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4 Dec 2015 - Oceans Day at COP 21
Rio Conventions Pavilion, Climate Generations Area, Paris, France

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Oceans, seas and coastal areas form an integrated and essential component of the Earth’s ecosystem and are critical to sustainable development. They cover more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface and contain 97% of the planet’s water. Oceans contribute to poverty eradication by creating sustainable livelihoods and decent work. Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal resources for their livelihoods. In addition, oceans are crucial for global food security and human health. They are also the primary regulator of the global climate, an important sink for greenhouse gases and they provide us with water and the oxygen we breathe. Finally, oceans host huge reservoirs of biodiversity.

The importance of oceans for sustainable development is widely recognized by the international community and embodied in Chapter 17 of Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and various decisions taken by the Commission on Sustainable Development. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment emphasizes that all humans depend on the Earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide. In the Rio+20 outcome document,Future We Want, Member States called for “holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development that will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem”. In this context, they stressed, among others, the importance of “the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and seas and of their resources for sustainable development, including through their contributions to poverty eradication, sustained economic growth, food security and creation of sustainable livelihoods and decent work…”. Accordingly, the Proposal of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in August 2014 contains sustainable development goal (SDG) 14 which aims to “Conserve and sustainability use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

In order for oceans, seas and marine resources to successfully contribute to human well-being, ecosystem integrity, with properly functioning biogeochemical and physical processes, is required. This does not require unperturbed systems, but systems that have not suffered serious or irreversible harm. Ecosystem integrity allows for the provision of so-called supporting ecosystem services which, in turn, are the bases of important regulating, provisioning and cultural ecosystem services that are of crucial importance for humans. Whereas the benefits provided by oceans, seas and marine resources are important to all people, the poor, indigenous peoples, and vulnerable groups with a high dependency on natural resources and ecosystem services may have their well-being especially tied to these benefits. The link between oceans, seas and marine resources and human well-being is not one-sided. While an increase in human well-being is frequently generated at the cost of ecosystem integrity, it can also potentially reduce the negative anthropocentric impacts on the marine environment, for example due to a more sustainable use of resources, changes in production and consumption patterns and improved management and control of human activities. In order for this to happen, good governance and an enabling environment are however required.

Oceans, seas and marine resources are increasingly threatened, degraded or destroyed by human activities, reducing their ability to provide crucial ecosystem services. Important classes of threats are, among others, climate change, marine pollution, unsustainable extraction of marine resources and physical alterations and destruction of marine and coastal habitats and landscapes. The deterioration of coastal and marine ecosystems and habitats is negatively affecting human well-being worldwide.

Good governance, an enabling environment, sustainable land- and marine- based human activities, and adequate measures will be required to reduce the negative anthropogenic impacts on the marine environment, for example due to a more sustainable use of resources, changes in production and consumption patterns and improved management and control of human activities. Projects and measures should ideally be designed and implemented in an integrated, cross-sectoral and cross-scale manner, in line with the ecosystem approach and involving all stakeholders.

Human well-being cannot be achieved without the protection and conservation of the Earth’s ecosystem. To maintain the quality of life that the oceans have provided to humankind, while sustaining the integrity of their ecosystems, a change will be required in how humans view, manage and use oceans, seas and marine resources.