On the 26th  and 27th January, the Ocean Climate Ambition Summit took place, emphasizing the importance of a healthy ocean within the story of climate change. Belgium played a central role as co-host of this digital event. The aim was to provide a follow-up to the UN Ocean Climate Dialogues in December 2020 and to prepare for the Climate Conference (COP26) to be held in Glasgow in November.

As Minister for the North Sea, Vincent Van Quickenborne confirmed in his speech Belgium's pioneering role in the Blue Leaders, the alliance of countries that are actively working to create a meaningful network of marine protected areas in the short term and to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030. Later this week, Belgium will send an official letter to US climate envoy John Kerry asking him whether the United States will join the Blue Leaders.

Climate change and oceans

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. The temperature in our oceans is warmer than ever since records began and more acidic than in the last 14 million years. In addition, the oceans are losing oxygen, essential for almost all marine life. These changes are already affecting different elements of the marine food chain, from the tiniest plankton to the largest whales. Vincent Van Quickenborne emphasized in his speech that now more than ever, and all together, we need to realize that we need our seas and oceans.
The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of excess heat and a quarter of man-made CO2 emissions, helping to protect the planet from the worst ravages of climate change. But this has come at a price we are only now beginning to understand.

Marine protected areas

Many scientists have come to the conclusion that the most important thing we can do for the oceans, besides reducing CO2 emissions, is to protect them from the adverse effects. Major stressors include overfishing, offshore oil extraction, noise pollution and habitat destruction.
We can do this by creating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): 'parks' in the ocean where large-scale industrial activities are prohibited. Just as a healthy person is more resistant to injuries than a sick person, a healthy, resilient ocean will be more resistant to climate-related changes.

Blue Leaders

Belgium recognizes the challenges facing our oceans and marine ecosystems today. Our country has taken the initiative to convene a group of ministers and heads of state known as the Blue Leaders. They include Spain, Monaco, Costa Rica, Chile, Canada and France, as well as a number of new members: Nigeria, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.
This alliance of more than 20 states is calling for a strong and new international target to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030 ('30by30').

New international treaty

Currently, there is no legal framework to create MPAs. In order to realize MPAs in the high seas, a new Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) agreement must be concluded. In order to effectively protect 30% of the oceans by 2030, this objective must additionally be included in the new Biodiversity Convention strategy for 2021-2030.
Belgium will therefore actively work in the coming months to expand the alliance with new members. Our country is well placed to take a leading role in this. In our own national waters, we have already achieved this objective: no less than 37% of the North Sea has been designated a Marine Protected Area.

Year of the Ocean

Achieving these ambitious targets (30x30 and a BBNJ agreement) will significantly increase the climate resilience of the ocean. It will also improve food security for the billions of people who depend on it and provide a safe haven for endangered ocean organisms such as whales, seabirds, sharks and turtles. Moreover, the economic benefits of protecting 30% of the oceans are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
At this Ocean-Climate Ambition Summit, the Blue Leaders and other countries exchanged views on what absolutely must be included in the new treaty. It is vital to keep up this momentum and to set a clear direction now for the UN Biodiversity Conference later this year in Kunming, China, where the strategy will be outlined. The strategy will then also be discussed at COP26 in Glasgow.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea, Vincent Van Quickenborne: "One of the first things I did as Minister for the North Sea was to reaffirm Belgium's role as Blue Leader and assure our partners that Belgium's commitment is stronger than ever. Later this week, I will officially ask US climate envoy John Kerry if the United States will join the Blue Leaders. We must act together now to preserve our precious oceans and their ecosystems for our children and our children's children. To achieve our goal, we need a strong new international treaty. That treaty, together with the 30x30 goal, will be a major step forward in protecting our oceans and the people who depend on them. And this year we have the opportunity to take those steps."