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UN chief warns of ‘ocean emergency’ as Lisbon summit opens

Guterres Oceans

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On Monday, a long-delayed conference on how to restore the faltering health of the world’s oceans kicked off in Lisbon, with the head of the UN saying the world’s seas are in crisis.

“Today we face what I would call an ocean emergency,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told thousands of policymakers, experts and advocates for the plenary openingdescribing how seas have been affected by climate change and pollution.

Humanity depends on healthy oceans.

They generate 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe and provide essential proteins and nutrients to billions of people every day.

They cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and have also mitigated the impact of climate change on life on land.

But at a terrible price.

Absorbing about a quarter of CO2 pollution – even as emissions have increased by half over the past 60 years – has made seawater acidic, affecting the food chains in the water and the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon. threatened.

And soaking up more than 90 percent of the excess heat from global warming has led to massive sea heat waves that kill precious coral reefs and increase oxygen-deprived dead zones.

“We are just beginning to understand the extent to which climate change will harm ocean health,” said Charlotte de Fontaubert, the World Bank’s global leader for the blue economy.

What makes it worse is according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Current trends show that annual plastic waste will nearly triple to a billion tons by 2060, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Wild fish stocks

Microplastics — now found in Arctic ice and fish in the ocean’s deepest trenches — are estimated to kill more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals each year.

Solutions on the table range from recycling to global caps on plastic production.

Global fisheries will also be in the spotlight at the five-day United Nations Ocean Conference, originally scheduled for April 2020 and jointly hosted by Portugal and Kenya.

“At least a third of wild fish stocks are overfished and less than 10 percent of the ocean is protected,” Kathryn Matthews, chief scientist at US-based NGO Oceana, told AFP.

“Destructive and illegal fishing vessels operate with impunity in many coastal waters and on the high seas.”

One culprit is nearly $35 billion in subsidies. The small steps the World Trade Organization (WTO) took last week to reduce benefits to industry will hardly make a dent, experts said.

The conference will also push for a moratorium on deep-sea mining of rare metals necessary for a boom in electric vehicle construction.

Scientists say poorly understood seafloor ecosystems are fragile and can take decades or more to recover once disturbed.

Another key focus will be “blue food”, the new watchword for ensuring that marine harvests from all sources – wild-caught and farmed – are sustainable and socially responsible.

Protected areas

Aquaculture yields – from salmon and tuna to shellfish and algae – have increased by three percent a year in recent decades and are on track to catch up to the wild marine harvests that peaked in the 1990s, with approximately 100 million tons per year.

The Lisbon meeting will be attended by ministers and even some heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, but will not be a formal negotiating session.

But participants will push for a strong agenda for the oceans later this year at two pivotal summits – the COP27 UN climate talks in November hosted by Egypt, followed by the long-delayed COP15 UN negotiations on biodiversity, which have recently been moved from China to Montréal.

Oceans are already at the heart of a draft treaty tasked with putting a stop to what many scientists fear, the first “mass extinction event” in 65 million years. A cornerstone determination would designate 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean as protected areas.

But preliminary negotiations in Nairobi ended in a deadlock on Sunday.

“The deal is in danger of failing financially,” WWF France’s environmental diplomacy leader told AFP.

For climate change, the focus will be on carbon sequestration – increasing the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2, either by enhancing natural sinks such as mangroves or through geoengineering schemes.

At the same time, scientists warn that drastic reductions in greenhouse gases are needed to restore ocean health.


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