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UN Ocean Decade Conference 2024: Stakeholders & Balance Sheet

  Alka Bala

Global Politics Explainer: 
UN Ocean Decade Conference 2024

By Alka Bala

The 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference was held between 10-12 April 2024 in Barcelona, Spain. It aims to implement the goals of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Targeting Goal 14 - Life Below Water of the Sustainable Development Goals, the conference hopes to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through a confluence of science and policy. Under the theme of ‘delivering the science we need for the ocean we want,’ the conference aims to bring together the global community, reflect on the current trajectory, and set priorities towards sustainable ocean management. 

Since the first UN Ocean Decade Conference in 2021, the conference has provided a framework for implementing Decade Action initiatives. These actions focus on resolving the outlined Ocean Decade challenges of marine pollution, restoring ecosystems, developing a sustainable ocean economy, and building resilience to ocean hazards and climate change. The main themes addressed include the development of scientific methods for air-sea observations, ocean bed mapping, mesopelagic exploration, sustainable management, and ecosystem-based fisheries management. 

What is the context?
Climate finance lags as the rising geopolitical tensions due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict have pushed countries to divert their climate funds towards military and security aid. In 2023, the NATO countries allocated USD 1.26 trillion as part of military spending. The proposal by the NATO countries to increase military spending by 2 per cent of their GDP would mean USD 2.57 trillion being diverted away from climate funding.   Prioritising increased financing against traditional security threats impedes climate action efforts. 

The conference thus provides a platform for nations to commit towards ocean goals and implement initiatives to push forward the ocean agenda, which otherwise might get sidelined compared to other climate mitigation priorities such as green energy transition. Ocean Decade’s multidisciplinary research approach to establish a network of scientists and policymakers becomes essential as overfishing, marine pollution, rising temperatures and sea levels and detrimental effects of sea-bed mining, threaten the ocean environment. The Global Ocean Science Report indicated that in the global funding towards natural sciences, less than 4 per cent was allocated towards ocean research, indicating the scarce investment dedicated towards ocean science. Thus a structured outlook and a global working framework provided by the UN Ocean Decade proves fundamental towards achieving climate goals, as SDG 14 remains one of the most under-financed goals.

What has been the focus of the Conference far? 
UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is responsible for coordinating the developments of the UN Ocean Decade. IOC works in tandem with ten Working Groups, each focused on mitigating one of the ten challenges of Vision 2030. The conference recognises the significance of the contribution of indigenous and local knowledge for developing co-designed solutions and actions. It continues its work with indigenous rights holders and local communities. Ocean Decade laboratories, through its discussions, workshops and demonstrations aim to provide ocean experts with a collaborative platform. 

The emphasis on inclusivity is carried out through regional initiatives such as the Decade Collaborative Centre for Pacific Islands regions. Similar structures are underway for other regions such as the Caribbean would help in a coordinated development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). The conference has focused on enhancing ocean literacy through developing a digital representation of the ocean.  Over the last three years, the focus of the conference has shifted from increasing awareness and boosting visibility to greater emphasis on raising engagement with stakeholders through endorsements and outreach activities.

What is the agenda for 2024? 
The agenda for the 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference involves a mix of plenary and parallel sessions to evaluate the initiatives implemented as part of the Vision 2030 process. The conference would focus on conditions of inclusivity, equity and diversity across genders, generations and geographies which would contribute to the success of the Ocean Decade. 

New Decade Action initiatives would continue their focus on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Early Career Ocean Professionals (ECOPs). It aims to provide support to regional task forces. The conference aims to adopt indicators and methodologies based on inputs from expert working groups to identify opportunities for resource mobilisation. A scheduled dialogue among the Mediterranean Stakeholders is expected to produce community-based solutions for the blue transition at the grassroots.

Who are the stakeholders? 
Stakeholders engaged in the UN Ocean Conference include international non-governmental organisations, active civil society organisations, academic and scientific communities, philanthropic foundations, and public and private sectors. The 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference was jointly organised by the Government of Spain and the IOC-UNESCO, including other partners such as the Government of Catalonia, Barcelona City Council and the Spanish National Ocean Decade Committee. 

Decade Implementing Partners include the stakeholder institutions which aid in co-designing decade actions, provide marine research infrastructures and supplement communications and outreach. These stakeholders comprise a diverse set of institutions ranging from public academic institutions such as the UK’s Royal College of Art, Egypt’s National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, Peking University, and the National Research Council of Canada to organisations such as Portugal’s EurOcean and Belgium based European Marine Board. The National Decade Committees act as facilitators between national and Ocean Decade stakeholders and boost national participation in the conference. Presently 38 National Decade Committees combine implementation of decade initiatives with national policies. 

Since its inception, the Ocean Decade has highlighted on increasing participation of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to mitigate the challenges of lack of ocean data and technical capacity, allowing them to fully harness their roles as contributors and beneficiaries. Decade’s targeted project ‘Women in blue: gender equity for ocean sustainability’, aims at promoting achieving gender equality in ocean affairs. Decade programmes aimed at coastal resilience such as the Mega-Delta Programme, Ocean Cities Network and the Global Estuaries Monitoring focus on charting a collaborative relationship between coastal communities and harbour authorities to jointly target ocean threats. 

What is the balance sheet?
According to the latest annual report (2022- 2023) on the UN Ocean Decade, 39 per cent of Decade actions are led by North American partners, whereas 30 per cent is led by European partners and only 14 per cent is led by Asia-Pacific, indicating inequitable contribution between the global south and global north. Despite the UN Ocean Decade’s increasing focus on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developing Countries, the extent of initiatives implemented lie low at 3 per cent and 4 per cent in Africa. Geographical disparities are also evident in the implementation of capacity development initiatives and are largely concentrated in the United States of America (USA), followed by China, France, Costa Rica and the United Kingdom (UK). Out of 243 Decade activities held between 2022  and 2023 in the form of conferences, symposia, workshops and publications, numerous activities were organised mostly in North America, Europe and Brazil. 

High-level pledges to the decade initiative include an investment of at least 1 billion USD pledged to create, expand and manage new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Such an ambitious investment is since only 8.01 per cent of the ocean is covered by marine protected areas. Since 2021, the EU has contributed 447 million euros towards ocean research aimed by the Ocean Decade programmes. Multilateral partnerships such as the Sustained Blue Economy Partnership and the All-Atlantic Ocean Research and Innovation Alliance have also led to the sustaining of science-diplomacy among various countries. Pledges of USD 1.2 billion each have been committed by the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) and the Australian government. Countries like Nambia committed to contribute USD 5 million to contribute towards ocean research and management whereas Sweden pledged USD 400,000 towards scientific cooperation. China’s pledge towards launching 31 marine protection and restoration projects also aims at assisting SIDS. A greater contribution of the global south is evident as commitments were put forward by India to a Coastal Clean Seas Campaign, Peru’s commitments on aquaculture and ocean acidification, Kenya’s effort to establish a blue economy bank fund and Panama’s commitment to protect 40 per cent of its marine surface area by 2030. 

The Barcelona Statement produced as an outcome of the 2024 Decade conference focused on three sets of priorities such as the design and delivery of ocean science projects, infrastructure for ocean monitoring and co-designing initiatives with all societal actors. The conference also gathered inputs for the ten draft white papers, presented by the working groups, each particularly focused on mitigating one of the ten UN Decade challenges. Thematic sessions highlighted the importance of knowledge sharing between various ocean missions to inspire practical, adaptable solutions. Recommendations on tackling marine pollution included establishing a network of sentinel stations, provision of training programmes to coordinate research protocols, and providing a timeline for filling data gaps. The joint roadmap adopted in the 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference connects EU programmes and Ocean Decade initiatives. The joint roadmap is expected to help in achieving the goals of the European Green Deal, such as the protection of 30 per cent of marine areas and other goals aimed at marine litter and pollution. Several multilateral agreements have come to fruition such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies at the World Trade Organisation as a result of Conference efforts.

Mobilisation of funding resources, both in-kind and financial remains one of the key challenges for the UN Ocean Decade Conference. The mechanisms for resource mobilisation, the Ocean Decade Alliance and Foundation Dialogue have expanded their partnerships and members to generate funding support initiatives. The conference announced new commitments such as the establishment of a matchmaking project for generating greater funding by HUB Ocean, a new Africa regional funding call by Belmont Forum, and the Government of Ireland’s partnership programme to focus on Ocean Science. Three future initiatives were presented aimed at Ocean Decade Africa Roadmap, Sustainable Ocean Planning, and towards building the resilience of coastal cities. The conference highlighted that developing partnerships and increasing investments would together push the ocean agenda forward.

About the Author
Alka Bala is an undergraduate scholar at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy at St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. Her areas of interest include Europe, maritime, climate change, and southeast Asia.

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