Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

"Oceans are the point at which planet, people, and prosperity come together. And that is what sustainable development is about. It is about all of us as shareholders of Earth, incorporated, acknowledging and acting on our responsibility to the planet, to the people, and to its bloodstream, the oceans."

Elizabeth Thompson, Co-Executive Coordinator for the Rio+20 Conference, at Oceans Day at Rio+20, 16 June 2012


As the General Assembly of the United Nations considers the recommendations of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is essential that SDG 14 on oceans, seas and marine resources retains a central place in the post-2015 development agenda.

The Centrality of Oceans for All Three Pillars of Sustainable Development

The oceans are the most prominent feature on the planet, covering nearly three quarters of the Earth, and are essential for planetary survival. Just as a person cannot live without a healthy heart and lungs, the Earth cannot survive without healthy oceans and seas. They serve as the Earth’s respiratory system, producing oxygen for life and absorbing carbon dioxide and waste. The oceans provide storage and absorb 30 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide, while marine phytoplankton generates 50 per cent of the oxygen needed for survival. The oceans regulate the climate and temperature, making the planet hospitable to diverse forms of life.

The oceans and seas are essential for national and global economic well-being. The global ocean economic activity is estimated to be between US $3 trillion to US $6 trillion, contributing to the world economy in many important ways, such as:

·         90 per cent of global trade moves by marine transport.

·         Submarine cables carry 95 per cent of all global telecommunications.

·         Fisheries and aquaculture supply 4.3 billion people with more than 15 per cent of annual consumption of animal protein.

·         Over 30 per cent of global oil and gas produced is extracted offshore.

·         Coastal tourism is the largest market segment in the world economy, comprising 5 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) and 6 to 7 per cent of global employment.

·         Expanding knowledge on marine biodiversity has provided breakthrough advances in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, food production, and aquaculture.

·         13 of the world’s 20 megacities are coastal.

·         Tides, waves, currents, and offshore wind are emerging sources of energy that have significant potential to contribute to low-carbon energy in many coastal countries.

The oceans and seas are essential for social well-being. Over 40 per cent, or 3.1 billion, of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of the ocean or sea in about 150 coastal and island nations. Regardless of whether a country is landlocked, or has a coastline, all nations are directly connected to the oceans and seas through rivers, lakes and streams. Nations have placed significant importance on the benefits that are provided by the oceans and seas, comprising over 60 per cent of the global gross national product (GNP). In particular, coastal economic activity is the lifeblood of coastal and island nations.

Through activities such as sustainable fishing, renewable energy production, ecotourism, and “green” shipping, nations have been able to increase the rates of employment and good sanitation while decreasing poverty, malnutrition and pollution. Ocean-based economies provide more opportunities for the empowerment and employment of women, who make up the majority of the secondary activities workforce in marine fisheries and aquaculture. The results of increased female employment include the strengthening of the economic vitality of small and isolated communities and the enhancement of the status of women in developing countries.

At the same time, coastal and island populations are some of the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Oceans, seas and coastal areas experience an increased frequency and intensity of climate extremes, including stronger hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones. They are also subject to ocean acidification, sea level rise and fluctuations in ocean circulation and salinity. These changes will be felt not only along coastlines, but inland as well due to the widespread influence of ocean currents on weather systems. By 2050, it is estimated that 50 million to 200 million people worldwide will be displaced due to the negative impacts of climate change, threatening food security, livelihoods and social stability not only in coastal and island nations, but in all countries that will be assisting displaced populations. Mitigation and adaptation must be further enhanced to provide increased support for emergency preparedness and disaster response, as well as early warning systems, observations, and coastal planning and management.

Oceans and Seas in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Oceans and seas were centrally emphasized in the Rio+20 outcome document, “The future we want”. However, since oceans and seas had hardly figured in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), when the work of the OWG began in 2013, there was a need for extensive mobilization of Member States and civil society to articulate the centrality of oceans for sustainable development. Some viewed oceans and seas as mainly an environmental issue, not fully aware of their economic and social importance. Starting in summer 2013, a strong push by Member States, led by the Pacific Small Island Developing States and Timor-Leste, and supported by civil society, including the Global Ocean Forum, articulated the need for an oceans goal for planetary survival and for global and national economic and social well-being. The many opportunities for civil society input afforded by the co-chairs of the OWG of the United Nations, who ran a truly “open process”, contributed to the adoption of SDG 14, which came to be supported by a very large number and range of nations—developing and developed, coastal and inland, small islands and continental nations.

The package of ocean and seas issues reflected in SDG 14, “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”, with its seven targets and three provisions on means of implementation is a very important one. The goal itself, its targets and means of implementation reinforce and give renewed focus and urgency to existing international prescriptions on oceans and seas emanating from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994.

Especially noteworthy is target 14.7 which urges “By 2030 increase the economic benefits to small island developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs) from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism”. This emphasis on enhanced benefits to SIDS and LDCs is long-overdue and will cause a profound shift in consideration of ocean management decisions to highlight their economic and social impacts.

While there could be minor “wordsmithing” to improve some of the provisions of SDG 14, in my view, the package is quite good and could be adopted, largely as is, by the General Assembly of the United Nations. An important addition, if appropriate, would be a provision to strengthen ocean governance, e.g., reinforce ocean and coastal decision-making processes, including through the enactment of ocean and coastal laws and through capacity development.

Several other SDGs, as well, are related to and can be used to help achieve SDG 14 on oceans and seas, including proposed SDG 1 (on poverty), SDG 2 (on food security), SDG 6 (on water and sanitation), SDG 7 (on energy), SDG 8 (on economic growth), SDG 9 (on infrastructure), SDG 10 (on reduction of inequality), SDG 11 (on cities and human settlements), SDG 12 (on sustainable consumption and production), SDG 13 (on climate change), SDG 15 (on biodiversity), and SDG 17 (on means of implementation and partnerships). This is exactly as it was intended in the OWG proposal, as noted in the introduction to the document: “These goals constitute an integrated, indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development … The goals and targets integrate economic, social, and environmental aspects and recognize their interlinkages in achieving sustainable development in all of its dimensions”.[1]

Intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda will continue until August 2015, when revisions and changes to the package could take place. The adoption of the set of global goals, targets and means of implementation, that will profoundly influence the future course of all matters related to sustainable development, will take place at the United Nations Summit dedicated to the post-2015 development agenda in September 2015. It is, therefore, important for Member States and civil society to continue to articulate their support for the SDGs, especially for SDG 14 on oceans and seas, and to begin planning for their implementation. 

With thanks to Miriam Balgos, Alexis Martin and Erica Wales.

1. United Nations, Report of the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, 12 August 2014 (A/68/970).

Biliana Cicin-Sain is President of the Global Ocean Forum, Professor and Director of Gerard J. Mangone Center for Marine Policy, College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, University of Delaware, United States of America.

First published in the UN Chronicle, Department of Public Information, United Nations.