Kilaparti Ramakrishna

Kilaparti (Rama) Ramakrishna, Senior Advisor on Ocean and Climate Policy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

In 2021, the United Nations set out on the largest global ocean science initiative in history. Nearly five years later, and halfway into the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, it is an important time to take stock of the progress made and the work left to be done. While we have made significant progress on some aspects of ocean health and safety, other areas lag worryingly behind.

Following the April 2024 UN Ocean Decade Conference in Barcelona, Vidar Helgesen, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Assistant Director-General of UNESCO, released the Barcelona Statement, calling attention to areas requiring much more intense focus in the second half of the Decade if we wish to meet our goals for a cleaner, healthier, more resilient, productive, predictable, safe, accessible and engaging ocean.

First on the list is to better understand and address the global distribution of marine pollution and its impacts on human health and ecosystems. While significant steps are being taken toward negotiating a global treaty to end plastic pollution, unfortunately ocean pollution doesn’t stop at plastics. Many less visible but equally harmful pollutants are in our ocean, ranging from sewage and nutrients to PFAS and pharmaceuticals.

The global focus on plastics offers a vital opportunity to spark a broader effort to end all types of ocean pollution. Achieving the goals of the UN Decade for Ocean Science will require us to take a much more holistic definition of marine pollution, and to adopt a radically new approach to combating it. As we approach the second half of the Decade, now is the time to take action.

Combatting ocean pollution must be a global, multi-decade effort. The first step is to develop a much clearer understanding of the extent and cumulative impact of ocean pollution, which we know worryingly little about. While many efforts are underway globally to identify and monitor pollutants in marine environments, there is no universally accepted definition of many pollutants, and the infrastructure to collect, aggregate and analyse pollution data in a coordinated fashion is lacking.

The good news is that we now have a plan to address this gap. Over the past four years, Back to Blue, an initiative of Economist Impact and The Nippon Foundation, has engaged with stakeholders across governments, businesses, NGOs and the scientific community to understand the actions needed to develop sustainable, long-term solutions to achieve a pollution-free ocean by 2050.

Back to Blue’s Roadmap for Action, launched in March at the World Ocean Summit in Lisbon, sets out a pathway to unite the existing but often disparate efforts underway among governments, UN agencies, scientists, businesses and NGOs through a coordinated task force dedicated to developing a comprehensive approach to ending marine pollution. The Roadmap’s first priority is to collect and aggregate global pollution data to understand the problem, and where and how it affects marine ecosystems, human health and economic well-being.

Download the roadmap

A global ocean free from the harmful impacts of pollution: Roadmap for action

Download the roadmap

As a member of Back to Blue’s advisory board, I have seen first-hand the comprehensive process that has informed the development of the Roadmap. I have great confidence that – if implemented – its recommendations will allow us all to make significant progress in our efforts to end marine pollution. Yet, therein lies the rub. The Roadmap will only be effective if a global coalition of organisations combine to ensure its recommendations are comprehensively adopted.

The roadmap calls for a UN body – potentially The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, or a collaboration of the two – to lead the implementation process. I commend the roadmap to these organisations as an important opportunity to deliver on a cornerstone ambition of the UN Decade of Ocean Science: To understand and beat marine pollution.

The Roadmap’s recommendations represent the sort of ambition and urgency that is needed to meet the goals of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. They have also never been more important.

Tackling ocean pollution will require a concerted, collaborative effort. The Roadmap calls for national governments, NGOs, businesses, scientists to play a critical role in collecting, sharing and analysing data— and ultimately in leading the change needed to tackle ocean pollution.

The upcoming UN Ocean Conference, to be held in Nice in June 2025, offers an opportunity for these stakeholders to advocate for – and agree upon – a much more ambitious global approach to tackling ocean pollution.

There remains a lot of work to do. Yet, recent developments such as the ongoing negotiation of a global treaty to address plastic pollution are evidence that globally coordinated efforts are possible. Ending marine pollution starts with recognising and tracking the extent of the problem, and then working together to solve it. Back to Blue’s Roadmap for Action offers a framework to achieve both.

Kilaparti Ramakrishna joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in October 2021 as senior advisor to the president and director on ocean and climate policy. Prior to this he worked with the United Nations as head of strategic planning at the Green Climate Fund; head of the Office for East and North-East Asia at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific; and as chief of cross-sectoral environmental issues and principal policy advisor at the UN Environment Programme. Mr Ramakrishna was also a lead author of the fifth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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