Here's how the 2022 UN Ocean Conference set off a new wave of global ocean action

Last week in Lisbon, Portugal, the second UN Ocean Conference, co-hosted by the Governments of Portugal and Kenya, finally took place after several postponements due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The global ocean community was thirsty to meet and connect again in person – to celebrate progress, and more importantly push for ever more ambitious ocean action.

This was the moment for Ambassador Peter Thomson, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean and Co-Chair of Friends of Ocean Action, along with the rest of the global ocean community, to check and acknowledge progress across the critically important targets of the Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean, SDG14 – and highlight shortfalls and gaps. It was also a chance to shine a spotlight on emerging issues and solutions that need to be urgently implemented.

Many members of Friends of Ocean Action, which has its origins in the first UN Ocean Conference in 2017, convened in person in Lisbon – along with representatives from the World Economic Forum’s ocean, nature and climate team, and several thousand other fellow ocean health advocates and stakeholders from around the world. So what were the highlights?

1) There is growing political commitment and momentum for ocean health. The UN Ocean Conference political declaration endorsed by all parties, Save Our Ocean, underlines a global commitment to ocean action – acknowledging that the ocean is our future, and our responsibility. This year has seen encouraging strides forward – from a unanimous agreement at the UN Environment Assembly in March to negotiate a global plastics treaty, to a deal two weeks ago among members of the World Trade Organization to curb harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing. There were strong calls to continue and complete the task, including in the Interactive Dialogues on a suite of key ocean topics from making fisheries sustainable to promoting and strengthening sustainable ocean economies.

2) The role of the ocean in both mitigating climate change and helping communities adapt to its consequences was front and centre of this UN Ocean Conference. There was strong cohesion across countries and stakeholders to move forward the ocean-climate agenda, including bringing to life the potential of blue carbon. Governments, civil society and private sector leaders have come together on the topic and announcing complementing efforts in this space. To support this growing market for blue carbon projects, Friends of Ocean Action – through our Mangroves Working Group convened in collaboration with – have joined forces with Salesforce, Conservation International, Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy, with the support of Meridian Institute, and launched in Lisbon the draft Blue Carbon Principles and Guidelines now open for consultation.

3) SDG14 is the least funded of all the Sustainable Development Goals – yet achieving its targets will have positive benefits across the whole sustainable development agenda, from boosting food and job security, acting as a key node for participatory governance, to tackling the climate crisis. This week has seen increasing focus on this financing gap for ocean health, with good visibility for the World Economic Forum’s new SDG14 Financing Landscape Scan report including a piece in the Economist. There were welcome announcements of funding, such as the Protecting Our Planet Challenge backed by the Bezos Earth Fund along with ten other partners, pledging more than $1 billion USD in funding for ocean restoration to 2030.

4) This conference also saw broader presence of business – participating in discussions, demonstrating their willingness to take action and commitment to ocean health. A key session introduced the Ocean 100 Dialogues initiative, convening the largest ocean economy companies and partners to discuss potential cross-industry commitments emerging from ocean business action sprints, co-hosted by the World Economic Forum (Friends of Ocean Action), Duke University, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, UN Global Compact, World Ocean Council and Ørsted.

5) The need for innovative solutions was mainstreamed as a key piece of the puzzle to halting the decline in ocean health and getting it back onto a path of recovery. We launched UpLink Ocean’s Regenerative Coastal Tourism Challenge cohort, with a range of exciting and ingenious ideas from creating artificial reefs using 3D printing to converting plastic bags and bottles into energy.

6) There was a strong youth voice and presence across the week, kicking off with the Youth and Innovation Forum whose outcomes fed directly into discussions of the Conference. The week also saw greater than ever awareness and clear calls for the need for representation of all kinds and diversity across the ocean action agenda and decision-making arenas, whether geographical, gender, age or otherwise.

7) Following the momentum of the UN Food Systems Summit last year, sustainable food from the ocean was front and centre of discussions in Lisbon, kicked off at the beginning of the week with the launch of the Aquatic Blue Food Coalition. There is growing acknowledgment of how blue food, or food from the ocean and other aquatic sources, is a major lever for positive change in ocean health as well as feeding the growing population in a way that is sustainable, ethical, nutritious and affordable. Friends of Ocean Action also launched its report, The Road to Sustainable Aquaculture, which scans current frameworks and processes to support responsible growth of blue food farming.

8) The urgent need to tackle the phenomenal problem of plastic waste pollution was given due airtime, and not only in relation to progress towards a global plastics treaty. The World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership team contributed solutions and ideas, such as sharing insights into national financing roadmaps, to support the governments in unlocking finance to support waste management and plastic waste reduction goals – as well as convening multistakeholder sessions to discuss tools, strategies and finance needed to implement a legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution.

9) The role of China across the ocean space was prominent in the Conference, and also saw the announcement of China’s Blue Partnership Principles and Friends of Ocean Action’s Sustainable Blue Partnership Cooperation Network, working with China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the China Oceanic Development Foundation to convene and promote cooperation between ocean stakeholders in China. Members so far include the Paradise International Foundation, WWF China, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International Foundation (USA) Beijing Representative Office and the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology Foundation.

10) Greater than ever visibility and recognition were given to those at the frontline of climate change: the Small Island Developing States, increasingly referred to as large ocean states. These countries are low-lying and suffer from rising sea levels as much as pollution and destruction of ocean ecosystems and knock-on impacts on tourism. The sustainable blue economy can be pivotal in enabling a strong recovery from the pandemic – as set out in our report produced by the OECD, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action and Sustainable Development Investment Partnership (SDIP), and in close partnership with the Government of Fiji and other local, regional and international stakeholders: Towards a Blue Recovery in Fiji. The report is the first of three outputs of the Blue Recovery Hubs initiative in Fiji, which launched this week and featured in an article by Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Economy, Shiri Krishna Gounder.

11) The topic of deep-sea minerals was high on the agenda, sending a clear signal that stakeholders want to engage and be heard in decision-making. Several sessions gave space for dialogue and the airing of different considerations; youth mobilization and willingness to engage are now mainstream. The first day of the Conference marked further calls, this time by Pacific Island States of Palau and Fiji, for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, and concluded with President Macron of France calling for a robust framework to ban deep-sea mining in the high seas and greater investment in science.

12) There was even a sprinkling of stardust, with Aquaman actor and newly appointed SDG14 Advocate Jason Momoa surfing into town to meet Peter Thomson and youth leaders, and to encourage the world to take on the mantle of ocean activists – for the sake of the ocean and the rest of the planet, as much as for global economies and societies and every single individual who depends on a healthy ocean.

Friends of Ocean Action had released a statement at the start of this year, urging action around key opportunities for progress for the ocean. The global community must now look ahead to the next key moments – from delayed negotiations for a High Seas Treaty resuming in August, to the UN climate change COP27 in Egypt in November and the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 closing out the year – and beyond.

The 2022 UN Ocean Conference has galvanized and energized the global community towards a reinvigorated commitment to advance ambitious ocean action around the world. The third UN Ocean Conference will likely take place in 2025, and we must continue to ride this blue wave for a healthy ocean and healthy planet – and so that we all can thrive.