UN declares “ocean emergency” as political disputes threaten global treaty talks
29 Jun 2022 --- The world is facing an “ocean emergency,” according to global leaders, who are convening at the UN’s Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. The event is being co-hosted by the government of Kenya, and intends to create agreements that can end the reported 11 million metric tons of plastics entering the seas each year.
However, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres says the “egoism” of some nations is blighting efforts to bring ocean-bound pollution under control through a global treaty similar to the one agreed upon this year on plastic pollution.
“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency. We must turn the tide,” he says.
The conference follows a collapsed effort in March this year, in which leaders failed to reach agreements on how to govern and protect the 64% of high seas that lie beyond territorial borders. Currently, roughly 1.2% is protected from illegal fishing, waste dumping, deep-sea mining and other practices that pollute the oceans and destroy marine life.
Dr. Alex Rogers, science director of Rev Ocean, an ocean research NGO, described the formation of an ocean treaty as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
Despite the renewal of the UN’s Ocean Conference, fears abound that political power plays and rivalries among parties could once again derail the event’s intentions.
China is facing criticism for blocking Taiwan’s attendance at the conference as it is not a UN member – something that has driven the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu to withdraw from the talks altogether.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry says, “China’s arbitrary pressure on UN Member States has only once again revealed its nasty nature.” Meanwhile, authorities in Beijing condemned Taiwan’s “petty maneuvers” to “squeeze into the conference.”
Tuvalu, along with Taiwan, is under heavy threat by climate change and is expected to be completely submerged under water within a century.
However, in March, all UN Member States agreed to a binding global plastics pollution treaty, the details of which are still being negotiated.
Lungs of the planet
Currently, at least 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, with 40% of microplastics streaming in from tire pollution. “Without drastic action, the plastic could outweigh all the fish in the ocean by 2050,” Guterres warned.
If current trends continue, the amount of plastic waste polluting the oceans will grow to 29 million metric tons a year by 2040 – the equivalent of 50kg for every meter of coastline in the world as it stands.
Many of the countries most affected by this pollution have extensive coastlines and little infrastructure to handle plastic waste through recycling mechanisms. Often, wealthier countries export their waste to these nations (like those in Southeast Asia) as a means of cheaply ridding themselves of pollution despite exploiting economically poorer regions.
The UN stresses that “to mobilize action, the Conference will seek to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action.”
“Solutions for a sustainably managed ocean involve green technology and innovative uses of marine resources. They also include addressing the threats to health, ecology, economy and governance of the ocean – acidification, marine litter and pollution, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and the loss of habitats and biodiversity.”
Some scientists, like Dr. Chris DeArmitt, assert that the obsession with plastic pollution in the oceans is overhyped and that the presence of microplastics, which are being found in practically every corner of the world's seas, are not toxic and do present any serious threat to human health.
Much of the plastic that does harm marine life is caused by abandoned fishing nets, which need to be controlled through loan systems or other mechanisms that deter the fishing industry from discarding nets after use.
Many companies are promoting biodegradable plastic alternatives that dissolve naturally in water as a solution to the flood of packaging waste entering rivers and seas, such as Toraphene – a startup that has produced graphene-based material equally as durable as fossil-fuel-based plastic without the threat of pollution.
Scaling these technologies up and providing fairer market prices for alternative materials is a challenge the UN could seek to solve, provided political disagreements do not once again pull the conference’s unity apart.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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