Illustration: Craig Stephens
C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar

Lack of global consensus bodes ill for health of world’s oceans

  • From marine pollution and harmful fishing practices to biodiversity loss and increasing acidification, our oceans are in trouble but long-term issues tend to get short shrift from political leaders
  • The inability to effectively regulate oceans stems mainly from contradictions, anomalies and the realpolitik surrounding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
A series of major-nation summits was held at the end of June – including the Group of 7, BRICS and Nato – where the war in Ukraine and related geopolitical developments dominated deliberations. Yet, a little-noticed UN conference that concluded in Lisbon on July 1 could yet be the most critical event that has the potential to shape the health of the world and its inhabitants.

The past 300 years have witnessed rapid technological progress, resulting in the ruthless exploitation of natural resources. Rampant environmental pollution has damaged the health of the planet.

Climate change is acknowledged as the most urgent environmental challenge to be addressed if global warming is to be managed in a manner that does not further endanger the planet. Global warming’s effects can be seen in the oceans, where in addition to rising sea levels, acidification is increasing and could have irreversible consequences on the global food chain and climate patterns.

The Lisbon conference brought together some 6,500 participants, including heads of government and high-level representatives. It concluded with a declaration titled “Our Ocean, Our Future, Our Responsibility”, which focused on life below water – the UN’s 14th Sustainable Development Goal.

It exhorted the global community to save the oceans from existing and future threats, including marine pollution, harmful fishing practices, biodiversity loss and acidification. Regretting the collective failure to achieve the development goals, the declaration added: “As leaders and representatives of our governments, we are determined to act decisively and urgently to improve the health, productivity, sustainable use and resilience of the ocean and its ecosystems.”


Massive coral reef discovered off Tahiti appears to be untouched by climate change

Massive coral reef discovered off Tahiti appears to be untouched by climate change

The health of the world’s oceans has received periodic attention from global leaders but with modest results. For example, the joint communique issued after the 2018 Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London had the theme of “Towards a common future”.

On the sustainable development of oceans, it said the heads of government “identified climate change, including sea level rise and acidification, biodiversity loss, overfishing and plastic pollution as some of the most significant pressures on the ocean and called for ambitious, coordinated global action”. The similarity with the Lisbon summit is clear.
Given the many demands on political leaders, who are often preoccupied by more immediate matters that could determine their political future, global challenges with long lead times tend to get kicked down the road. Hence, the chances are low that complex challenges such as climate change receive meaningful attention which translates into effective action, despite their serious long-term consequences.

Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute?

The problem areas of the world’s oceans have been identified and are interlinked. The inability to regulate the oceans effectively and ensure compliance stems from issues with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While it provides a painstakingly negotiated legal framework, it is also beset by contradictions, anomalies and the compulsions of realpolitik.

Some 168 parties have ratified UNCLOS and a further 14 have signed on but not ratified it, with the United States among the latter group. It is instructive to note that while the US has not ratified UNCLOS and is unlikely to do so any time soon, it does claim to comply with the convention.

In contrast, China has ratified the agreement with some caveats, but is often held up as being non-compliant. The leaders’ communique from the recent G7 summit in Germany identified China’s revisionist behaviour in the maritime domain and noted: “We emphasise the universal and unified character of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and reaffirm UNCLOS’s important role in setting out the legal framework that governs all activities in the ocean and the seas.”
It added: “We stress that there is no legal basis for China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. In this regard, we urge China to fully comply with the arbitral award of 12 July 2016 and to respect navigational rights and freedoms enshrined in UNCLOS.”
China’s unease over UNCLOS has long been evident, and the tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea are indicative of this. It is clear that the existing UNCLOS provisions cannot provide the kind of framework needed to manage both the world’s oceans and the aspirations and anxieties of major powers, the US and China in particular.

Yet, the health of our oceans is critical right across the spectrum – from human security to life rhythms around the planet – and the ocean acidification index is a key indicator. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the rise in carbon dioxide emissions, the average pH value of surface ocean water has fallen from 8.2 to 8.1. This is significant as each decrease of one pH unit is a tenfold increase in acidity, meaning the acidity of the ocean is about 25 per cent greater than during preindustrial times.

Forging a global consensus on reducing ocean acidification is an urgent issue. The Group of 20 summit in Indonesia represents a chance to show global political leadership.

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Hectoring China over the maritime domain instead of bringing it into the fold is counterproductive given what is at stake. China’s own dependence on the seas is considerable, making it a major stakeholder in protecting the health of the global commons.

If the world cannot manage the health of the oceans in a consensual, ethical manner with enlightened self-interest, it is unlikely to forge any meaningful consensus on issues concerning space and cybersecurity – the extended global commons of this century. Be warned.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, an independent think tank based in New Delhi