UN Ocean Conference 2022: Observations are vital to face challenges and achieve sustainable development

More than 6,000 participants from a variety of sectors gathered in Lisbon during the last week of June for what could be called the principal event highlighting the importance of the ocean to society: the United Nations Ocean Conference 2022. Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares stated in his closing remarks the conference “has given us the opportunity to highlight critical issues and generate new ideas and commitments. But it has also shed light on the work that remains, and the need to scale this up and raise ambition for the recovery of our ocean.”

Climate change and the ocean

Quantifying and forecasting climate change, its moderation by the ocean and its impact on our planet, and in particular on life, was distinguished as one of the greatest challenges of our time, requiring urgent science-based action and international cooperation. “We have 8 years of the Ocean Decade left to make the transition and find the right science-based solutions”, said Peter Thomson, UN Special Envoy for the Ocean. As highlighted by the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) team during the side events of the conference, these solutions must be supported with reliable data coming from ocean observations. 

“I think people are realising that the ocean is absolutely critical in the climate fight, and that hasn’t been front and centre until just the last year or so,” said GOOS co-chair Anya Waite to CTV live from the conference. The ocean has absorbed around 40% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and more than 90% of the heat. How much CO2 the ocean can take up, at what rate, and the impacts of this uptake on temperature, circulation, and marine life – all of these are critically under-observed processes. If we do not monitor ocean CO2 uptake, nations’ current carbon budgeting schemes will remain poorly informed, and the benefits that the ocean provides to society, such as food and climate regulation, will be jeopardised.

Monitoring marine litter

The complex issue of marine pollution including plastics also received attention. GOOS co-organized the official side event on Integrating Marine Litter Monitoring to Inform Action – a critical milestone in advocating the necessity of a global sustained Integrated Marine Debris Observing System (IMDOS) and building a global IMDOS community. The full-day event encouraged cooperation among the members of scientific institutions and international programs, governmental and intergovernmental representatives, as well as policy makers and ocean managers present from around the world. During the event, which consisted of a series of presentations, panels and roundtable discussions across several sessions, participants expressed overwhelming support for continued development of IMDOS. 

“Strengthening existing and following up on the newly initiated interactions from this event will be critical to the successful development of IMDOS. The success of such an observing system in providing scientific knowledge to address the marine litter problem relies on coordination across a broad landscape of organisations and initiatives involved in marine debris observations,” said Artur Palacz, International Ocean Carbon Coordination Project (IOCCP) officer. 

Panel discussion on Integrating Marine Litter Monitoring to Inform Action (left to right): Toste Tanhua (GEOMAR, Germany – GOOS Co-Chair), Alexander Turra (University of Sao Paolo, Brazil), Mana Kamakura (Office of the Ministry of Environment, Government of Japan), Marc Metian (IAEA, Monaco), Amy Lusher (NIVA, Norway), Heidi Savelli-Soderberg (UNEP, Kenya), moderated by Artur Palacz (IOCCP, Poland)

Marine life observations

A major topic of the conference was the importance of marine biodiversity and how it is affected by the changes in the ocean, limiting sustainable development, the livelihoods of many communities and the well-being of humanity in general. There were repeated calls from many countries and organisations to harness the opportunities provided by upcoming meetings of United Nations parties to ensure adequate conservation of marine biodiversity both within country jurisdictions and in areas beyond national jurisdiction. These calls highlighted key linkages between marine biodiversity observations and effective conservation. Without such observations, marine biodiversity might be destroyed before we know it, and before we understand the contribution it makes to the many services humans rely on.

GOOS members helped plan and participated in a number of side events with a focus on ocean observations. One of these focused on Marine Life Observations, building on the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development endorsed programme Marine Life 2030.

“Without marine life observations, we have no way to understand how life is changing,” said Isabel Sousa-Pinto, co-chair of the Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) at the side event. Nicole LeBoeuf, who leads the National Ocean Service of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), emphasised that good, accurate, and timely marine life data are needed to make every decision involving the ocean, emphasising strong links between GOOS and Marine Life 2030. Tiara Moore, the CEO of Black in Marine Science, made a compelling call for everyone to be involved in understanding what knowledge is needed, collecting the data and delivering the information we need, and to go beyond problems of discrimination of different groups of people and just work together for the benefit of everyone. Anya Waite compared the benefits and challenges of ocean observing to space exploration.

The Marine Life Observations side event highlighted the importance of standards and best practices for marine life data collection, and the sharing of data, as well as the need for investments to support observation systems and enable the conservation, management and sustainable use of ocean ecosystems. Observing the deep ocean, marginal seas, and coastal ecosystems in the context of Sustainable Development Goal 14 – life below water was also discussed throughout the side events of the conference. Collaboration, co-production and exchange of knowledge and capacity were repeatedly raised as essential for addressing regional inequalities, supporting inclusion and ensuring sustainability of actions in addressing current gaps towards implementing solutions.

Panel discussion on marine life observations (left to right): Isabel Sousa Pinto (CIIMAR, University of Porto), Nicole LeBoeuf (NOAA National Ocean Service), Tiara Moore (Black in Marine Science), Anya Waite (Ocean Frontiers Institute, Dalhousie University – GOOS Co-Chair)

Observations for sustainable development

The essential role of ocean observations for sustainable development was discussed at the event on Ocean Observing for Ocean Sustainability, moderated by Emma Heslop, Acting Director, GOOS Office. The panel event was hosted by Scripps Institution of Oceanography and GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and discussed how to use the framework of the Ocean Decade to make actionable advances on the development of global ocean science capacity for SIDS – better termed ‘large ocean states’. 

Ambassador Ronald Jumeau, Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador for Climate Change, Republic of Seychelles, and Corinne Almeida, Professor of Ocean Science from Cabo Verde, had a stimulating discussion with the leadership of large ocean science institutes on what these advances might look like. The ‘large ocean states’ noted that the value of ocean observations to national economies has to be clearly made, as other ocean resource related industries are potentially winning the economic argument. Another clear point made was that ocean observing needs to be co-designed for delivery of the information that ‘large ocean states’ need, wave and sea-level often key for facing climate related  challenges, followed by carbon and other biogeochemical observations. 

Large marine institutes have great experience in using observations for societal benefit and there was agreement that the depth of experience in these institutes could be harnessed to support development. A final key issue raised is the need for integral job creation within national observing and forecasting system development. Without this, nationals graduating in ocean science have nowhere to use their skills and a committed resource is lost. This requires a more holistic view than simply problem solving, but is integral to sustainable blue economic development.

“The large attendance by nations, NGOs and experts to this important conference show commitments from nations and other partners to support the goals articulated in SDG14. During this second Ocean Conference, the need for sustained ocean observing in order to assess the state and progress towards those goals was high on the agenda and visible during the whole conference. The issue of “you cannot manage what you cannot measure” was heard loud and clear. There is a long way to go, but I feel that there is a movement in the right direction for a more sustainable ocean,” said GOOS co-chair Toste Tanhua.

Co-designing the observing system

Co-design was indeed a hot topic at this year’s UN Ocean Conference. Seventeen philanthropic organisations contributing to the UN Ocean Decade Foundations Dialogue launched the The Bouknadel Statement, affirming their commitment to investing in transformative ocean science and inviting the broader philanthropic community to support the co-design; co-delivery; communication, sharing and uptake; and development of capacity for ocean science and knowledge by diverse stakeholders across the world. The three GOOS UN Ocean Decade programmes – Ocean Observing Co-Design, Observing Together and CoastPredict – directly target these needs and their objectives and activities were presented via a series of videos during the Ocean Decade Forum Multistakeholder Event.

“It’s fantastic to see the GOOS community leading the conversation at the UN Ocean Conference on key issues such as observing system co-design. The GOOS UN Decade Programmes have built on decades of GOOS work, highlighting the critical role of ocean observations in supporting key predictions such as cyclones, marine heatwaves and other phenomena impacting coastal communities. These programs will be transformative,” said GOOS co-chair Anya Waite.

Our take-away message for UN Ocean Conference 2022

As the ocean is faced with rapid change, it is clear that ocean observations are vital for addressing global challenges, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 14 – life below water – will require increasingly better and more sustained observations. Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) is dedicated to providing these observations and ensuring that observation systems get the lift they need. We call on nations to act today, through leadership and commitment of financial and technical resources, to advance GOOS – key infrastructure that will inform climate targets, monitor ocean health and improve the safety and wellbeing of our societies. 

Take a look at our flyer for UN Ocean Conference 2022!

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