The rising stakes for ocean governance

One estimate says about 93 percent of all the heat people have added to the planet since the 1950s has been absorbed by the oceans. Snow level at both the poles has been at its lowest in recent years. Source:

World oceans play the crucial role of a life support in poverty alleviation, food security, human health, and curbing climate change. But our oceans are increasingly being threatened and degraded by human-induced climate change, natural disasters, depletion of fisheries, loss of biodiversity, etc. 

Ocean governance in recent years has become an important area of global diplomacy. The process began with the UNEP-initiated Regional Seas Program (RSP) back in 1974. Today, more than 140 countries participate in 13 RSPs including the South Asia RSP. Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 emphasised the "need for a new approach to development and regulation of marine environment and coastal zones." Then came the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea III (UNCLOS) in 1982, after two unsuccessful attempts before.  

The latest high-level UN Ocean Conference held early last month was a move along the envisaged new approach. The event at the UN headquarters attended by 4,000 delegates, which included a number of heads of state and government, was meant for supporting the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which aims to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development." This conference was the first in a series planned to address all the SDGs. SDG 14 consists of 10 targets, related to pollution management, ocean acidification, control of plastic waste and overfishing. 

The meeting produced three outcomes: an agreed Call for Action, a registry of voluntary commitments, and key messages from the partnership dialogues. The Call for Action reconfirms the commitment of UN member states to the implementation of SDG 14, and to mobilise adequate resources. The registration of 1,328 voluntary commitments by governments and other stakeholders was celebrated as a major achievement. Finally, the partnership dialogues were instrumental in facilitating knowledge and experience-sharing among conference participants, and clarifying inter-linkages between SDG 14 and other goals.

During the last four decades a framework of integrated ocean governance has been evolving, with three elements: laws, institutions and mechanisms of implementation. The legal element is composed of international and regional conventions and programmes which establish rules and norms for ocean management, the most prominent being the UNCLOS. These provisions must be incorporated by states in their national legislations. The institutions are meant for ensuring coordination and cooperation among nations for implementation of legal elements. Among others, these include the International Seabed Authority as custodian of the High Seas, Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, UN Consultation Process, Oceans and Coastal Areas Network, etc. 

The means of implementation range from local and national community-based co-management structures to international mechanisms like the UN General Assembly's annual review of ocean affairs. This element also includes financial support and capacity building for ocean management in the developing countries. For example, SDG 14 target 7 relates to increasing economic benefits to small island states and least developed countries. In the June event a partnership dialogue was dedicated to exploring how this target can be achieved including means of its realisation. Also, there were discussions about blue economy and the means of its implementation such as introduction of the Blue Bond and Debt-for-Nature Swaps. Germany has declared the creation of a Blue Action Fund.  

One of the issues demanding immediate attention at the June Conference was the impact of climate change on the global marine environment, an issue largely overlooked in climate diplomacy. The oceans—which produce half of all our oxygen, regulate the earth's climate, and are home to thousands of species—have been our best ally in efforts to curb climate change. One estimate says about 93 percent of all the heat people have added to the planet since the 1950s has been absorbed by the oceans. A 2015 analysis by the Grantham Institute shows that if the same amount of heat that was added to the top two kilometres of the oceans between 1955 and 2010 had instead been added to the bottom ten kilometres of the atmosphere, the temperature on earth would have gone up by 36 degrees Celsius.

A high-profile feature at the conference was a video statement of the UN Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, who argued that "if given a chance, nature can rebound," and called for the conclusion of a "Paris Agreement for the ocean" with ambitious and measurable goals to protect it from degradation and over-exploitation.

Snow level at both the poles has been at its lowest in recent years. Conflicts are likely to arise from potential availability of natural resources, with serious geopolitical implications. As Arctic ice continues to shrink, some nations see prospects of navigation, oil, gas and mineral resources. This is already generating tensions and divisions in the 16-member Arctic Council. Though the US did not ratify the UNCLOS, despite efforts by Clinton in her tenure as Secretary of State, the US is showing renewed interest in ocean governance. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) are emerging as new maritime powers, raising their stakes in ocean governance. Russia is already there in hopes of controlling sea lanes and exploiting mineral resources in the Arctic whose potential is predicted to be quite high. Also, there is no clarity yet on issues of migrating exclusive economic zones (EEZs), or the future legality of EEZs of some small island states facing death due to current and future sea level rise.

Bangladesh has historically been a sea-faring nation, with its access to the Bay of Bengal in the south. She has been found to be among the world's 20 fishery-rich nations. With the successful delimitation of EEZ with the two neighbours, India and Myanmar, Bangladesh is in a position to pursue her interests unhindered in her EEZ and beyond. For this purpose, Bangladesh needs to develop a strategic plan based on stakeholder consultations and effective institutions to ensure her resource and maritime security. The key is rapid capacity building with appropriate technologies, adequate manpower and aquanauts to face the emerging challenges of ocean governance.

The writer is Professor of Environmental Management, North South University. 

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