March 23, 2021

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By Dan Laffoley and Dr. Sylvia Earle


Later this year a major meeting will occur in China under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which will establish the ‘post-2020’ global biodiversity goals to better protect nature and the planet. This meeting is set against ever-increasing urgency and desperation to get a grip on the now deeply concerning and accelerating decline in nature, increases in major disruptions from climate change, and the impacts of this on the planet, nature, people, and the very viability of options for our future. In doing so the meeting in China remains one of THE opportunities of our generation to focus the attention of Governments on significantly scaling up ocean biodiversity protection. But why then does the CBD seem to be dropping an emphasis on the ocean?

As the world starts to reopen after the COVID pandemic, as people look to when they will get vaccinated, and as governments signal a determination to build back better, greener, and more equitably, there is a renewed recognition of the need to work together. But what does it really mean to build back better? If we are to make a difference, if we are to get a proper grip on climate change and the ensuing disruption, alongside the loss of nature with its increasingly challenging interactions with humans – as wildlife is forced into closer proximity with us, we need to rethink our trajectory. Repackaging or retitling simply what went on before the COVID pandemic is not “building back better”. We must take a far more thoughtful and far-sighted science-led approach to tackling our problems.  

Pictured from space the Earth truly is a blue planet, yet up to now we have largely forgotten the ocean in forming our solutions, turning a blind eye on the richness of life that dwells out of sight beneath the water’s surface and the benefit we derive from a healthy ocean.  It is the ocean that is taking the brunt of regulating our planet’s temperature thus far keeping it within ‘recognised’ norms. Over 90% of all the excess heat arising from human activities is now finding its way into the ocean. This problem now lies uneasily on top of decades of fundamental mismanagement of human activities that have already destroyed habitats, depleted countless species, and weakened resilience.  The heating is causing the very character of the whole ocean to increasingly change, species distributions to radically alter, and ecosystems to be even more rapidly damaged and lost. Ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions alone are clearly not enough to get us out of the mess we have created – equally ambitious ocean protection measures are also needed to halt the decline, provide space for nature and restore lost but essential resilience, and buy us time as emission cuts hopefully start to take effect. Thus, better protection and management of human activities in the ocean are key to all our futures whether you know it or not! No healthy ocean, no healthy us!

Just focusing exclusively on terrestrial conservation efforts in setting new targets will be wholly insufficient. Yet unfortunately, that’s just what we see in a recently released CBD document known as “Addendum 2” providing the scientific and technical information to support the ‘post-2020’ global biodiversity goals. A focus on the ocean is all but absent. So, while the threats and impacts facing seascapes and landscapes are connected, the tools to conserve, protect and manage these are different. The global biodiversity goals for the next decade must include as an absolute minimum equal emphasis on marine protection, with an explicit call to fully protect and conserve at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030, and to truly sustainably manage the remainder. The new framework should detail stand-alone, science-based targets to protect the land, to protect our freshwater, and to protect the ocean. The latter is something that IUCN members have been noticeably clear on following the declaration from the 2014 Sydney World Parks Congress on ocean protection, and the agreement reached two years later at the Hawai’i World Conservation Congress. If our goal is to secure a healthy planet for nature and people, we simply cannot afford to have land, freshwater and ocean bundled together into a single generic percentage target for the world. 

There is a dire need to scale up real protection, from the 2.6% of the ocean that is currently being afforded proper and full protection from harmful activities to at least 30%. We need to establish many more MPAs and recognise and support those areas that have the same protection end outcome but were founded for other reasons (the so-called ‘other effective area-based measures’ or OECMs). We need to integrate action across the land-sea divide as never before, so that problems that are causing the deterioration and destruction of our natural world are tackled at the source. Equally important, science shows that a target that has explicit separate focus on the ocean, freshwaters, and the land also needs to have a strong focus on delivering effective management. Effective management is a fundamental prerequisite to growing back both better and greener. Calling MPAs ‘protected’ when fishing not only continues but may even intensify will not promote protection or recovery and should be firmly placed in the past alongside the inadequacies of the previous 10% ocean protection goal which has its origins way back in 1983.

What is welcome is that today more than 70 countries are calling for a post-2020 target that explicitly requires protection of at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030 as part of the biodiversity goals. The best available science tells us this is now the very bare minimum amount needed to reach goals like preserving fish populations, increasing resilience to climate change, and sustaining long-term ocean health. So how do we deliver at least 30% protection for the ocean? A pathway to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 is not just possible but already in motion – it includes establishing an effective high seas treaty, consensus at CCAMLR to protect the Antarctic Southern Ocean, action to deliver marine protections in national waters; natural capital investment to deliver sustained financing; and the inclusion and participation of all key stakeholders. 

So, if we know the enormity of the problems we face, if we have the necessary high-quality tools in the tool kit, if we have good science showing the problems and the pathway to a better future – what is stopping us? As the age-old phrase reminds us ‘Time and tides wait for no (hu)man’ so as the challenges grow and become more serious we need to make profound and ambitious decisions to shape the future, and to turn the corner to start to reverse the desperate situation that currently confronts us. History will without a doubt judge us on the decisions we make. Let us make sure the CBD’s preparatory materials keep ocean conservation top of the agenda. And let us work together with renewed ambition, intent, and determination to make the right choices for all of us, for the planet, and for the ocean at the upcoming meeting in China.

Dan Laffoley is Marine Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, a Board Member of Mission Blue, and Chair of Mission Blue’s Hope Spot Council. Dr. Sylvia Earle is President and Chair of Mission Blue / The Sylvia Earle Alliance. She is a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence and is called Her Deepness by the New Yorker and the New York Times, Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and first Hero for the Planet by Time Magazine.

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