Delivering a knowledge-based sustainable blue economy

International scientific experts, government leaders and private sector representatives met from 26 to 28 November in Nairobi, Kenya, for the first global conference on building a sustainable economy around the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers. UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission used the opportunity to push for a major paradigm shift that places science and knowledge at the center of a sustainable ocean-based economy.

The Conference

The Conference focused on how to build a blue economy that harnesses the potential of our water bodies to improve the lives of all, particularly people in developing states, women, youth and indigenous peoples, while leveraging the latest innovations, scientific advances and best practices to build prosperity and conserve marine resources for future generations.

The conference consisted of various parallel gatherings targeted at specific stakeholder groups, totaling 16,000 registered participants: the Leaders’ Commitment segment featured pledges from 70 heads of state and government; the Science and Research Symposium at the University of Nairobi explored the role of scientific research behind a blue economy; the Business and Private Sector Forum focused on investments and innovative financing; and the Governors and Mayors Convention analyzed the impacts of urban development of coastal zones on the marine environment. A number of additional side events also took place all along the three days of the conference, bringing together a diverse mix of stakeholders, with a strong presence of African scientific experts and civil society organizations.

Promoting a Knowledge-Based Blue Economy

Through its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), UNESCO actively participated in all segments of the conference, with a clear message: knowledge must be at the forefront, not the sidelines, of the blue economy debate. Only through strong scientific research and adequate ocean observations can we deliver a sustainable ocean. With preparations mounting for the upcoming UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), and widening participation of ocean stakeholders in marine spatial planning – a policy process to organize the different uses of the ocean space across time – economic actors and decision makers should have firmer frameworks on which they can rely to sustainably harness ocean resources.

A dedicated side event around the contribution of ocean science, observation and marine technologies to the blue economy emphasized the need for scientists to develop a more operational kind of ocean science that will support sustainable economic goals. In her opening remarks, Isabella Lövin, Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate and Deputy Prime Minister, issued an urgent call to all conference participants: “We need new contracts between countries, between governments and their populations, between researchers and policymakers” to ensure that our best efforts and investments are channeled to developing a truly sustainable ocean-based economy.

Ocean observations in particular exhibit an enormous economic and social value. In Côte d’Ivoire, their application to fisheries management help predict variations in catch of Sardinella aurita with a confidence of 78% a year ahead. This is a powerful tool to support evaluation and monitoring of fishing activity, laying the foundation for long-term economic growth and sustainability for the benefit of this species and society itself.

Based at Kenya’s Egerton University, Prof. Nzula Kitaka brought Africa to the fore of the discussions around the need to nurture a generation of ocean scientists that can respond to the challenges and demand of the blue economy: “As a region, we have to discuss about how to boost our marine sciences to support sustainable development and blue growth, for this to happen, governments need to invest in capacity development.”

Ultimately, ensuring equal participation of all countries in the blue economy will require improved transfer of technology and capacity development.

At the second of its flagship high level side events, focused around marine spatial planning (MSP), the IOC reinforced the need for careful and knowledge-based planning for the blue economy. With increasing take-up in countries and transboundary areas around the world, MSP is a proven effective policy process to bring together public and private stakeholders to analyze and allocate ocean space for competing human activities (tourism, renewable energy, fisheries, conservation, and so on) in coastal and marine areas.

Organized jointly by IOC, The Nature Conservancy, the European Commission (DG-MARE) and the Kenyan State Department for Fisheries, Aquaculture and the Blue Economy, the side event included panel interventions and discussion with Ministers, ministerial representatives and experts from the Seychelles, Angola, Kenya, Namibia, Sweden and Belgium.

For H.E. Mr Wallace Cosgrow, Minister of Environment of the Seychelles, MSP as a process has been particularly effective to facilitate the establishment of Marine Protected Areas in over 30% of the Seychelles Exclusive Economy Zone (EEZ). “We believe that taking care of the ocean, of our part of the EEZ, is extremely important, and that is why we have now embarked on marine spatial planning,” he commented after the event, while visiting the IOC-UNESCO Pavilion in the international Exhibition Hall of the conference.

IOC also participated in side events featuring a variety of themes, including large marine ecosystems, international law and policy frameworks for the blue economy, and enhancing mapping and assessments for sustainable blue economy policies.

Throughout the conference, the IOC-UNESCO Pavilion served as meeting point for scientific experts and high-level figures, including the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, and the UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

Delivering as One on the Sustainable Development Goals

On the margins of the conference, UN Family met with the UN Special Envoy to discuss follow-up action on the voluntary commitments made in the context of the UN Ocean Conference through the nine thematic Communities of Ocean Action (COAs) launched in November 2017.

“These nine communities are like families of knowledge and best practice. They are charged with taking forward the 1,400 voluntary commitments made at the 2017 UN Ocean Conference, making sure that they are being implemented and helping those that need help,” explained Peter Thomson.

Beyond assessing progress, these communities also aim to catalyze and generate new voluntary commitments, as well as facilitate collaboration and networking amongst different actors in support of Sustainable Development Goal 14.

IOC co-leads two Communities of Ocean Action, the first on “Ocean acidification” and the second on “Scientific knowledge, research capacity development and transfer of marine technology”.

Summarizing the engagement of the global ocean community convened in Nairobi, Ambassador Rose Makena Muchiri, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) and UNEP, stated: “We are here to find effective joint solutions to drive a truly sustainable blue economy”.

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