Prime minister António Costa (left) and United Nations secretary general António Guterres during a bilateral meeting on the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon on June 27
Prime minister António Costa (left) and United Nations secretary general António Guterres during a bilateral meeting on the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon on June 27

Back to the sea! UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon brings focus back to Nature

… and the urgent need to preserve it

Lisbon opened its doors to the 2nd United Nations Ocean Conference this week at a time when the wider world is focused on war, rising prices, the threat of world hunger and a great deal in between.

It also began in the midst of so many arguably more pressing fixtures – namely the G7 meeting in Bavaria (to consolidate the world’s largest economies’ positions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine) and the NATO summit in Madrid (to discuss ‘what next’ regarding Europe’s hugely damaging war).

Can this conference make any kind of difference in a world so riven with immediate issues? That’s the big question. Certainly, Portugal’s tabloid press has been fairly dismissive, suggesting the conference is nothing more than a “parade of vanities” that threatens to turn the United Nations into a form of global “events manager condemned to increasing diplomatic nullity”.

It’s true: UN secretary general António Guterres has been beating the drum over the need to address climate change/protect the seas for as long as he has been in office – and the message remains the same: “If nothing is done to change Mankind’s slovenly approach to the sea, there will soon be more plastic in it than fish; the oceans will simply die due to a toxic combination of greed and stupidity … governments must act”.

But what has been different in this conference is the almost dismissive way world leaders were presented even before it began.

“Do not put your trust in them” was the message from President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa on Carcavelos beach on Sunday – addressing a youth forum held in the run-up to the week’s main event at Altice Arena.

Portugal’s head of State was sitting alongside António Guterres, whom he indicated was “an exception” when it comes to heavyweights on the geopolitical scene. “There are exceptions,” he said. “Some will always be your allies – but not the majority. They are much older. They have so many problems. Some of them say they cannot afford to think of you … enough (…) You have to fight and win for yourselves (…) do not believe someone else will do it for you. Remember that…”

Also on the beach was Kenyan energy minister Monica Juma (Kenya being co-organiser of the conference). She too told the young audience that, “through your eyes, we can see the environment in a different way. We cannot continue to live as if the effects on the environment did not exist…”

Her appeal was that those attending the various interventions this week would go on to transmit “to at least five people” everything they learn during the conference so as to counter a world that is negating climate change.

Portugal’s minister of the economy and sea, 69-year-old António Costa Silva – a bit of an unknown given his recent comments about being willing to countenance offshore drilling for natural gas – was also present on Carcavelos beach and will have heard António Guterres’ ‘apology’ for the “lack of attention given to the oceans by older generations and political decision-makers”.

“I want to apologise, in the name of my generation, to your generation, for the state of the oceans; the state of biodiversity and the situation of climate change,” said the UN boss.

Older generations have been responsible for the degradation of the condition of the world’s seas, and for being slow or even “unwilling to recognise that conditions are deteriorating at sea. Slowly, we are working towards rehabilitating the oceans, saving biodiversity and stopping climate change” (…) Today’s youth “has inherited a planet in danger and will have to do everything necessary to revert political and economic decisions and behaviours (…) I wish you the best success”, he said.

Guterres’ speech was not without criticism for “certain economic leaders” (particularly those in the fossil fuel industry, from which Portugal’s minister of the economy and the sea has been recruited) who, he claimed, “only give value to their shareholders”.

Thus, it will be interesting to see what comes out of this conference, due to end this Friday, July 1. It has brought together over 20,000 people from 140 countries, among them 38 specialised agencies and international bodies, more than 1,000 NGOs, 410 companies and 154 universities.

It comes at a time when the country’s bid to extend its continental platform to around four million square kilometres has run into new problems – but it has already seen commitments. Prime minister António Costa, for example, has underlined Portugal’s own commitments to:

  • double the number of start-ups for the ‘blue economy’, as well as the number of projects in this area supported by public funds
  • assure that 100% of Portugal’s ocean space is evaluated and in a good environmental state, with 30% of marine areas classified by 2030, and fish stocks kept within ‘biological limits considered sustainable’
  • recognise the ocean as a carbon sink, and a source for decarbonisation and energy autonomy. In this regard, he wants to reach a 10-gigawatt capacity for renewable ocean energies by 2030, as well as a “pilot zone” for controlled emissions in the Portuguese sea
  • create a centre for ocean sciences and sustainable development in the Azores.

And while Altice Arena has been the focus of all these attentions, Portugal’s naval chief Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo – a celebrity last year due to his stellar organisation of the country’s Covid mass-vaccination programme – has been talking about the need for Portugal to return its focus to the sea.

His interview with Lusa showed that age can bring advantages, in terms of visions for a better future. The 61-year-old described his experiences at sea over the last 40 years, and the changes in consciousness over what is acceptable in terms of activities.

He described his “absolute certainty that this century will see sea colonies; people living permanently at sea; cities in the sea – which will change human geography and human relations”.

“Portugal, being a small country on the southwest of the European continent, far from the main industrial and economic centres, in a Europe that is extending east, has to look at its strategic relevance and understand what its role in the world is, and how it can prosper in this historic and geographic framework”.

Gouveia e Melo sees the Navy – returning thanks to events in Ukraine in terms of relevance – as a potential “catalyst for the economy” and a “catalyst for a marine culture”.

It is very relevant that this conference took place in Portugal, he said, because it shows Portugal is a country focused on the oceans and, therefore, a ‘maritime power’ – just as it was in history.

“We have turned our backs to the sea since we came to Europe and we have to realise that our value in Europe grows the more we turn to the sea – otherwise we are a province of a bigger country or a bigger unit, and we don’t have any independence,” he said.

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