what they’ve already promised — specifically Sustainable Development Goal 14, which commits countries to halting and reversing the decline in the health of the ocean’s ecosystems. All 193 member states unanimously adopted a political declaration that acknowledges their deep alarm at the global emergency facing the ocean and that “action is not advancing at the speed or scale required to meet our goals.” So, that doesn’t sound like good news, but it actually acknowledges that business as usual isn’t an option.

Q: Where do you see opportunities to chart a new course?

A: For one, a number of countries are stepping up their marine protection targets. Colombia announced the creation of two new marine protected areas in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific, and the expansion of two existing ones, achieving its 30% protection target eight years ahead of the 2030 deadline. This was made possible through “Project Finance for Permanence” — an innovative financing mechanism that brings together the private sector, civil society and the Colombian government to preserve natural capital in perpetuity.

And the Protecting Our Planet Challenge announced an investment of at least US$1 billion to support the creation, expansion and management of marine protected areas and Indigenous and locally governed marine and coastal areas by 2030.

Q: So there’s good news on the finance front?

A: Yes and no. These examples are too few and far between. We expect expanded investment in ocean sectors, but if it doesn’t intentionally prioritize sustainability, it could actually fuel social, environmental and financial risks.

For example, blue carbon — the carbon stored in the ocean — was a hot topic in Lisbon, with its potential to mitigate climate change and unlock finance to support protection and restoration of marine ecosystems. While blue natural capital is promoted as a silver bullet, we need to ensure that sustainable finance reaches communities. Done right, it can create opportunities for coastal communities to have fair and equitable opportunities to participate in sustainable ocean-based economies. Done wrong, it would have limited climate benefits and could create further disparities and vulnerability.

The Blue Incubator for the Southwest Indian Ocean’s coastal community enterprises is one model to match investment with opportunity to build an inclusive and sustainable blue economy; a similar model is currently under development in the Mediterranean region.

Mafia Island, Tanzania. © Green Renaissance / WWF-UK

Q: One critique of the conference was it was light on specifics. How do we hold countries and companies accountable for their commitments?

A: This is where you can really see the glass half full or half empty. Several targets under SDG14 were to have been met by 2020, and there is no accountability for missing those. But on the other hand, we are seeing greater participation from small-scale fishermen and women who have for too long been absent from discussions that affect their livelihoods and well-being. The new Aquatic Blue Food Coalition, supported by WWF, will help unlock investments and influence policies to support small-scale fishers who contribute to nutritious food, income, jobs and the identity of millions of coastal and rural communities around the globe. WWF’s work in the Mediterranean and elsewhere provides solutions for small-scale fisheries sustainability that can be scaled up at the global level.

Policymakers need to keep their promises to coastal communities who are on the front lines of climate change and stand the most to lose from the ocean crisis. Leaders cannot just go to conferences and say the right words. They must act on them too.

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