In his opening address to the second conference of the EU International Ocean Governance Forum (IOG Forum) on 14 December 2020, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, reminded participants of the “two crises that threaten the very existence of humanity – the climate and biodiversity crises” and with a view to the pandemic, stressed the urgency of these challenges: "Covid-19 has highlighted the need to keep our planet healthy [...] The world needs you to be successful in our endeavours." In reference to UN General Secretary António Guterres, he noted that “making peace with our oceans” is one of the defining tasks for the 21st century and emphasized the need to tackle these crises and “put our economies onto a sustainable, non-polluting path” in order to protect the ocean.
Enhancing the European Union's ocean governance agenda
Four years ago, the European Commission and the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy presented the EU's new agenda for the protection of the oceans under the title International Ocean Governance (IOG): An Agenda for the Future of Our Oceans. The IOG Forum was initiated by the European Commission and the European External Action Service and tasked with taking stock of the prospects for ocean health through a broad consultation process, identifying gaps in ocean governance and developing recommendations for action to improve sustainability.
An interactive platform was established in April 2020 with three thematic working groups that reflect the IOG Forum's core areas of focus: (1) Improving the International Ocean Governance Framework, (2) Reducing pressure on the ocean and seas and creating the conditions for a sustainable blue economy, and (3) Strengthening international ocean research, data, and knowledge.
Climate change impacts the ocean
International experts and representatives of stakeholder groups laid the groundwork for the conference in a series of online seminars and workshops conducted throughout 2020 and complemented by a targeted consultation. Titled "Setting the Course for a Sustainable Blue Planet", the conference invited experts to discuss a range of issues highlighted in a discussion paper across twelve interactive workshops and an introductory session. The conference gave participants the opportunity to elaborate recommendations for action on topics such as marine biodiversity conservation, the financing of conservation measures, and sustainable fisheries management.
As a partner to the project consortium that develops and implements the IOG Forum together with the European Commission and the European External Action Service, the IASS worked closely with TMG-Think Tank for Sustainability, ACTeon Environment, Fresh Thoughts Consulting and the European Marine Board and contributed to the development and realization of this online conference. A workshop facilitated by Barbara Neumann (scientific project lead at the IASS) examined ocean-based climate change solutions, for example. Among other things, participants at this workshop discussed the options for strengthening the role of the ocean in national climate protection goals and various measures to foster synergies across the fields of climate change, ocean and biodiversity. "One recommendation was to prioritize adaptation measures that will help coastal areas to cope with extreme events," says Neumann. "For example, by restoring habitats that protect coastlines from erosion."
Harmonizing the criteria for marine protected areas
Sebastian Unger, who leads a research group on Ocean Governance at the IASS and is a Senior Fellow at TMG - Think Tank for Sustainability, discussed how marine biodiversity could be better protected with around 30 international experts. One suggestion was the development and adoption of uniform criteria to identify the vulnerability of marine areas to climate change and other threats. More vulnerable areas should be fast-tracked for the status of Marine Protected Area. The coronavirus pandemic also was the subject of discussion. "We should use the momentum gained through the pandemic to enhance the links between various measures, because the ocean, climate change, and biodiversity are all closely connected," argued Ben Boteler (IASS and TMG - Think Tank for Sustainability) during the closing plenary of the conference.
Over the coming weeks, the project team will consolidate the recommendations developed at the conference with the results of their previous consultations and, working with the EU Commission and selected experts, prepare proposals to augment the EU's International Ocean Governance Agenda. The consolidated recommendations will be presented at a final conference scheduled to take place in early summer 2021.
Author: Veronika Fritz