Making waves for G20 action on oceans
G20 Summit

Making waves for G20 action on oceans

Atsushi Sunami, president, Ocean Policy Research Institute of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, says the G20 must take collective action to turn the tide on plastics and illegal fishing in our oceans


The world’s oceans are important in absorbing and stabilising greenhouse gasses emitted as a result of human activities. But they face large-scale effects on their environments from climate change, including ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation. The oceans also see threats including floating plastic debris as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the latter of which costs governments billions of dollars annually.

Japan’s efforts on ocean issues

These are issues that Japan cannot ignore. Japan’s Third Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, approved in May 2018, features several main measures including maintenance and conservation of the marine environment and international cooperation. The government also made historic reforms to its fisheries law in December 2018 for the first time in 70 years. This opened the window for market-based mechanisms to efficiently allocate resources using scientific data. The Ministry of Environment launched the Plastics Smart campaign to encourage various entities to engage in possible initiatives and use plastics wisely, connecting these activities to preserving the richness of the oceans and passing them on to future generations.

Although there are global frameworks including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is no single agency in the UN system to comprehensively address all of the urgent issues pertaining to the oceans.

Against this backdrop, the UN High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy has emerged to serve as a ‘global ocean agency’. 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 UN secretary-general’s Special Envoy for the Ocean. The panel is working with its advisory network and expert group to produce recommendations for transitioning to a fully regenerative, sustainable ocean economy. It will issue a final report in 2020.

Looking ahead to the Osaka Summit

This year, Japan is hosting the G20 summit for the first time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly stated his intent to feature marine plastic waste on the G20 agenda in his letter to the panel, mentioning that Japan would like to announce an initiative for effective measures to tackle this problem and drive global measures to help resolve it. The issue was first discussed at the meeting of ministers responsible for energy transitions and the environment on 15–16 June in Karuizawa.

It seems that the leaders at Osaka on 28–29 June will focus more on recycling and reuse than on seeking a complete ban on use as a realistic step towards solving this urgent problem. Nonetheless, the countries will likely promote the acceleration of research into developing alternative materials for plastics or biodegradable materials that are environmentally friendly.

Another issue relating to the oceans is the elimination of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Sustainable Development Goal 14 includes a target to end such activities by 2020. One way is to expand the number of countries that ratify the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Port State Measures Agreement.

Since Japan has ratified the agreement, getting all G20 members to sign up to support it will be a great step forward under the leadership of the host country.

Although the G20 summit started by primarily dealing with the global economy, it has now evolved into a platform to discuss all important global issues, including the SDGs.

The future of the oceans should be included on the agenda, where G20 leaders discuss issues relating to climate change or the sustainability of the global economy. However, there are no clear mechanisms to push ocean issues (such as IUU fishing) on the G20 agenda, given the lack of relevant ministerial meetings on oceans or fisheries. There is thus a need to establish an Ocean 20 civil society engagement group, like the Science 20 or the W20.

A mounting sense of urgency has finally pushed world leaders to pay more attention to protecting and promoting healthy oceans. From the G20 to APEC, and to the UN Ocean Conference in 2020 (with co-hosts Portugal and Kenya), it will be important for the world community to continue its dialogue on the oceans, ultimately to lead to the establishment of a formal global mechanism to govern their sustainable use.