Biodiversity COP15 hails ambitious new global policy framework for preserving ocean life

On 19 December 2022, over 190 countries agreed on a historic framework for conserving global biodiversity at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The new framework identifies ambitious goals for addressing current challenges to managing and conserving biodiversity – terrestrial and marine – but to do this we will need a step change in the delivery of ocean information.

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, or COP15, has come to an end with what was called a “historic deal to halt biodiversity loss”. The commitment to protect at least 30% of terrestrial, inland water, coastal and marine ecosystems by 2030 was one of the most important accomplishments of this landmark agreement between nations, known as the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

While often overlooked during international  biodiversity discussions, the ocean is teeming with life, and hosts a major fraction of global biodiversity, though the exact number of species is still under intense debate. The ocean also supports the livelihoods of over three billion people around the world. For many nations whose economic and human wellbeing are supported by ocean ecosystems, such as island and coastal states, it is a major part of their biodiversity equation. It also provides additional benefits – such as oxygen production and climate regulation – for society and the planet as a whole. 

The COP15 Biodiversity Conference in Montreal provided an important opportunity for the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) to raise awareness of the importance of marine biodiversity and the need to observe it more effectively if we are to manage and invest in marine ecosystems for future generations. Supporting ocean sustainability is central to the ambition of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030; the Ocean Decade), now entering its third year – and will be impossible without efficient and sustained observation systems for marine biodiversity. 

GOOS participated in the flagship ocean event “An Ocean of Life” organized by IOC/UNESCO on 16 December. The highly successful event, opened by the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, focused on knowledge and solutions for marine and coastal biodiversity under the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and gatheried global experts and high-level policy makers around a dialogue with the COP15 delegates. It also included the launch of the brand new Ocean Decade publication, Ocean science for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, on how the Ocean Decade supports the Convention on Biological Diversity and its post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. 

Ocean Observing and Essential Ocean Variables

The main goal of GOOS during COP15 was to highlight what has already been accomplished by GOOS experts – the framework of Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs), including 12 key variables for observing biodiversity, from microbes and phytoplankton, to mangroves and marine mammals (see the new GOOS flyer).  

Panelists of the first session at the IOC/UNESCO and Ocean Decade COP15 event “An Ocean of Life”. The full programme can be found here.

At the event, GOOS co-chair Dr Anya Waite emphasized GOOS’ key role in supporting sustainable ocean biodiversity management through systematic and continuous monitoring of the 12 biodiversity EOVs – key observations needed to support our understanding of the state of the ocean, how biodiversity supports livelihoods and what the future trajectories for ocean biodiversity might be. “That is exactly the ocean biodiversity observing system you need to report against the targets of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework,” said Dr Waite.

GOOS and its partners, such as the Ocean Biodiversity Information System(OBIS) and the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON), are working with communities around the globe to strengthen collection of these key observations and integrate them into a global system.

The Essential Ocean Variables are ready to be used to report on key biodiversity indicators supporting the Global Biodiversity Framework. Designed to be deployed at multiple scales, they provide a mechanism for nations to come together to collaborate in developing a fit-for-purpose ocean biodiversity observing system to fulfill nations’ reporting needs. “The Global Ocean Observing System, together with its partners, wants to work in close cooperation and help nations report on biodiversity indicators,” said Dr Waite. 

Dr Anya Waite presenting at “An Ocean of Life” at COP15.

Technological advances to support marine biodiversity observations

Throughout the side event, numerous experts mentioned the need for ocean observations to underpin sustainable management, and the power of new technology to turn the tide in our understanding and tracking of ocean biodiversity. Dr Waite pointed to the coming revolution in ocean biodiversity data, highlighting how new technologies such as environmental DNA (or eDNA), digital imaging and remote sensing can substantially improve the sheer quantity of ocean information available and our knowledge of marine ecosystems. 

One example of applications of new technology in ocean observing is the UNESCO’s Pacific Islands Marine Bioinvasion Alert Network (PacMAN) in the South Pacific, which is building an early-warning system for marine invasive species based on identification of species using eDNA. 

“This is particularly relevant to the new Global Biodiversity Framework, as one of its key targets is reducing the rates of introduction and establishment of invasive alien species by at least 50% by 2030, and eradicating or controlling invasive alien species that are present, especially in priority sites such as islands,” said Ward Appeltans, Marine Biodiversity Programme specialist and coordinator of the PacMAN project at the IOC/UNESCO.

Delegates from the United Kingdom, Mexico, France and Norway spoke to the vital role of the ocean in achieving the COP15 targets, and in the economies and sustainability of their countries, highlighting national and transboundary initiatives towards building a better future for human-ocean interaction across climate and biodiversity.

Climate and biodiversity: two sides of the same coin

Another key theme at COP15 was the interconnectivity between climate and biodiversity, which was also highlighted throughout the IOC/UNESCO “An Ocean of Life” event. As human activities continue altering the ocean’s ability to mitigate climate change, the “No Paris without Montreal” declaration highlights the need to connect biodiversity and climate action in support of the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

The declaration, initiated by the Ocean and Climate Platform – an international conglomerate of 85 ocean institutions from science and civil society – underscores the need to look at the ocean holistically and through transdisciplinary approaches. An integrated global ocean observing system that provides timely, fit-for-purpose, essential ocean data across climate, biodiversity, weather and ocean hazards, will be key.

Capacity and investment for the future

Inequality in capacity and capability between nations was another key discussion point throughout COP15. Sustaining the health of global biodiversity and ensuring ongoing benefits to all will require balancing current inequalities. For marine biodiversity management, this means ocean states with developed capacity have a role to play in supporting information and technology transfer and building capability to ensure that all nations can manage and conserve their marine ecosystems effectively.  

The need to build capability and support equity in access to information and technology was recognized at COP15 with a number of countries committing support, and philanthropic and global sustainability funds demonstrating clear interest in broadening financing to support implementation of the new Global Biodiversity Framework. Showcasing the Ocean Decade, GOOS and the IOC/UNESCO highlighted the need to ensure investments across not only green, but also blue biodiversity.

COP15 identified strong support for ocean biodiversity, opening doors to new investment opportunities, partnerships and important technological advancements in the near future. But the challenge will remain to keep ocean life in focus  within the implementation of the new biodiversity framework – and GOOS will continue working to keep this dialogue alive in 2023 and beyond. 

The most effective way to maintain the necessary focus on marine biodiversity is a strong ocean observing infrastructure and data management system that supports excellent ocean management and conservation. Delivering this system effectively and globally will be crucial for nations reporting on indicators and monitoring progress on the new global biodiversity targets. 

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