ST. JULIAN’S, Malta – A sure sign that ocean health is no longer a “niche” issue preoccupying a small coterie of scientists, advocates and policymakers: Executives from Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and other multinational corporations felt compelled to journey to this little Mediterranean island last week to make big public commitments to improve the state of the seas at the fourth Our Ocean conference.
The invitation-only event founded by former United States secretary of state John Kerry attracted heads of state and other representatives from 112 countries – and more than $8 billion (7.3 billion euros) in financial commitments from business, governments and advocates to, among other things, reduce marine plastic pollution, support sustainable fisheries, fight climate change and build a sustainable “blue economy.”
“Business has stepped up,” Karmenu Vella, a member of the European Commission responsible for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, told attendees as the conference drew to a close on Friday. “The conference separates the walkers from the talkers.”
Much of the talk last week at the Malta Hilton, where life-size fish and whales swam across gigantic video screens that flowed from the ceiling and curved around the conference hall, focused on building momentum for an international treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas – the area beyond national jurisdiction that accounts for nearly two-thirds of the ocean.
“We need a global cooperative effort, a new strategy to promote new international law fit for the purpose of securing the ocean we want,” Kristina Gjerde, high seas adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, told the delegates. “As the ocean has been reminding us for many years, it’s one interconnected whole.
“We don’t have time to say we will take care of this issue tomorrow,” she added, calling for a “World Bank for the ocean” to finance marine sustainability projects.
The United Nations is expected to vote before the end of the year on whether to begin negotiations over such a treaty after years of work by diplomats, scientists and advocates to lay the groundwork for an international law to protect the biodiversity of the high seas. The region plays a crucial role in the global climate, food supply and economy yet is largely beyond the reach of international law.
The three previous Our Ocean conferences served as a model for the U.N.’s first-ever Ocean Conference last June, a five-day event that attracted 4,000 national leaders, diplomats, scientists and business executives who pledged money and other resources to projects to ensure the sustainable use of the ocean as climate change wreaks havoc on coral reefs, fisheries and coastal communities.
With the election of Donald Trump, the U.S. has moved to the sidelines on ocean issues, though it did send a small delegation to the Our Ocean conference. The European Union sponsored this year’s event and the mood in Malta last week was optimistic that the ocean was becoming an issue of overriding global importance on a par with climate change.
“If the ocean was a country it would be one of the world’s biggest economies and would have a seat at the G7,” Federica Mogherini, the E.U. high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, told delegates. “Our ocean is bigger than any continent, yet it is not too big to fail,” she said.
“The health and safety of our ocean is a national security issue but it cannot be solved by any one nation,” she added.
One indication that governments and companies are walking the talk: This year’s $8 billion-plus in commitments came close to equaling the $9.2 billion pledged in total at the three previous Our Ocean conferences. Vella noted that nearly half of the 283 commitments made at the earlier conferences have been completed and another 46 percent are underway. Those commitments include protecting 3.8 million square miles (9.9 million square km) of the ocean in marine reserves.
A number of veteran conference-goers observed that Our Ocean has become a stage for governments and corporations to compete on taking action to protect the ocean. “Everyone wants to have something big to announce,” said one delegate.
And there were some big announcements. The E.U. pledged $650 million (550 million euros) to be spent on 36 ocean protection initiatives. The tiny South Pacific island nation of Niue – population 1,600 – meanwhile, said that it would protect 49,000 square miles of ocean (130,000 square km) or about 40 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). For its part, Chile announced the creation of three new marine reserves totaling 240,000 square miles of ocean (620,000 square km), which in addition to existing preserves would protect nearly half of its EEZ.
Consumer goods giant Unilever pledged to make all its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and to develop a solution to currently unrecyclable single-use sachets that often end up in the ocean. British retailing multinational Marks & Spencer said all its plastic packaging would be recyclable by 2022 and that it would study the feasibility of using a single polymer for packaging to make recycling easier. Procter & Gamble unveiled a liquid soap bottle made from recycled plastic, 10 percent of which was collected from oceans and beaches.
While a U.N.-like protocol governed the conference, some dispensed with diplomatic niceties. In a passionate speech, Prince Charles appeared to barely disguise his disgust and “mounting despair about the planetary crisis.”
The Prince of Wales said, “If the unprecedented ferocity of recent catastrophic hurricanes is not the supreme wake-up call that it needs to be, to address the vast and accumulating threat of climate change and ocean warming, then we – let alone the global insurance and financial sectors – can surely no longer consider ourselves part of a rational, sensible civilization.”
John Kerry appeared at the conference for the first time as a private citizen. “I spent Election Day flying to Antarctica,” he said. “And obviously when I learned the results, I did consider staying there.
“To put it bluntly,” he added, “it’s not going to do any good to have conferences based on words and speeches and not on pledges and forward movement.”
Then he quoted environmentalist and writer Rachel Carson. “She said, ‘It is a curious situation that the sea from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. The sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist. The threat is rather to life itself.’
“That was written 70 years ago and it was prophetic,” said Kerry. “And it should instill all of us here in Malta with a special mission to understand that we have to do more faster, we have to meet this challenge.”