By Amina J. Mohammed
One of the most intellectually engaging, politically challenging and personally gratifying periods of my life was the time I spent as an adviser to former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, working with Member States and people across the world to articulate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adopted by world leaders at a moving ceremony in 2015, this landmark plan, encapsulated in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), points the way towards a future of dignity, prosperity and peace for all. At this still-early stage in our efforts to seize the Agenda’s potential and fulfil its promises, I am deeply honoured to have been asked by current Secretary-General António Guterres to serve as his Deputy, and thereby to again serve the world’s people in this essential work.
I know from the economy and experiences of my own country, Nigeria, that the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources is integral to the 2030 Agenda and its goals to end extreme poverty and hunger, and to promote peaceful and sustainable social and economic development for all nations. With oceans now near or at the limit of their ability to provide for human needs and remain viable ecosystems, only the United Nations can mobilize the type of transformative action needed at the global, regional and national level to reverse this trend.
In many coastal developing countries and small island developing States, maintaining and restoring the health and resilience of coastal and marine ecosystems, such as mangroves and coral reefs, are vital for protection from natural hazards such as extreme storms and sea level rise. They are also essential for promoting food security, protecting livelihoods and safeguarding broader economic development. Marine fisheries provide jobs for 300 million people and help meet the nutritional needs of 3 billion people. The role of fisheries is particularly profound in many of the world’s poorest communities, where fish are a critical source of protein, essential micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids. The fishing sector provides a social safety net, particularly for women, who are a majority in secondary activities related to marine fisheries and marine aquaculture, such as fish processing and marketing.
The oceans are also experiencing major stress from climate change. Globally, the sea level has risen by 20 centimetres since the start of the twentieth century, due mostly to thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of glaciers and ice caps. Some regions are experiencing even greater sea level rise. General warming trends, massive episodes of coral bleaching, acidification and the sea level rise are affecting ecosystems in all regions, threatening fisheries, food chains and the oceans’ ability to act as efficient carbon sinks. Warmer temperatures are causing more extreme weather events, and a projected two-metre rise in sea levels by the end of the century would be catastrophic for coastal habitats and economies. Hundreds of millions of people are at risk.
Here, too, the situation in Nigeria offers a vivid example of the threat. The coastline is vital for the people of Lagos State and the Niger Delta, who make up 19 per cent of Nigeria’s population and face high vulnerability due to poverty, population rise, urbanization, water pollution and poor health, sanitation and land use. Lagos, in particular, is at a risk of coastal erosion and inundation. While some degree of erosion occurs naturally, human activities, such as the construction of ports and oil production facilities, the damming of rivers and sand mining, are aggravating the danger. The Niger Delta, which contributes 35 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and 90 per cent of export revenue, is experiencing extensive biodiversity loss, deforestation, overfishing and a loss of spawning grounds due to the destruction of mangroves. Oil spills continue to devastate the oceans and rivers.
These examples illustrate that the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources goes far beyond the need for mitigation and adaptation to climate impacts. It must encompass all ocean-related activities, including fisheries and aquaculture, land-based sources of pollution, tourism, transportation and new ocean-based industries such as offshore renewable energy and marine biotechnology. All the challenges to the oceans are of humanity’s making; all can be reversed by our concerted, coordinated action. That is the object of SDG 14 and all the interrelated Goals.
The United Nations and its specialized agencies are already assisting developing countries to work towards the interrelated targets of SDG 14. The key to this work is harmonizing economic development and ocean health. We cannot continue, let alone accelerate, the changes we are causing to ocean ecosystems. That is why the United Nations system is working with Governments and international private sector and civil society organizations to strengthen governance structures and promote the implementation of international legal instruments and various management tools, such as integrated coastal zone management and marine spatial planning, and to facilitate a coordinated approach to the application of law and policies for environmental protection and sustainable economic development.
Looking ahead, four steps are especially important.
First, mobilizing high-level leadership and political will and facilitating the creation of partnerships. The forthcoming Ocean Conference, which will take place from 5 to 9 June 2017 at United Nations Headquarters in New York, will put a much-needed spotlight on all relevant issues. It will enable stakeholders to register concrete commitments. The gathering is also a platform to educate all actors about the international legal framework that governs seas and oceans, and the tools and methodologies needed for their sustainable use and conservation. It will be particularly important to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, especially relating to fisheries, and incentivize market-based mechanisms to reduce waste and pollution.
Second, translating the political will expressed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development into funding commitments for capacity-building. The United Nations is already working with Governments on deploying innovative financial instruments such as blue bonds, insurance and debt-for-adaptation swaps. In conjunction with grantfunding entities, such as the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, resources are needed to improve the governance of marine environments and resources, and to promote economic diversification, job creation, food security, poverty reduction and sustainable economic development.
Third, deepening the knowledge base. Better scientific and economic data and information are needed to understand the impacts and environmental costs of human activities on the oceans, the socioeconomic impacts of ocean decline on human well-being, and the synergies and trade-offs between different policies. These will be provided by various reports and assessments, such as the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on Oceans and the Cryosphere, and the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment, Including Socioeconomic Aspects. I also welcome the contribution of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to fill critical data gaps and ensure that data is accessible and usable. It is essential that we harness the growing potential of big data to identify and address risks in real time. Data are the lifeblood of decisionmaking and the raw material for accountability. They can complement and strengthen traditional statistics and move the world onto a path of information equality, where all citizens, organizations and Governments have the right information, at the right time, and make good decisions that can improve people’s lives.
Fourth, sharing best practices and experiences. Many of the most innovative solutions are local, ranging from managed marine areas to collective fisheries management undertaken by cooperatives. While not all can be scaled up, some may have broader relevance. Different cultures and knowledge systems, including traditional knowledge, can provide new perspectives for innovation and for understanding key sustainability issues, such as intergenerational responsibility. It will also be crucial to educate young people about the fragility of the marine environment and its importance for sustainable development.
Sustaining the integrity of marine ecosystems will require a profound transformation in how humanity views and uses these fragile, finite and irreplaceable resources. But, if we follow the guidance of the 2030 Agenda and invest wisely in sustainable development, we can maintain and improve the quality of life that seas, oceans and marine resources provide to humankind.
In the several years that I have now been involved in shaping and implementing the 2030 Agenda, I have seen the critical role the United Nations plays in bringing people together, providing a forum for discussion and contributing authoritative data, analysis and policy options. And in the time I spent recently as Nigeria’s Minister of Environment, I saw not only the needs dose-up, but the readiness of people to contribute to problem-solving for their communities and for the world. That spirit, along with a supportive United Nations, can achieve great progress. I look forward to working with partners everywhere to set people and planet—including our precious oceans and seas—on a path to a sustainable future.
Author bio: Amina J. Mohammed is Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.