With the most recent update, the word “oceans” may not be included within the official COP21 agreement—again. To fully understand the impact of omitting the word “oceans,” you must understand a multitude of topics. First being The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Beginning in 1973 and continuing until today, we have established a law to the sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, is the international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which took place between 1973 and 1982. The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. As of January 2015, 166 countries and the European Union have joined in the Convention.

In the early 20th century, some nations expressed their desire to extend national claims to include mineral resources, to protect fish stocks, and to provide the means to enforce pollution controls. (The League of Nations called a 1930 conference at The Hague, but no agreements resulted.) Using the customary international law principle of a nation’s right to protect its natural resources, President Truman in 1945 extended United States’ control to all the natural resources of its continental shelf. Other nations were quick to follow suit. (United Nations)

Recently, the 30th Anniversary of the UNCLOS has passed, you can read more about it here.


Understanding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and oceans


At the Millennium Summit in September 2000, the largest gathering of world leaders in history adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions. The MDGs are as follows:


  1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger

  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education

  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

  4. Reduce Child Mortality

  5. Improve Maternal Health

  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases

  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability

  8. Global Partnership For Development


With these eight goals there were both shortcomings and successes. According to the United Nations, the world has made significant progress in achieving many of the eight goals. Between 1990 and 2002 average overall incomes increased by approximately 21 percent and the number of people in extreme poverty has declined by an estimated 130 million. Child mortality rates fell from 103 deaths per 1,000 live births a year to 88. Life expectancy rose from 63 years to nearly 65 years. An additional 8 percent of the developing world’s people received access to water. And an additional 15 percent acquired access to improved sanitation services. But progress has been far from uniform across the world-or across the Goals. There are huge disparities across and within countries. Within countries, poverty is greatest for rural areas, though urban poverty is also extensive, growing, and underreported by traditional indicators.


The Oceans

Humanity is constantly putting pressure on terrestrial ecosystems of all kinds (e.g. polar, alpine, tropical rain forests, dry land areas) and we are especially putting immense amount of pressure on our marine ecosystems.

The world’s oceans – their temperature, chemistry, currents and life – drive global systems that make the Earth habitable for humankind. But, we are changing basic ocean chemistry. Without the oceans, our world cannot function as it naturally should and neither can we. According to the United Nations, over three billion people depend upon marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihood out of the seven billion people that inhabit the planet.

In total, oceans cover three-fourths of the Earth’s surface area. We have built our cities hugging ocean shores because we are not only dependent on our oceans for its unique biodiversity, but also invaluable nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids; We are dependent on oceans for trade and as economic drivers. According to the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) maritime transport is essential to the world’s economy as over ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea and it is, by far, the most cost-effective way to move mass goods and raw materials around the world. Oceans are also are carbon sinks.

What is a carbon sink? A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon that it releases.  While a carbon source is anything that releases more carbon than is absorb. Forests, soils, oceans and the atmosphere all store carbon and this carbon moves between them in a continuous cycle.


Source: Global total wild fish capture and aquaculture production in million tons, 1950-2010 as reported by FAO/FishStat database, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


The data provided above, offers a basic lesson in how the industrial fishing industry has affected our world. In 1990, the ocean catch reached a maximum capacity and led to an increase in aquaculture production. There are two important points to remember when looking at this data.

  1. Humanity hit it’s limit of ocean fishing and in fact exceeded those limits. This overfishing has lead many fisheries around the world into decline or complete collapse. The threats of overfishing in the oceans remain dangerous today in most fishing areas in the world.

  1. The cultivation of fish in a fish farm may lead to the spread of disease, excessive nutrient flows of many kinds, and threats to wildlife populations when farm fish escape into the wild. Aquaculture can be highly effective if it is done properly. But, due to its complexities and many challenges of executing it properly.


If the oceans were only troubled by the excessive wild catch of fish, we would have trouble enough, yet the sad fact is that humanity is assaulting marine ecosystems on many fronts.


Another way that humankind is damaging the ocean is through the destruction of corals around the world. We are damaging coral in various ways, including acidification of the oceans, warming of the oceans, coral destruction by tourists, overfishing, direct harvesting of coral themselves (e.g. for home ornaments and jewelry), dynamite used for fishing, pollution, and sedimentation caused by human actions (e.g. construction, mining, deforestation, and flooding). Human activities such as these are driving corals to depletion and perhaps, extinction for many of the species.  With careless actions such as these it is very important to remember that it takes an average of 10,000 years to replace coral and they are a keystone species and that Coral can also prevent the erosion of our shores.

Human threats to biodiversity do not arise from a single factor, but from the sum of many factors. Oceans absorb about thirty percent of the carbon dioxide produced by humankind, and we are seeing a twenty-six percent rise in ocean acidification since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And an overwhelming majority of marine pollution comes from land-based sources and it is reaching alarming levels, with an average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter to be found on every square kilometer of ocean.

Humanity depends on the oceans in countless ways for our wellbeing and critical for human survival. If we do not take the necessary steps to take care of our oceans properly and act quickly to end these problems, we will be facing a growing crisis in the not so distant future.

Understanding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and oceans

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)create a framework to sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems from land-based pollution, as well as address the impacts of ocean acidification. Enhancing conservation and the sustainable use of ocean-based resources through international law will also help mitigate some of the challenges facing our oceans.

Protecting our oceans is one of the 17 Global Goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which all the member states voted to adopt in September 2015. Currently at COP21, ocean advocates are looking for a more binding agreement that addresses each of the SDGs, but SDG 14 has definitely has brought the correct conversation to the table.

Below are the targets for the 14th SDG. Each target is integral to ensure the success of not just goal 14 but also the other 16 goals.

SDG 14 Targets:


By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution


By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans


Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels


By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics


By 2020, conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on the best available scientific information


By 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation


By 2030, increase the economic benefits to Small Island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism


Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology, taking into account the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology, in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries, in particular small island developing States and least developed countries.


Provide access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets


Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS, which provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources, as recalled in paragraph 158 of The Future We Want.


The Age Of Sustainable Development, Jeffery D. Sachs

The Sustainable Development Goals

Oceans & Law of the Sea