2019: Victories for the Ocean?

© Francois Aurat / Fondation Tara Océan

In 2019 in France, plastic pollution was the major theme of ocean preservation. A growing sense of urgency led scientists and policy makers to actively seek concrete and rapid solutions. As for international relations, in the context of the growing climate emergency, the past year showed an increase in mobilization around the Ocean & Climate issue. This was illustrated through two unprecedented events: the publication of the first IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and the first “blue” COP which took place in Spain.
In contrast, despite the growing threats that face marine biodiversity, international negotiations on the high seas remain extremely difficult, and their future is uncertain for 2020. Let’s look at the advances and perspectives that emerged this year for the Tara Ocean Foundation.

The fight against plastic pollution is developing, but remains difficult

Romain Troublé Signature du « Pacte National sur les emballages plastiques » (Hôtel de Roquelaure - Paris)Romain Troublé, executive director of the Tara Ocean Foundation during the signature of  the National Pact on Packaging © Arnaud Bouissou / TERRA 

At the international level, ambitions for stopping plastic pollution depend on the will of individual nations.
In Japan on June 16, the G20 Ministers of the Environment committed their respective countries to reducing plastic pollution in the ocean. On December 5, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched a new global project to prevent and reduce plastic waste at sea. These initiatives raise the question of plastic pollution on a global scale, but for the time being, measures taken are voluntary and non-mandatory. It remains to be seen what concrete applications will in fact be implemented by the various nations.

In Europe, the goals of the directive on single-use plastics were significantly reduced
When the directive was published on June 12, it was clear that a big step backwards had been taken. Some deadlines were extended until 2030! There was, however, some good news. The European Parliament adopted on March 13 a directive requiring the waste generated on boats and caught in nets to be brought ashore for processing and recycling in ports. This directive will enter into force in 2021.

Where do we stand in France?
Media campaigns, the signing of petitions and other citizen actions have multiplied this year. This “plastic awareness” is causing governments and major economic players to drastically reduce plastic production, and improve systems of collection and recycling.

- Draft law on reducing waste and promoting circular economy
The bill will be subject to a second reading by the National Assembly by the end of the year. It aims to reduce the manufacturing of plastics, especially those made of complex polymers difficult to recycle. A ban on all single-use plastics was passed on December 9, 2019, including a timetable setting the various deadlines when plastic objects will be prohibited (ranging from 2020 to 2040).

- A National Pact with the private sector concerning plastic packaging
Last February, the Tara Ocean Foundation joined this pact alongside the Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, several private enterprises and WWF France. This pact aims at reducing unnecessary packaging and developing eco-designed packaging.

The Ocean is increasingly present in climate negotiations: from the IPCC special report to COP25 

The IPCC Special Report, “The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” formally acknowledged the link between ocean and climate

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described the ocean’s major role in climate regulation in a Special Report (released on September 25, 2019). This was a real victory! The alert given over the past few years finally appeared to have been heard. In addition, this internationally recognized report is an important lever for climate change negotiations.

The “Ocean” was already highlighted at the G7 summit
An Ocean Call was launched at the G7 summit in Biarritz a month prior to the release of the IPCC Special Report. The goal was to alert member states responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions about the urgent need to include the ocean in climate actions and protect the marine environment at all costs. Political leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, responded positively to this call, but without making formal commitments.

COP25 integrated the ocean at the highest level
After 21 years of international climate negotiations, in 2015 the ocean was finally included in the preamble to the Paris Agreement. During the following years, however, this key component of the climate system did not receive the attention it required. 2019 was marked by a scientific context that demonstrated the climate emergency and the pressing need to preserve the ocean. This, along with significant citizen mobilization, finally placed the ocean at the center of political attention: COP25 was intended to be blue.

Thus, from December 2 to 13 in Madrid, nations were strongly encouraged to integrate ocean-related measures into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – concrete measures to be implemented on their territory.

The strong emphasis given to science around COP25 is very encouraging: the publication of the two IPCC Special Reports (Climate Change and Land and Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate), plus the presentation of a scientific guide (10 New Insights in Climate Science). But the implementation of ambitious and collective actions to address climate change is difficult and negotiations are complex, in particular on the burning issue of establishing a carbon market.

Marine biodiversity threatened by diplomatic issues

L’archipel d’Entrecasteaux est un paradis de biodiversité terrestre et marine classé au patrimoine mondial de l’UNESCOThe archipelago of Entrecasteaux is a paradise of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, classified a UNESCO World Heritage site © Vincent Hilaire / Tara Ocean Foundation

Towards a treaty concerning biodiversity in the high seas
In an international context that disregards most of the challenges facing the high seas, the prospect of a treaty on issues of biodiversity represents a real development. But the definition of a legal status for marine resources divides western countries (with technical and financial access to the high seas resources) from developing countries (with no, or very little, access to these resources). The question of how much funding is necessary to strengthen the developing countries’ capacities, directly linked to the first issue, was also the subject of heated debate. Negotiations are therefore under way on these crucial points, but it is very likely that the final negotiations will be deferred until the end of 2020, or maybe even 2022.

An effective ban on electric fishing adopted by the European Union
This destructive fishing practice that seriously threatens marine biodiversity has been prohibited in Europe (in theory) since 1998. However, derogations granted by the European Commission to Dutch fishermen since 2007 have undermined this ban. This year seems to represent a step forward in abolishing this fishing method: on February 13, the EU banned electric fishing for all vessels flying a European flag.

Article by Lucie Schutz and André Abreu

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