Commonwealth ocean action gains traction at COP24

“Real experiences” are what drove some Commonwealth countries to take up the banner for the ocean, stepping forward to champion action groups of like-minded members working together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing ocean problems.

When 53 countries agreed on the Commonwealth Blue Charter on ocean governance in April 2018, it inspired a new model for intergovernmental cooperation, whereby countries are invited to establish, join and drive voluntary and action-oriented alliances, based on their own shared priorities.

“This not about the Commonwealth or a high level body saying to countries, ‘Thou shall do this’, it was the countries themselves saying, ‘We get it, we want to work together with other countries to help fix it’,” said Commonwealth adviser on ocean governance Jeff Ardron.

Speaking at a side event at the UN Climate Change Conference COP24 this week, he said the Blue Charter links high level global commitments to on-the-ground implementation, a key theme at this year’s climate summit: “[Because it’s a voluntary-based initiative] only the countries who care about the issues join. So the most leading, most forward thinking, the most engaged countries in each of these topics are coming forward. This is a different model of global cooperation.”

Sri Lanka, for instance, vulnerable to disastrous tsunamis and storms, recognised the importance of coastal protection and stepped up to lead the action group on mangroves. Vanuatu, shocked at a study showing the amount of plastic polluting their coastal waters, volunteered to co-lead the action group on marine pollution with the United Kingdom. Fiji, a small island developing state in the Pacific, came forward to lead on ocean and climate change. To date, nine action groups have been set up, with varying membership.

At the event held at the COP24 UK pavilion, Deputy Director for Marine Policy at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Gemma Harper highlighted the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance co-led by the UK and Vanuatu.

“The UK, together with Vanuatu, is calling on other countries to pledge action on plastics, be this by a ban on microbeads a commitment to cutting down on single use plastic bags, or other steps to eliminate avoidable plastic waste,” she urged.

Vanuatu banned single use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers in July 2018.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter is very important to us because it commits a number of counties to the same objectives. If Vanuatu were to do this alone it wouldn’t get very far. So by having the Blue Charter, we can commit the Commonwealth – already [covering] more than half of the oceans in the world,” said Vanuatu Foreign Affairs minister Ralph Regenvanu.

Earlier in the week, at another COP24 event hosted by the Nordic Cooperation, Mr. Ardron showcased fish leather designs from Kenya – the Blue Charter champion on blue economy – and the Faroe Islands. He announced that the Commonwealth, together with the Nordic Cooperation and the Food and Agricultural Organization, will launch a ‘blue fashion’ challenge in September to promote sustainability in the second most polluting industry in the world.

Commonwealth countries rally behind ocean action

A gathering hosted by the New Zealand High Commission at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Monday, heard widespread support for the various action groups under the Blue Charter, which was unveiled by Commonwealth leaders at their last meeting in April.

Actions groups are led by ‘champion countries’ and focus on eight key areas: marine plastic pollution, blue economy, coral reef protection and restoration, mangroves, ocean acidification, ocean and climate change, ocean observations and aquaculture.

New Zealand Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage called the Blue Charter initiative a “model for bold, coordinated leadership.” As champion for the action group on ocean acidification,

New Zealand will focus on building a better understanding of the issue, identifying challenges, and connecting Commonwealth countries to ocean acidification networks.

“We are really impressed and pleased by the many Commonwealth countries that are involved in the action group [on ocean acidification],” said Hon Sage, acknowledging Australia, Barbados, Canada, Mozambique, Samoa, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the UK.

Thérèse Coffey, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Areas added: “The Blue Charter is so important, not only for Commonwealth countries, but for the entire world… I’m really proud to be working with Vanuatu taking forward action on the Clean Oceans Alliance and I’m very proud that we’re also joining other action groups.”

Alongside Vanuatu, the UK leads the action group on marine pollution, which includes 20 members in total from all regions of the Commonwealth.

“This is something that the Commonwealth can celebrate. I’m really pleased the Commonwealth Secretariat is continuing to make sure that these things come through, but together as nations we really can be champions for something that is exceptionally precious to us,” she said.

Special guest at the event, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Oceans, Peter Thomson, commended the “wave of ocean action” in the international community, and encouraged collaboration with the United Nations Communities on Ocean Action.

Delegates from Fiji and Australia also made presentations on their countries’ ocean activities. Fiji leads the action group on ocean and climate change, and is planning an event on the Blue Charter in the margins of the UN Climate Change Conference COP24, to be held in Poland in December.

Commonwealth Director of Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources, Paulo Kautoke recognised the crucial role of the ocean in Commonwealth economies, cultures and communities, and called on governments as well as non-government organisations to join the action groups and intensify collaboration on ocean issues.

 

 

Strong partners will deliver on Commonwealth Blue Charter, says Secretary-General

Protecting the ocean today is the best way of ensuring prosperity for future generations, says Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

Her remarks came at a session on the Commonwealth Blue Charter on sustainable ocean governance, held on the margins of the 49th Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, which ran from 3 to 6 September 2018.

The Secretary-General applauded the leadership of Pacific nations and agencies on ocean and climate issues internationally, and Pacific regional agreements on ocean sustainability and governance, such as the ‘Blue Pacific’ framework for regionalism.

“The Blue Pacific Framework and Commonwealth Blue Charter go hand in glove as commitments that lead the world in working towards sustainable ocean governance,” she said.

She stressed that strong regional co-operation will be key to delivering on the charter.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter was adopted in April by Commonwealth heads of government and has eight action groups, including four that are championed or co-championed by Pacific countries.

Fiji leads the action group on ocean and climate change; Vanuatu and the UK co-champion the group on marine plastic pollution; New Zealand leads on ocean acidification; and Australia, along with Mauritius and Belize, leads the group on coral reef restoration.

“Now is the time to be reaching out to other governments and organisations to join action groups that reflect shared interests and priorities. This will only work if we work together,” said Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The session discussions highlighted a range of initiatives aimed at protecting the ocean and its resources, including from plastics in the waste stream.

A key example is legislation passed in Vanuatu to ban single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene containers. The country began implementing the ban in July 2018. The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) assisted with nation-wide awareness building, while the local plastics industry was exploring ways to reduce their impact on the environment.

Participants stressed that good communication strategies were essential to raising public awareness and engagement, as a change in the usual practices could not succeed without a change in attitude.

Pacific regional agencies also pointed out the importance of linking commitments with action, as well as working through existing mechanisms.

The Secretary-General underlined the value of joint action, and said the Commonwealth was keen to collaborate with other partners: “Each of our members is a member of a wider family. This is an opportunity for everyone, led by countries but embracing all of our friends, to deliver something that is better than we can do on our own”.

Learn more about the Blue Charter

If Vanuatu can ban single-use plastics, so can other Commonwealth countries

Op-ed by Ralph Regenvanu, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vanuatu

Cradled in the South Pacific, my home country Vanuatu is made mostly of ocean.  The Pacific covers 98% of the national jurisdiction. Here, some 280,000 Ni-Vanuatu like myself live simply off the land and sea.  We view the ocean as a living ‘bridge’ that connects islands and continents while sustaining life in all its forms. Where we come from, the ocean has a heartbeat.

So when scientists collected nearly 24,000 pieces of non-biodegradable trash on the beaches of the capital city Port Vila last August, it was a harsh reality check for us all. A tally of more than 4,400 plastic bags, 3,000 food wrappers, 4,400 plastic and foam packages, 2,600 beverage cans and 2,100 plastic drinking bottles showed that the addiction to cheap, convenient plastics had crept onto our shores and into our lives. The debris was choking marine life, slowly poisoning fish (and those who eat them) and negatively affecting tourism.

To save our oceans, the country had to take swift and decisive action.

Last month, Vanuatu became one of the first in the world to implement a ban on single use plastic bags, straws and polystyrene food containers. The Government announced the new rules in January, prohibiting the importation and manufacturing of certain non-biodegradable plastic products, followed by a six-month grace period so local businesses and manufacturers could use up supplies.

Alternatives were developed. Traditional natural fibre baskets took the place of plastic bags. Home-grown innovators such as Tom Yaken created community water taps using bamboo instead of the usual plastic pipes. We were guided by a National Ocean Policy for sustainable ocean management, framed around the traditional ‘Nakamal’ – the customary Ni-Vanuatu institution for governance.

A medium and long-term communication strategy is being put in place to begin the discussion on how to achieve lasting change in the age of plastic.

Looking at the region, I am proud that other Pacific ‘big ocean states’ are also rallying against the curse of marine plastic pollution. Samoa recently announced plans to ban all single-use plastic bags and straws by January 2019. New Zealand made a similar pledge to phase out single-use plastics over the next year. Meanwhile, island countries such as Palau, the Marshall Islands, Northern Marianas, Guam, and parts of the Federated States of Micronesia have all outlawed single use plastic shopping bags. Fiji and Tonga have levy systems in place to discourage plastic bag use.

But even beyond the Pacific, the momentum towards a major global transition has never before been so great.

In April, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, 53 countries made a joint commitment to preserve the health of the ocean, recognising its role in sustaining life on our planet.  Under the Commonwealth ‘Blue Charter’, Vanuatu and the United Kingdom stepped forward as ‘champion countries’ to tackle marine plastic pollution.

It is a pressing global issue – scientists predict that if current trends continue, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Even now, the accumulation of trash floating in the Northern Pacific Ocean (commonly known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’) spans an area three times the size of France and is estimated to weigh 80,000 tonnes – equivalent to 500 jumbo jets. The effects are dire for marine ecosystems, ocean economies and human life, and demand a global response.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Commonwealth countries are island or coastal states (just seven are landlocked).  There is huge potential for resources and good practices to be shared, refined and scaled across the Commonwealth, and with the rest of the world.

My own hope is that all 53 leaders who signed on to the Commonwealth Blue Charter commit to concrete steps to address plastic waste in their countries. We have a remarkable opportunity to jointly make improvements to our planet, and it must not be missed.

Vanuatu’s journey so far has been instructive. I am confident that between traditional marine resource management practices and new knowledge and innovations, solutions to the plastic problem are available, or ready to be discovered. It just takes leadership.

Pacific Island countries like Vanuatu have already shown themselves to be ready and willing.

This Op-ed was originally published on IPS News.