Commentary / Japan

A vision for protecting the world's oceans

by Atsushi Sunami

The two-day Group of 20 Osaka summit concluded June 29 with a leader’s declaration that included two important issues relating to oceans: the G20’s Osaka Blue Ocean Vision to tackle marine plastic waste, and ending illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing so that marine resources will remain sustainable.

The world’s oceans not only serve an important role in absorbing and stabilizing greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activities, but also face large-scale impacts from climate change, including ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation. Other threats to the oceans include floating plastic debris as well as IUU fishing, the latter costing governments billions of dollars every year.

In preparing for the first G20 summit hosted by Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made clear his intention to give ocean plastic waste a prominent place on the agenda, noting that Japan hoped to announce an initiative for effective measures that would drive global efforts to tackle this problem. The issue was discussed extensively at the ministerial meeting on energy transitions and global environment for sustainable growth (June 15 and 16 in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture), and the G20 leaders adopted the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision in the final statement, which commits to reducing additional marine plastic waste to zero by 2050.

This vision, as a realistic step toward solving this urgent problem, focuses more on “recycle” and “reuse” than a complete ban on “use.” However, countries are encouraged to promote acceleration of research on developing alternative materials for plastics or biodegradable materials that are environmentally friendly.

Another issue relating to the oceans is the elimination of IUU fishing, with Sustainable Development Goal 14 including a target to end such activities by 2020. One way is to expand the number of countries to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement (an accord to eliminate IUU fishing prepared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). Since Japan has ratified the PSMA, getting all G20 members to sign up to support the agreement will be a critical step forward under the leadership of the host country.

These are issues that Japan cannot ignore. In Japan, the Third Basic Plan on Ocean Policy was approved in May 2018, followed by a Cabinet decision. The plan features several key measures, including maintenance and conservation of the marine environment, international collaboration and cooperation.

Furthermore, the government passed landmark changes to its fisheries law last December, the first such reform in 70 years. This opened the window for market-based mechanisms to efficiently allocate resources using scientific data, and created a more sustainable Japanese seafood market with a global impact, ultimately leading to sustainable fishing practices worldwide.

The Environment Ministry launched the “plastics smart” campaign, which encourages all sectors including businesses and local communities to engage in initiatives to use plastics in a wise manner, connecting these activities to preserve the richness of the ocean and pass it on to the next generation.

Currently, Japan consumes about 10 million tons of plastic materials a year. Even if Japan successfully manages as much as 90 percent of its plastic waste, almost 1 million tons would still end up in the ocean, contributing to the world’s 8 million tons of annual oceanic plastic pollution.

Although the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision is a welcome step forward, the G20 nations need to do more than just share the common goal under the vision and implement better ways to manage plastic waste. They should work together to create a global mechanism that monitors the progress of and at the same time accelerates innovation to find alternative materials for plastics.

IUU fishing is clearly a complicated problem stemming from a wide range of both political and socio-economic factors. If Japan wishes to lead the world in combatting IUU fishing, supporting the PSMA alone obviously is not enough. As a leading consumer of fishery products, Japan can play a significant role in ending unsustainable fishing practices by holding its seafood market to the highest standard when measured against global sustainability ratings.

Fortunately in coming years, Japan will be hosting the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 followed by the Osaka Expo in 2025. Blessed with these great opportunities, Japan should show the world that its leadership in the G20 Osaka declaration is not just a rhetoric. The first test will be the Olympics next year, when the world will be watching to see if Japan can truly lead in global sustainability ratings and go beyond the legacy created by the London Olympics in 2012.

While there are global frameworks, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the U.N. Framework Convention on the Climate Change, there is no institution such as an “ocean agency” in the U.N. that can comprehensively address all of the urgent issues concerning the seas.

Against this backdrop, the U.N. High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy has emerged to serve as a “global ocean agency” that can address the urgent needs of our oceans. Co-chaired by Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and President Tommy Remengesau of Palau, the panel consists of 14 heads of government, including Japan, with support from the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean. The panel will work with its advisory network and expert group to produce recommendations for transitioning to a fully regenerative, sustainable ocean economy, with the aim of issuing a final report in 2020.

A mounting sense of urgency has finally pushed world leaders to pay more attention to protecting the oceans. From the G20 Osaka gathering to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this year and onto the U.N. Ocean Conference in 2020 (with Portugal and Kenya as co-hosts), it will be important for the world community to continue dialogue on the world’s oceans and ultimately establish a formal global mechanism to govern their sustainable use.

Although the G20 was launched as an “economic summit” primarily dealing with the global economy, it has evolved into a platform for discussing all important global issues, including the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. However, there are no clear mechanisms to discuss ocean issues, such as IUU fishing, in the G20 process, due to the lack of relevant negotiating tracks or a platform for policy discourse that comprehensively covers the agenda for sustainable management of oceans. Creating an Ocean20 — an equivalent to the Women20 “engagement group” that promotes women’s economic empowerment at the G20 — should be seriously considered as a way to effectively follow up on the G20 Osaka declaration, and pass the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision on to the next G20 summit, the 2020 U.N. Ocean Conference and beyond.

Atsushi Sunami is president and executive director of the Ocean Policy Research Institute at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.