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The UN Ocean Decade: can we chart a course for real ocean sustainability?

Covering 71% of the Earth's surface, oceans are intrinsic to life as we know it. They provide essential natural resources, act as buffers against the damage from storms, and absorb over 90% of the excess heat generated from global warming. With 3 billion people depending on coastal environments for their livelihoods, the economic, social and cultural wealth of our oceans cannot be overstated. Despite their vital importance, existing efforts to safeguard our oceans are failing to meet those which are required to secure a sustainable future. A key factor in this is the underfunding of oceanic research, which currently receives a mere fraction (<2%) of national research budgets. Through the lens of this month’s landmark Ocean Decade conference, this blog post will explore the role of the UN Ocean Decade in addressing existing research deficits and catalysing the progress required to achieve ocean sustainability.

The UN Ocean Decade (2021-2030)

Vision: ‘The science we need for the ocean we want.

Mission: ‘Transformative ocean science solutions for sustainable development, connecting people and our ocean.

The UN Ocean Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (the UN Ocean Decade) is a global initiative aimed at reversing the decline in ocean health through the facilitation of oceanic science and knowledge generation. This initiative provides a framework through which scientists and stakeholders, spanning diverse disciplines, can come together to develop the scientific knowledge and partnerships necessary to facilitate advances in ocean science and develop an improved understanding of the ocean system.

At its core, the Ocean Decade is founded upon a set of societal outcomes, each representing a key area where progress is needed to achieve ocean sustainability. These outcomes include:

Recognising the critical role that oceans play in supporting life on Earth, this initiative intends to mobilise governments, organisations and individuals to address the array of challenges facing oceans and catalyse opportunities for sustainable development. The Ocean Decade highlights ten key challenges including:

2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference

Last month, the 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference took place on 10-12 April in Barcelona, Spain. Co-organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), this landmark conference served as a platform for the Ocean Decade network to celebrate achievements, share knowledge and set joint priorities for the future of the Decade. Underpinned by the phrase ‘delivering the science we need for the ocean we want’, the conference was centred around solutions-oriented, transformative ocean science and the role of the Decade in galvanising inclusive and equitable co-design and co-delivery processes.

Beyond its role in facilitating collaboration, showcasing initiatives and generating dialogue, the conference’s key outcome will be a set of white papers intending to address the aforementioned 10 Ocean Decade challenges. These papers will help identify future priorities for the Ocean Decade and further define its role in generating the knowledge required for science-based solutions to pertinent global challenges (e.g., climate change, food security, and biodiversity conservation).

The Effectiveness of UN Sponsorship in Driving Ocean Sustainability

The UN provides high-level intergovernmental drive and awareness to pertinent issues such as the decline in ocean health. In the context of the Ocean Decade, the utility of UN sponsorship offers a number of benefits primarily through the amplification of global recognition and legitimacy. The involvement of the UN garners both credibility and validation at an international scale, thereby encouraging widespread participation and support from key players including governments, the private sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This helps to promote knowledge sharing and the dissemination of best practices. Furthermore, UN sponsorship facilitates the mobilisation of resources (financial, technical and human) which are essential for the success of initiatives such as the Ocean Decade. Through the UN’s influence on international policy agenda, its support can also help prioritise ocean-related issues and drive change at an impactful scale.

Given the aforementioned benefits, it is evident that there is considerable merit in the utility of UN sponsorship. However, it is vital to recognise that it alone may not a panacea for challenges related to ocean sustainability. One limitation lies in the diverse and complex nature of such challenges, which require multifaceted approaches beyond what UN sponsorship can provide. Additionally, bureaucratic processes within the UN system may sometimes hinder its ability to respond to emerging issues. For a long time, the UN has also struggled with limited resources. Such constraints have hindered its ability to effectively tackle the numerous global challenges it faces.

In light of these concerns, it begs the question, what else is needed in the pursuit of ocean sustainability? An ideal starting point may be improvements into the coordination of the ever-increasing plethora of ocean awareness projects or funding groups. For example, in Australia alone, a quick review indicates there are at least 15 ocean-related not-for-profits, plus several investment start-up facilitators. In addition, there are three Commonwealth departments and 4 research and development (R&D) institutions, departments and institutes in each State. These sit alongside a multitude of universities involved in ocean management, R&D and new commercial opportunities to help our oceans. Could a better coordinated model globally (and in Australia) maximise the impact of these groups and provide better outcomes for our oceans?

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