From 10% to 30×30 – no time to waste for marine biodiversity

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU's new Biodiversity Strategy will increase the EU’s network of marine protected areas, writes Virgilius Sinkevicius [Ghost-in-the-Shell/Flickr]

The EU’s new Biodiversity Strategy will increase the EU’s network of marine protected areas, writes Virgilius Sinkevicius.

Virgilius Sinkevicius is the EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries

Being awarded with an international day very often means you are in some kind of trouble. So celebrating World Oceans Day today, 8 June, only a few weeks after World Earth Day, tells you something. Especially as 70% of Earth is, in fact, the ocean.

Despite the witty phrasing above, the message behind it is serious and supported by alarming scientific evidence. Last year, the IPBES – the United Nation’s intergovernmental platform for biodiversity and ecosystem services – showed that marine biodiversity is declining at unprecedented rates. A few weeks earlier, the IPCC – the UN’s climate body – released an alarming report about the impact of climate change on our oceans and the cryosphere.

The state of the ocean is dire, and this concerns us all. What happens at sea really doesn’t stay at sea. When the ocean is threatened, so are the fundamental processes and services which depend on it, from providing half of the oxygen we breathe, or storing a quarter of the CO2 produced by human activity, to governing temperature, wind and precipitation around the globe.

World Oceans Day exists to remind us of that.

In this context, the European Commission has recently published its EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, a major deliverable under the European Green Deal. It aims to put Europe’s biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030 with benefits for people, the climate and the planet.

One of the best ways to do that is by taking nature-based solutions, including marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective conservation measures. Already a decade ago, the international community agreed to protect 10% of the marine environment through MPAs by 2020. In 2018, the EU has formally reached this target, although key challenges remain. Also in the rest of the world, national and regional approaches are being developed. Nevertheless, with global coverage of only 7.5% – and an even smaller percentage that is effectively managed – and close to zero protection in the high seas, we are clearly missing our target for 2020.

Meanwhile, pressure on the ocean continues to increase. Scientists tell us that the 10% we have failed to achieve is no longer even sufficient. Unless we reach critical coverage, together with proper connectivity between areas, the system of marine protected areas will simply not work and our objectives will not be achieved. Therefore, the European Commission strongly supports the global “30×30” goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030.

With the new Biodiversity Strategy, we propose to increase the EU’s network of marine protected areas and other effective conservation measures by 19% points over the next ten years, leading to 30% by 2030. It is further proposed that 10% of this network, which is of very high biodiversity value or potential, is even strictly protected. Still this year, we will put forward criteria and guidance for identifying and designating additional areas, including a definition of strict protection, as well as for adequate management planning.

Achieving this target will not be easy. It will require the commitment from EU countries to implement concrete measures, not just on paper, supported by sufficient financing from public and private sources. Undershooting environmental targets must become a thing of the past.

Moreover, protecting and restoring marine ecosystems should go hand in hand with reducing our overall footprint on the marine environment, through managing land sustainably and focusing on the environmental sustainability of all blue economy sectors.

Needless to say, what we preach within our borders, should be reflected in our global ambitions. These should clearly address the drivers of marine biodiversity loss, such as changes in sea use, over-exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. In that context, the EU’s international ocean governance policy becomes even more important.

Over the last years, the EU has strongly supported international efforts to safeguard our marine environment. Thanks to strong “green-blue diplomacy”, we have helped establish the world’s largest high seas marine protected area, in the Antarctic Ross Sea. At UN level, we are well on our way to conclude negotiations on an international legally binding instrument to conserve and sustainably use marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions. And we have recently agreed on an international moratorium on fisheries in the high seas of the Central Arctic ocean – an unparalleled application of the precautionary principle. In times of growing scepticism about the value of international cooperation, these examples stand firm in its defence.

But we still have a long way to go. For example, our efforts to expand the MPA network towards East Antarctica and the Weddell Seas must continue and be increased to overcome existing resistances as the creation of 2 new MPAS in this area would significantly contribute to achieving the 30% target.

The moment of truth will be next year, at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, when we will have the responsibility to adopt a new Global Framework for Biodiversity. We have to ensure that the oceans get the attention they deserve. Our ultimate goal should be that, by 2050 at the latest, all marine ecosystems are healthy, resilient and able to deliver the ecosystem services on which we so strongly depend.

Rest assured that the EU will put its entire political, diplomatic and economic weight behind this mission.

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