January 27, 2022

Brest Wishes for the Ocean in 2022

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Author(s): Rémi Parmentier

President Emmanuel Macron of France is convening world leaders and ocean advocates for the One Ocean Summit in February 2022. This gathering will take place on board a large vessel moored in the harbour of Brest on France’s Finisterre peninsula. Will the Summit serve as a launch pad for high-level movement on several ocean issues that urgently need to be addressed?

The threat of ocean change is increasingly recognized as the flipside of climate change. Absorbing approximately 90% of the excess heat and 25% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we produce each year, the ocean is a critical safeguard against climate change, but tipping points are being reached and ocean risk is increasing. Ocean warming is affecting ocean currents, fish migration patterns and critical habitats including coral reefs which are home to 25% of marine biodiversity. The melting of the cryosphere (ice) is expected to change our planet’s geography through sea level rise and ever more frequent extreme weather events. And increased CO2 concentrations are changing the chemical composition of the ocean, affecting in various ways marine life, in particular molluscs and crustaceans. For the three billion people directly dependent on the ocean for their food and livelihoods and the 40% of people living along the coasts, these threats are potentially catastrophic.

Increasing the resilience of the ocean to climate and other human-induced impacts is therefore urgent. To this end for example, a large coalition of countries co-chaired by Costa Rica, France and the UK is calling for the protection of at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030. But successive postponements of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in the last two years has so far prevented the formal endorsement of this so-called 30×30 target, and still today it remains unclear whether the CBD COP will take place in 2022.

The CBD is not the only forum where critical ocean problems are struggling for resolution. At UN Headquarters in New York, negotiations for a treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas (covering 45% of our planet), meant to be adopted in 2020, have also been slowed by the pandemic. A statement from UN Headquarters is expected to be released on 7 February to confirm whether negotiations will resume in the month of March 2022 or whether they will be delayed once more.

Meanwhile, proposals to establish marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean have consistently failed to gain approval at annual meetings of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a body which is part of the Antarctic Treaty system.

And governments are getting dangerously close to allowing mining of the deep seabed worldwide, with potentially devastating consequences for fragile deep-sea life, with little to no oversight of the ongoing negotiations at the highest levels of government.

This month’s announcement of the stunning discovery of the largest ever colony of fish nests under the Antarctic ice sheet in the Weddell Sea serves to remind us how little we know about life in the deep ocean, and how we humans should think twice before permitting extractive activities that are liable to cause irreversible damage to marine life.

Looking beyond individual processes or regions, I have proposed a number of ideas that could lead to drastic protection for the ocean across the board.

For example, governments can and should make ocean protection the norm rather than the exception, by reversing the burden of proof. Rather than forcing ocean advocates to demonstrate that protection is feasible, ocean users would have to demonstrate that their activities are safe or that adequate mitigation measures are in place to prevent irreversible environmental damage. Environmental Impact Assessments would thus have more clout because they would condition the choices governments make when licensing ocean resources and seascape exploitation. It would put the precautionary principle into practice.

Establishing effective Environmental Impact Assessment procedures and the means to designate marine protected areas are at the centre of the high seas treaty negotiations. High-level thinking outside the box, in Brest, could give the high seas negotiations a much-needed political boost.

Likewise, stalemates in the negotiations for marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean could be overcome by moving beyond the somewhat obscure, technical approach of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). At the upcoming One Ocean Summit, governments could call for a high-level Antarctic Life Summit that could resonate with the general public, where ministers would be forced to pay attention and leaders compelled to take meaningful action. The celebration last year of the 30th anniversary of the adoption in 1991 of the Madrid Protocol, whereby the entire Antarctic continent was turned into a nature reserve, served as a reminder that thinking out-of-the-box is a necessity when technical discussions are stuck. If we had pursued business-as-usual 30 years ago, the Antarctic continent never would have been protected and mining companies would most probably be drilling for oil and other minerals there now.

Inevitable analogies are made between the situation that took place three decades ago when attempts (through the Wellington Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources Activities of 1988) to open the door to minerals exploitation in Antarctica were defeated in 1991 by the Madrid Protocol led by France and Australia, and a draft Mining Code now under consideration by the UN International Seabed Authority (ISA) which would give the green light to deep seabed mining operations. Last year, at the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held in Marseille, the Government of France failed to support a resolution calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining that was adopted with 81 governments and government agencies in favour. But it is not too late for President Macron to shift gears in Brest, to join and lead the campaign to protect the ocean from deep seabed mining.

Brest wishes.