Five days of talks to reach shared initiatives and commitments to stop the decline of the oceans, preserving them from threats and the serious environmental state they are in. This is, in short, the analysis of the first top-level conference – the Ocean Conference – that the UN organised at its Headquarters in New York from 5 to 9 June – on a specific Sustainable Development Goal, the SDG14 (“Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”).
Thousands of participants, hundreds of delegations from all over the world, associations, environmental bodies and experts met up to identify problems, define the urgent matters and plan future initiatives. The approval of the “Call for Action” and the conclusions of the 7 partnership dialogues (specific conferences on priority matters identified in the preparatory work) had this very objective.
This testing ground, since it is the first time that a top-level conference completely dedicated to one of the United Nations’ programme Sustainable Development Goals has been organised, involving all UN member countries, UN agencies operating in different sectors and all the parties that are currently taking care of the sea and the oceans, their protection and their future development. Legambiente, which has been working on these matters for a great many years, certainly could not miss out.
Nowadays, the oceans and seas suffer the negative effects of pollution and human activity, leading to repercussions which are not only environmental but also about employment and development, and, above all, climate change which is putting the existence of countries and populations closely dependant on the ocean and its state of health at serious risk. It is no coincidence that the Conference was opened with a marvelous Fiji Islands’ ceremony – the Islands co-chaired the event along with Sweden, and they are one of the countries mostly exposed to climate change and ocean pollution. Over the past years, the government of the Fiji Islands has intervened several times, fiercely calling attention to decisive, effective and immediate action in order to pragmatically face these problems whose effects are already evident. The New York Conference was also intended to be an answer to these appeals.
The key matters were referenced right from the very first words spoken at the opening plenary session: resolute intervention on climate change, following up on the Paris commitments without hesitation; freeing the oceans and seas of plastic, which is now ubiquitous, also in the most contaminated areas of the sea and the oceans where fauna, ecosystems and sea productivity suffer devastating effects. And, above all, moving on from talk to action in order to prevent these processes from becoming irreversible, thus undermining all shared efforts.
The Mediterranean Sea: Legambiente’s focus
The Mediterranean – one of the richest areas in the world in terms of biodiversity – is one of the six greatest areas where the planet’s floating waste accumulates, with evident risks for the environment, health, and the economy (the others are in the north and south Pacific ocean, the north and south of the Atlantic, and the Indian ocean).
The framework of the UNEP (the United Nations’ Environment Programme) has also been confirmed by the new data from the monitoring carried out by Legambiente since 2013 in the seas and on the Mediterranean coastlines as part of the “Clean-up the Med” campaign. Beached plastic makes up 81% of all the waste found. This emerged from the last Legambiente investigation into beach litter performed on 62 Italian beaches in spring 2017 and 43 Mediterranean beaches, over the past 4 years. The percentage of plastic rises to 96% if we consider the floating waste monitored by Goletta Verde over an 80-hour period of direct observation during the summer of 2016. The poor management of municipal solid waste (and thus the lack of prevention) causes 54% of beach litter, mostly formed by disposable materials. 64% of the waste found on Mediterranean beaches are items which were designed to be used for a short time and which remain in the environment for a long time when not disposed of correctly. The top ten is led by cigarette butts (12%), bottle lids (10%), plastic bottles and containers, as well as mussel farming netting (8%). Plastic bags make up 3.5% of the almost 60,000 waste items found on 105 beaches in 8 countries. It seems that the Italian ban on plastic bags has been somewhat effective, since in Italy an average of 15 bags are found for every 100 metres of beach, while for other Mediterranean beaches the average almost doubles reaching 25 bags per 100 metres of beach. On the other hand, in terms of floating waste, bags are the number one waste item in Italian seas: Legambiente’s Goletta Verde spotted one plastic bag every five minutes of sailing, equal to 16% of the waste found.
These are the main results of the investigation, recognised by the same UNEP as one of the main voluntary initiatives of citizen science internationally, which Legambiente presented in a specific event entitled “Multi-stakeholders Governance for tackling marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea,” organised by the association in collaboration with UNEP/MAP-Barcelona Convention, the European Parliament, the European Environment Agency, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN-Mediterranean), UFMS (Union for the Mediterranean Secretariat), the University of Siena, European Bioplastics, Novamont and Kyoto Club. Out of the 150 parallel events programmed during the UN Conference, Legambiente’s was the only one to provide contributions and experiences regarding the matter of marine litter in Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean,
highlighting how there are already several tools for dealing with the emergency and acting on a Mediterranean level. The most important being: the Barcelona convention, which regards Europe and all of the Mediterranean’s coastal countries, which originates from a regional plan with the objective of minimising the impacts of marine litter and its presence in the seas and along the coasts. What is lacking, however, is coordination between States, backed by governments which are more advanced or at least more involved in this matter. What better opportunity is there for Italy, also considering its particular conformation and position in the Mediterranean sea, than to take a lead role in protecting Mare nostrum?
The Mediterranean was at the heart of Legambiente’s talk in the plenary. This extremely important moment allowed years of work to be brought to the heart of the Conference debate and for the assembly to hear proposals for matters to be worked on as a priority. The main proposals were:
- to recognise the strategic role of citizens and associations in environmental monitoring in terms of spreading awareness and promoting initiatives and policies on local and international levels;
- to adopt policies which involve all of the Mediterranean coastal countries with resolute government action, regarding two priority matters:
a. the Mediterranean is an international biodiversity hotspot. To preserve it, we must protect at least 10% of it, based on the Italian model (target taken from the Conference’s conclusive document, expanding it to a global level);
b. the pollution coming from the coast – as well as waste floating at sea and along the coastlines or unpurified drainage – is an enormous problem in the Mediterranean sea. We need effective policies to prevent it, with the aim of creating greater circularity, recycling, or banning the most polluting products (such as disposable items which are not biodegradable) and establishing effective waste water processing.
- to afford particular attention to the risk deriving from illegal activities (such as illegal disposal of toxic waste, illegal drainage or illegal fishing), which are a threat to the marine environment and a growing problem to be faced on an international level. We must adopt international legislation, based on the European directive model approved in 2008, regarding environmental protection through enforcement of criminal law or the Italian law on eco-crime approved in 2015.
Finally, we raised a very hot issue which we had not found in the Conference’s preparatory documents and which inexplicably does not appear in the “Call for action.” In order to stop climate change, we must immediately implement a fossil fuel exit strategy. To reduce oil pollution risks on a global level (there are currently over 900 extraction platforms in the seas and oceans), halting extraction and exploration and applying legislation which allows very close control of oil transport is of the utmost importance. We do not want any more environmental catastrophes like those caused by Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, Exxon Valdez in Alaska, Prestige in Spain or Haven in Italy. If we really want to be part of the ocean’s history, we must put a stop to petroleum extraction and oil dispersion in the sea.
The commitments made at the Conference
How can we overcome the governance impasse and the lack of consequent initiatives and create an effective strategy for remedying the decline of the oceans and their environmental state? These factors are currently hindering the launching of a serious policy for protecting the seas and oceans, their ecosystems, the frontier populations and the economy.
Consideration of synergic action emerges from the first initiatives indicated in the “Call for action.” The key is, thus, cooperation between countries, institutions, nongovernmental associations, research bodies, and economic and productive stakeholders. We must go ahead with creating protected areas, redeveloping marine ecosystems, planning maritime practices (beginning with transport) and reducing marine pollution, intervening on the emission of polluting substances, waste, unpurified drainage, as well as matters such as alien species or noise, which are now a great threat to ecosystems.
The matter of marine waste was particularly evident in both the document and in the different talks and appointments taking place during the Conference. Specifically, correct waste management (reuse, reduction, recycling), prevention using innovative materials (literally “products biodegradable to natural conditions”) was discussed. In this regard, the Italian experience (which other European and Mediterranean countries are following) regarding banning traditional plastic bags which have been replaced with compostable ones must be underlined, in particular considering that one of the preventative measures to be implemented, underlined by UNEP, is certainly banning the most polluting products, such as noncompostable plastic bags and disposable products which are now easily replaceable with more innovative materials with less impact.
In addition to official documents, the Conference had another focal point, that of voluntary commitments - over the coming years, 1,328 initiatives will go ahead which many advocates have worked hard to implement. The United Nations have great faith in this tool to overcome the stalemate which international policies for protecting the sea and the ocean are experiencing. Legambiente proposed two for the Mediterranean, both of which focus on marine litter. The first is about the need to ban noncompostable plastic bags in all coastal countries. The second, in partnership with the University of Siena and the Plastic Buster project, intends to combine scientific research with active citizenship: the commitment has materialised over the past week, with Goletta Verde starting up its travels around the Mediterranean sea once more.
The Ocean Conference, oceanconference.un.org
Legambiente, “Beach litter 2017” , www.legambiente.it/sites/default/files/docs/beach_litter_2017.pdf
Progetto Plastic Buster, plasticbusters.unisi.it