In the waters near Matamanoa Island, Fiji. Markolf Zimmer, Flickr

What are we doing to protect blue spaces?

In conversation with Ambassador Peter Thomson, U.N. Special Envoy for the Ocean

Oceans, wetlands and coastal ecosystems will be a topic of discussion at Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto on 13 May. Here’s how to listen.

Anyone who has spent time on a small island has felt the ocean’s power to dictate life on land. The tide, the waves, the health and plentitude of life therein demand attention when they are always in view, giving a source of endless fascination, but also an imminent threat if not properly monitored and given care.

Seventy percent of the planet is covered in ocean, comprising 97 percent of all of earth’s water – a massive proportion to be rapidly destabilized, due to global warming and climate change. First affected by this is the population of people who have contributed less than 1 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions propelling this destabilization, who live in Small Island Developing States (or, Large Ocean States, as many prefer to be called) often on land at sea level, and are at the behest of the ocean’s changes on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis.

As a Fijian, Ambassador Peter Thomson falls into this demographic, with a childhood of playing in azure waters now prone to filling with washed-up plastic. As a rural development officer in the 1970s, he worked on building sea walls and water and sanitation schemes, always with the health of the coastal ecosystem in mind. Now, as the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, he’s the among the most influential mouthpieces for this 97 percent of the planet, and the nations and populations akin to his own. Here he tells Landscape News a bit of what he has to say.

Courtesy of Ambassador Peter Thomson

What motivates you in your work?

I was born in Fiji. I grew up on a mangrove and coral coast, which was our playground. As soon as we could swim, and through our goggles could see the teeming life and colors of coral reefs, we understood the joy and wonder of living on this planet.

And then, like the rest of the world, Fiji developed and urbanized, and a lot of that mangrove forest was reclaimed for urban development. But we still have hundreds of miles of mangroves in Fiji, so I’m passionate about the conservation of that mangrove for the life that it harbors. It is so important for feeding our people, for protecting our harbors, for the biodiversity that provides life in the ocean. What’s happening to the coral reefs of the world is devastating. Not everyone is hearing the message, but most are. My personal motivation is about making sure that everybody is aware that the ocean is in trouble.

That hasn’t happened with biodiversity, which is largely still left out of climate negotiations and a big issue for oceans.

I agree. You have to think in terms of climate, oceans and biodiversity. There are three really important meetings coming up in relation to that trifecta. The first one is the U.N. Climate Action Summit in September 2019 in New York. Why is that so important? Because there will be over 190 nations present, many represented by heads of government. So that will be a massive opportunity for us to scale up our ambition and political will.

Then the 2020 U.N. Ocean Conference will be held in Lisbon, 2-6 June next year, co-hosted by the governments of Kenya and Portugal. That will give us an honest picture of how we’re traveling on SDG 14, and what we need to do to get us to success by 2030, which is when the targets mature. So then you roll on from June 2020 in Lisbon to Kunming, China in October 2020, which is the Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties (CBD COP 15), which is where we expect a major lift in the whole biodiversity agenda.

Those three meetings have got to have a cohesive flow of action. Think about marine protected areas: At the Climate Action Summit, people will say we’ve got to get more blue carbon sequestration, more mangroves, seagrass etc. When we get to the Ocean Conference it will be about how we fund that, and if we have reached our 10 percent target on marine protected areas [MPAs] and on better conserving marine and coastal ecosystems as we said we would. The answer will be yes. I’m quite confident about that.

But where will we go from there? That’s not enough. MPAs have got to be better governed, they’ve got to be better enforced, and 10 percent is not enough. At the CBD COP I believe we should commit to at least 30 percent of the ocean being covered by MPAs by 2030. This what we need to do to strengthen the MPAs over the next 10 years. There has to be a conclusive and continually progressing conversation and action program coming out of this.

How does the private sector factor into ocean efforts?

I think one of the biggest successes of the 2017 U.N. Ocean Conference was that it embraced the private sector and civil society. There’s no way that governments can do climate action and ocean action on their own. Business is absolutely at the forefront when it comes to finance. I’ll give you an example: emissions from the shipping sector play a big part in climate change. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has put together a strategy for cutting the emissions of the global shipping fleet by 50 percent by 2050. And then in December 2017, Maersk said that they would take their fleet to carbon neutrality by 2030 and carbon zero by 2050. A quarter of the world’s shipping containers travel on Maersk ships. So, it’s doable. We’ve already got electric ships traveling around Scandinavia carrying containers, ferries and so on. Having the private sector take this new technology forward, rather than relying just on governments, gives me great hope. 

What about some parts of the private sector that haven’t taken much action yet, like tourism, sanitation or infrastructure?

I’ve seen tourism develop in my lifetime from a very small sector to mass tourism now, where the vast majority of small developing states depend on tourism for their foreign exchange. Tourists don’t want to go to wastelands where the land is covered in trash. So tourism has a huge responsibility shared by Indigenous communities and governments.

With sanitation, it breaks my heart that at this stage in human development, we’ve still got nearly a billion people who have to defecate in the open each day because there are no toilet facilities for them. Think about what that does to our rivers and to our coastal ecosystems. You can’t have healthy reefs and seagrass if raw sewage is flooding up from a billion people. But it’s so easy to fix. When I started out in the early 1970s, we were building water-sealed pit latrines in Fiji. Hopefully, those are now being replaced by much better systems. But the health returns were immediate: you no longer had flies going from open toilets into food and nearby houses and onto the eyes and sores of kids. So having good sanitation makes a tremendous difference very quickly.

There’s a lot of talk about basing policy on science, but there is quite little known about the ocean. How do we overcome such gaps in ocean knowledge?

There are a couple of points to make here. One is that the U.N. General Assembly passed the resolution for the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in December 2018. That will run from 2021 to 2030. I’m very confident that’s going to be a major leap forward in our understanding of ocean science. It will absolutely double or even triple our knowledge of what’s out there in the ocean. Right now, we know more about the face of the moon or Mars than we know about the bottom of the ocean. The knowledge gap is tremendous, but we’re going to fix that during the Decade.

How so? By working with research organizations?

Philanthropists are already turning to marine research, so the science is not going to be run by bureaucrats but by scientists. Where are they? They’re in the universities, they’re in the oceanographic institutes, they’re on the research vessels. From a U.N. point of view, it’s the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO(IOC-UNESCO) that’s leading the charge on that, but all the other agencies are involved as well.

We need that, because let’s be realistic: the track that we’re on is going to force us to make some very difficult decisions by the middle of the century. And to make the right decisions, we need to have the best science available. We have a decade to get that right.

Courtesy of Ambassador Peter Thomson

2019 might be a big year for oceans, with the COP and other major events putting focus on them. Was there a moment when you saw the international community wake up to ocean issues?

The holding of the first U.N. Ocean Conference in New York in June 2017 – from that point on, everybody in government, the private sector, multilateral organizations, NGOs and academia understood that the ocean was in trouble and needed our attention. So from then, most of the world realized that ocean action was necessary. I’m in a different country every week and I see everywhere I go that governments and civil society are fully engaged now in trying to do the right thing for the ocean.

What are some lifestyle changes that the average person can make to help?

At the supermarket, I take the plastic off everything when I get to the cashier. I say, ‘I don’t want this plastic. This is yours. You do what you want with it. But I don’t want to take this plastic home.’ Likewise, on airplanes, you get a pile of plastic when you unwrap everything. I wrap it all up and make my sermon to the steward or stewardess, that I didn’t ask for this stuff. And I find the crew are totally in sympathy with me on that. They hate it as well. In a lot of cases, they don’t know what to do with it. I was recently on a flight where they told me that they had to bring all the plastic back to their home country because they couldn’t offload it abroad. That is the absurdity that the airline industry has somehow taken us into. I’ve mentioned what the IMO is doing with global emissions, and I think it’s time for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to start showing some leadership in the civil aviation industry on plastics.

I’m a great believer that everything in human civilization depends on the activities of individuals. You make personal choices that will affect others. You as an individual can really influence your community.

Article tags

biodiversityclimate changeclimate negotiationsclimate policycoastal ecosystemscoastal watersconservationFijiGLF KyotooceansUnited Nationswaterwetlands



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