03 Mar 2020 Speech Oceans & seas

When the stakes are high: Sustaining all life on earth

Photo by European Commission

His Serene Highness Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries

Robert Calcagno, Director-General of the Oceanographic Institute, Albert I Foundation

Dr. Nadia Ounaïs, Director of the Monaco Aquarium

Dr. Martin Zordan, Interim CEO, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums

Paul Van den Sande, Honorary Secretary-General, European Union of Aquarium Curators

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

I would like to begin by thanking His Serene Highness for his incredibly warm hospitality and for the friendship between the principality and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) over the years. We are delighted at the prospect of deepening our cooperation on many of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.

As many of you know, today is World Wildlife Day. This year’s theme is “Sustaining All Life on Earth”.

That we even need to utter this phrase at all should ring alarm bells.

We have long assumed that nature will provide for us no matter what. For too long we have seen the living world as an endless, inexhaustible resource for us to tap.

But the veil is falling. Human activities are pushing the natural world’s limits to breaking point, placing the well-being of all life on earth, including our own, in grave peril.

The warning signs are all around. Forests destroyed by wildfires, glaciers melting at alarming speeds, the mass extinction of species, the dying of coral reefs. The very ecosystems that feed and water us – that are so essential to life on earth – are collapsing as the natural world unravels around us.

Look out through the windows of this magnificent museum – over the vast blue expanse of the Mediterranean – and you’d be forgiven for thinking all is well. The view has not changed much for thousands of years.

But beneath the surface of our seas and oceans there are profoundly unsettling changes taking place.

Global heating is causing the world’s oceans to warm at an alarming rate. Imagine five atomic bombs exploding underwater every second and you can begin to grasp just how much heat they are absorbing.

These changes are disrupting one of the world’s most important food baskets, which provides one-fifth of the world’s population with its supply of protein. Entire fisheries are being wiped out while coral reefs die off en-masse, destroying livelihoods and human well-being in the process. Vast dead zones deprived of oxygen, some the size of Florida, continue to spread, choking off marine life.

We are quite literally suffocating our oceans.

These changes are also fueling sea level rise, inundating coastal cities and low-lying island states with increasing frequency and severity. And in a sign of just how interconnected life on earth is, the ocean currents that regulate our planetary seasons are being thrown out of sync, endangering food production on land.

To change course will require a revolution in perspective. The natural world must inspire more than just awe. We must return to a time when we understood how the living world sustains humanity, how it underpins societies, peoples, and cultures. And we must accept that oceans and the rest of the natural world occupy a critical place in our national economies; not just our psyches.

This is borne out by the facts. Half of the world’s GDP is based on nature. Fourteen of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are underpinned by nature. These are the forests that clean our water, the soils and pollinators that grow our crops, the coral reefs that provide us with seafood and protect our coasts.

And we must begin to see the natural world for what it is: a vast, deeply interconnected web of living systems. When we talk of making 2020 a Super Year for Nature this is what we mean. We mean understanding that the natural world lies at the very heart of everything we do, that nature is the cornerstone of our existence on this planet, and that damaging one part of the system damages the whole.

And the beauty of this understanding is that the same is true in reverse. By tackling the damage done to one part of the system we can begin to reverse the damage done elsewhere.

That is why we are here today. Marine litter is an immense blight on the natural world and a critical threat facing our oceans and seas today. Eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. It is polluting our seas, killing marine life, destroying ecosystems, ruining livelihoods, harming our economies and damaging human health. And so by tackling marine litter we can make vast improvements in all of these sectors.

This is the work. We are in the business of arresting the destruction of the natural world so that we can, in the spirit of World Wildlife Day, “Sustain all life on Earth”, including our own.

Part of this battle will require mobilizing the forces that bring people from every walk of life closer to nature. And that’s where the Aquaria Coalition and its efforts to raise awareness on the need to prevent marine litter and plastic pollution has excelled. More than 200 aquariums in dozens of countries around the world have worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about marine litter. This is vital work, part of the critical mission to transform how society sees and treats the living world.

UNEP is honoured to be taking over the stewardship of this initiative. By tying it to our Clean Seas Campaign we aim to marshal the political and public will needed to reverse course.

In this important time in history, as we seek to tap into the groundswell of support for nature, I am pleased that the European Union is issuing a “Call for Biodiversity” which invites aquaria, botanical gardens, zoos, national parks, protected areas, natural history and science museums to join hands and take action for nature.

If we are to craft a deal that saves nature, then we will need the public to drive the political change that gets us there. People around the world will need to get behind our efforts to make 2020 the Super Year for Nature. They need to understand why this is so important, why in China at the Convention on Biological Diversity - COP15 we need to set targets that are ambitious, implementable, inclusive, measurable and financeable. 

The stakes could not be higher. We are losing species on our planet at rates never recorded in history. Only 20 per cent of our oceans have been observed and mapped. We are losing species we may never know we even had. And yet we will feel this loss. We will feel it in the loss of some of the most basic human needs, the loss of food, the loss of water, the loss of human well-being, the loss of prosperity and jobs. But we will also see it in the loss of nature’s majesty. In the loss of the awe and beauty that nature has presented to humankind since the beginning of time. Beauty that has

inspired some of the greatest artists, poets and is woven into our traditions and folklore. Are we going to be the generation that allows all this to disappear?

No. Here in Monaco, on World Wildlife Day and in the Super Year for Nature, we make the decision to halt this loss, to end the destruction of the living world. In doing so, we ensure our planetary stability. For people. For the planet. For wildlife. For prosperity. And for peace.

 

Thank you.

Inger Andersen

Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme

(Prepared for delivery)