Calling for a sea change in the business of oceans

In many ways, the public’s awareness about the importance of ocean health is where we were 15 years ago with climate change. But with serious action on climate arriving much later than needed, we must give ocean issues the attention — and urgency — they deserve. Like climate, the ocean challenge is not one that can be solved by one sector or industry alone.

Saving our ocean, and indeed our planet, will require bold innovation and multi-sectoral partnerships from a critical mass of business, government and other stakeholders. What the "blue economy" needs now is a sea change.

The 2018 Global Opportunity Report (PDF) — launched earlier this year by the U.N. Global Compact together with our partners DNV GL and Sustainia — identifies the ocean challenge as one of the five major risks facing society. At the United Nations, we have put an ambitious change agenda in place to address this risk and ones like it through 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 14, Life Below Water, points to ocean acidification, marine pollution and overfishing as having the potential to irrevocably damage marine life and environments.

The ocean occupies the space where people, planet and prosperity all meet. Covering three-quarters of the planet, the ocean regulates Earth’s climate and directly supports the livelihoods of over 3 billion people. Every second breath we take comes from oxygen created by the ocean. The health of the ocean is essential to eradicating poverty, promoting prosperity and to sustaining all life — both below water and on land. Economies, too, are greatly bolstered by the ocean, generating an estimated $3 trillion to $6 trillion in commercial activity every year.

But this influx of commercial activity has come with a cost. The communities surrounding the oceans and their rich marine biodiversity are experiencing major stress as a result of the swiftly declining health of the seas, stress that is already starting to overflow throughout the rest of society. And so it is greatly troubling to me that the 2017 U.N. Global Compact Progress Report demonstrates that Goal 14 is by and large the lowest priority for business. It is also the lowest-rated of the Global Goals in terms of where businesses believe they can make a positive impact.

The role of companies

Encouragingly, one year ago, the first U.N. Ocean Conference saw global leaders come together and pledge to conserve the ocean. But there remains a question on how business can play a role. Certainly, we know of the many negative impacts of unsustainable business activities on the ocean, from the loss of ocean biodiversity to an excess of plastic debris. For example, many of us have heard by now that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

This is a future we cannot accept. The question we need to be asking ourselves in this moment is: How can we reimagine the "blue economy"? And how can we leverage ocean sustainability not only to address Goal 14, but indeed all 17 of the Global Goals?

To help answer this question, on World Oceans Day, the U.N. Global Compact formally launched our new Action Platform on Sustainable Ocean Business. And timing could not be better. Ocean health is under great pressure. At the same time, the world needs more sustainable solutions to meet the Global Goals — and the ocean industries can be a central part of that solution.

UN Global Compact, Joel Sheakoski
Lise Kingo discussing the role of business in protecting the ocean as a resource at a World Oceans Event event last week.

The Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business is a three-year global program bringing together business, civil society, academia, the U.N. and governments to advance the ocean economy and sustainable development. The platform will drive business activities and provide a roadmap for the multiple ways in which business can help ensure the health of the ocean, find new market opportunities to address ocean risks and, as a result, contribute to sustainable development overall.

Often referred to as the ultimate "common good," the ocean is an unlimited source of renewable energy from wind, waves and currents. With this in mind, business leaders engaged with the ocean agenda have a strategic opportunity to make meaningful contributions and inroads towards the achievement of all 17 Global Goals.

The world cannot repeat past mistakes in delaying action on climate. We don’t have 15 years to get our act together — we need to make the ocean a priority today.

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