UN’s Ocean Envoy Calls for a Decade of Ocean Science

By Vinicius Lindoso, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO

The UN General Assembly recently used the NASDAQ billboard in Times Square to promote the proposed UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030. The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development is designed to boost investment and intergovernmental coordination of ocean science.

Following the success of the first ever UN Ocean Conference in June, 2017, Peter Thomson of Fiji was recently appointed as United Nations Special Envoy for the Ocean by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. With the prospect of the next UN Ocean Conference being announced for 2020, Mr Thomson believes this could be the start of an entire decade of concerted action needed to support the protection of our shared ocean environment.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC) has recently been calling for 2021-2030 to become the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Mr Thomson says he supports this call for an “Ocean Decade” to galvanize efforts to achieve the commitments and actions needed to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources by 2030. These objectives are enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 on the ocean.

“Four of the 10 targets in SDG 14 actually mature in 2020. For example, getting 10% of the world’s oceans into protected areas. So 2020 is a very important milestone where we, as a global community, can assess our progress in the implementation of SDG 14 to its ultimate success in 2030”, he says.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission published the first ever Global Ocean Science Report at the UN Ocean Conference in June 2017. At the launch of this report, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, lamented the fact that current investment in ocean science was “negligible”, ranging from just 0.04-4% of total investments in natural sciences, across all member countries.

The UN Decade of Ocean Science will help to address the key challenges identified in the IOC’s first Global Ocean Science Report:

Ocean science knowledge and capacities are key to developing and managing economic activities, from fisheries to coastal and urban planning, as well as to informing climate change policies and ensuring early warning and preparedness for disasters such as tsunamis and flooding.

Peter Haugan, the Chair of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, says the report highlights the need for urgent investment to address our lack of scientific knowledge about the ocean.

“We know something about the role of the ocean in climate change and climate variability. We measure the heat uptake and so on but there’s an awful lot of things that we don’t know,” he says.

Professor Haugan adds that the level of investment in ocean science is very uneven around the world. In view of the ocean’s economic importance and key role in regulating the climate, he says there is an urgent need for countries to organize their national inventories on ocean science capacity so they know exactly where and what they need to invest to turn scientific development into sustainable growth.

“We have major players who have infrastructure, who have vessels, who have capabilities and others which do not. So one of the key messages is how do we make these things work together in a good way? How do we take the capabilities that exist in some places and make them available for the rest of the world?” he says.

Ocean science is an expensive business that often involves the use of satellites, underwater vehicles and expensive research ships. Today the largest ocean research budgets are in industrialized countries such as Germany, the Republic of Korea; and the United States of America. Professor Haugan believes the proposed “Ocean Decade” would help many developing countries to build human capacity in ocean science and accelerate the transfer of marine technologies.

The Global Ocean Science Report enhances efforts to drive the sustainable development of our global oceans by providing an initial baseline of existing ocean science capacity in terms of infrastructure, human resources, R&D investments, scientific publications, and scientific collaborations.

Peter Thomson says the proposed UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development could provide countries with a consistent framework for coordinating and consolidating the observations and research needed to achieve SDG14.

“The Decade is going to be very important to us in terms of the actions we need to protect the ocean because all of this work that we are doing has to have its feet firmly in the science. One of the very attractive things for me about opening an office here in Paris is that the IOC is just down the road and really developing into an ocean hub now where we can really push things along over the next three years,” he says.

UN leaders say the Ocean Decade is urgently needed to boost investment and international cooperation on ocean science:

*Country data comes from replies to a questionnaire sent out by the authors of the Report.

The full Report, in English, as well as the Executive Summary, in the six official UN languages, are available online here.

Vinicius Lindoso is Communications Officer at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the United Nations’ main body for ocean science and science-based policy advice.

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