News

January 20, 2021

Global Agreement on Marine Pollution from Land-based Sources Yields Lessons: Policy Brief

News Source: SDG Knowledge Hub

A policy brief by the International Institute for Sustainable Development considers the impact of a 25-year-old global effort to reduce marine pollution from land-based sources. Such pollution “continues unabated,” but author Delia Paul finds that the experience of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) shows the value of issue framing and coalition building, as well as creating space for practical action and experimentation.

Land-based pollution includes untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, oils and heavy metals from industry, and sediment washed in from earthworks and logging. Covering nine categories altogether, land-based sources account for 80% of marine pollution. As a result of pollution, Paul writes, “oceans are no longer a limitless source of food, teeming with life. Nor are they bottomless trash bins.”

In January 2019, UNEP and the GPA launched a five-year project to coordinate action around wastewater pollution, nutrient management, and marine litter, and engaged in partnerships in each area. Governments at the UN Environment Assembly later that year agreed activities in each of these three areas should become part of UNEP’s regular programme of work.

Despite these efforts, the discharge of nutrients and pollutants into marine environments has increased, resulting in more than 500 identified “dead zones” in the world’s oceans. Paul points to a few challenges in governing land-based sources of marine pollution. First, it has relied heavily on industry self-regulation and consumer action, which has focused only one some categories of pollution such as single-use plastics. And global governance responses have become more specialized over time, such as the Stockholm Convention focused on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the Minamata Convention focused on mercury.

The GPA has managed to spark change, however, helping countries to adopt relevant policies and helping with “agenda setting” during negotiations on the SDGs, which now include target 14.1: “By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.” The GPA also has increased knowledge about land-based sources of marine pollution through conducting scientific assessments and publishing guidance for countries. Moreover, the GPA’s focus on partnerships has resulted in coalitions for action, whose work continues.

IISD’s ‘Still Only One Earth’ policy briefs are being released in the lead-up to the 50th anniversaries of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which will be marked in 2022. The briefs assess “successes and shortcomings of five decades of global environmental policy,” focusing on biodiversity, wildlife trade, sustainable energy, finance and technology, climate change, and plastic pollution, among other issues. [Still Only One Earth policy brief series] [Publication: Protecting the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities]