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The ocean, the Earth and the university Sustainable ocean stewardship within the global commons framework

October 4, 2021

A roundtable discussion among U.N. ocean representatives and UTokyo leadership

The ocean, the Earth and the university

Sustainable ocean stewardship within the global commons framework

This autumn is packed with a string of major United Nations conferences related to sustainability and the future of our planet, including the Food Systems Summit in September, the COP15 biodiversity conference in October, and the COP26 climate summit in November. In 2021, the U.N. also kicked off its Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Against this backdrop, University of Tokyo Executive Vice President and Center for Global Commons Director Naoko Ishii called together a roundtable discussion to address the question of how humanity can sustainably manage the ocean, with the fate of the Earth hanging in the balance.

Joining the discussion, for publication in the September 2021 issue of the university magazine Tansei featuring the ocean, were: Peter Thomson , the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean, and Vladimir Ryabinin, executive secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. UTokyo President Teruo Fujii, whose research relates to the ocean, also participated in the opening part of the session, which was held online on July 19, 2021. Below are excerpts edited for publication.

Peter Thomson, U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean (top left)
Vladimir Ryabinin, executive secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (bottom left)
UTokyo President Teruo Fujii (top right)
Naoko Ishii, UTokyo executive vice president and director of the Center for Global Commons (bottom right)

An inspiring, engaging ocean

  • Ishii: The ocean is the most important global commons we need to steward. UTokyo’s President Fujii is here to join us for the introductory part of today’s discussion. President Fujii, could you begin by telling us why you chose the ocean as the topic for the first issue of Tansei being published since you took office?
  • Fujii: I graduated from the Faculty of Engineering at UTokyo, majoring in naval architecture, and I’ve conducted research on underwater robots to investigate deep-sea environments. I became president in April, and we are now drafting a plan called UTokyo Compass, adopting an ocean motif for the name, to set out UTokyo’s direction during my term. Of the seven desired outcomes of the U.N. Ocean Decade, I find particularly appealing the goal of an inspiring and engaging ocean where society understands the ocean. I myself have been working to engage people and to encourage behavioral change to tackle climate change and to responsibly manage the global commons.
  • Thomson: We’re on the cusp of a huge change, equivalent to the time when we went from horsepower to motorcars. In this respect, in terms of utilizing the ocean, I am really hopeful we are going to shift to a sustainable blue economy encouraging better use of ocean resources, with nonfed aquaculture and seaweed production as big pillars. I believe Japan can take the lead in this area given it has nori (laver seaweed) and dashi (clear soup stock) food culture.
  • Fujii: You mean to change people’s awareness of harvesting from the sea? I would be keen on getting some ideas on how to promote that.
  • Ryabinin: An inspiring and engaging ocean that the president mentioned is something that starts from hardcore natural sciences, but ends in human values. A better understanding of what is happening in the ocean has a huge impact, not only in the ocean and technocratic domains, but also in the domains of fairness and honesty. Because we live in an imperfect world, if these values are emphasized, I believe we can avoid making dishonest decisions and science can help us to do that.
  • Fujii: The idea of engaging people by inspiring them is really important. I want to engage and be involved with many people through dialogue, and share our mutual understanding to establish trust. Based on that, we can take large-scale actions, like stewardship of the global commons.
  • Thomson: Dialogue and partnerships with the University of Tokyo are very important for countries and universities, especially those in the South Pacific, such as my home country, Fiji. I am looking forward to working with you.
  • Fujii: Absolutely. Thank you very much for your time. It was a great honor for me to join you today.

Sustainable ocean management

  • Ishii: Now, the first overall, overarching question I’d like to ask our two guests is: What can we do to address the huge challenge to sustainably manage the ocean?
  • Ryabinin: Competition is a human instinct, and we are now starting to destroy planet Earth because of it. The ocean from which we came shows us harmony. We can take a hint from this, and go against the competitiveness in our instinct to change our behavior.

    So, what do we need to know better to put ourselves on the safe track? This concerns not only the hardcore natural sciences and technical information sciences, but also the behavioral sciences. That is the way for putting the world on a sustainable path, and that is impossible without honesty, morality and more equity.
  • Thomson: Our species, Homo sapiens, has two properties that have got us here to where we are on the good side — innovation and sharing. Innovation has taken us from living in caves to the space station in a short period of time. And sharing is the foundation of community and society. I have hope in these two properties.
  • Ishii: After working for the Global Environment Facility, I joined UTokyo and became the inaugural director of its Center for Global Commons. Although we know how to protect the local commons of our local communities, we really don’t know how to safeguard the global commons when the objective becomes global like the ocean, biodiversity or the climate system. It requires new ways of governing or thinking. What should we do to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 stipulating that we conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources?

No healthy ocean, no healthy planet

  • Thomson: The starting point is, “No healthy planet without a healthy ocean.” The ocean’s health is demonstrably in decline and we have to turn that decline around if we want to have a healthy ocean. What we have to think about is the fact that 50% of the oxygen in Earth’s biosphere comes from the ocean. To illustrate this, look at corals.

    The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report says that 70-90% of coral reefs will be gone when the global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. If the rise gets to 2 degrees Celsius, the coral will be gone. Thirty percent of the ocean’s biodiversity comes from coral reefs, so you can’t have a healthy planet without coral. At the end of this century, when the rise in temperature approaches 3 degrees Celsius, our grandchildren’s generation will be living in a world without coral. This is why our work is so important.

    Today, global fish stocks are continuing to be overfished, and we are polluting the ocean not just with plastic, but with industrial waste and sewage systems. But the biggest impact comes from greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity, which are making the ocean warmer and causing it to acidify at the fastest rate in history.

    The good news is that people are now aware of this. It’s not something that can be fixed by our leaders waving their magic wand. Everybody should be committed to this, whether they are children collecting rubbish off a beach or somebody leading the charge on the U.N. Ocean Decade.
  • Ryabinin: The Ocean Decade is a movement to engage people in their own future, and we have set seven desired outcomes for the decade. The first outcome is to remove pollutants and recover the health of the ocean. We need to start from cleaning the ocean, then make it healthy and resilient, and furthermore to think of ways to utilize it. The amount of work that needs to be done is overwhelming, but it is possible and we are moving toward it.
  • Ishii: I would also like to ask about the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, in which 14 countries, including Japan, are participating. The virtue of the panel is that it incorporates the three key elements of people, prosperity and protection. But where exactly are we in terms of progress, and what do you think about Japan’s role?
  • Thomson: I believe my dictum of science, planning and finance are important to implementing a sustainable ocean plan. The key thing is financing the plan. The heads of state of the 14 countries have made a commitment to make EEZs (exclusive economic zones) subject to their country’s sustainable ocean plans by 2025. That is important because we have shown that management is the best way of conservation. You can’t manage something that you don’t have a proper plan for. When I talk about the sustainable blue economy, ocean wind platforms and sustainable aquaculture in developing countries, people say they will do it if they have the money.

    And you need a decent plan based on science before anybody invests in it. My mission at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is to try and move the climate finance needle in the direction of the blue economy.

Ocean solutions

  • Ryabinin: The best-known plans for managing the ocean are maritime spatial planning. They are schemes to combine the activities of diverse types of ocean users in fields such as tourism, fisheries and port transport. If we can mainstream carbon emission reduction into maritime spatial plans, and find balance between biodiversity conservation and wealth generation, we can address the critical problems of the climate and species extinction. The ocean provides us more solutions than we think. The first step has been taken but the solutions need to be developed further. All people should know that the ocean is important.

    Now, what is Japan’s role? Japan is one of the few countries where kindness, modesty and honesty are valued in raising children. These are the qualities the world needs in all aspects of life. And Japan is a country that has paired those values with scientific development. I believe the morality, education and culture of Japan, a country surrounded by the ocean, will make a huge contribution.
  • Thomson: My plea to Japan is to speak up on ocean issues. It’s crucial for important countries like Japan to make a clear statement at COP26 and the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.
  • Ryabinin: I think we’re getting back on the right track. We have been heading fast toward a cliff. But human nature is to stop right before reaching the edge. This is where we are now. More people should understand that the end of the cliff is near. I believe humans are capable of doing that.
  • Thomson: I would be happy if everyone at the University of Tokyo could do more research on the blue economy. It will give us all the power we need. If the ice sheet melts in Greenland, the sea level goes up in the South Pacific. There is only one ocean. It is the responsibility of our generation to provide solutions to the ocean problem. We can’t leave it for our children and grandchildren to suffer the bitter consequences.

    It is important what U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned about the war we have been waging against nature, in his speech at Columbia University in the U.S. half a year ago. He chose the university to make that speech because we in multilateral government value the role universities play in all of this. He said it’s time for us to stop the war on nature and it’s time to make peace. All the efforts we are making are about this peace process with nature.
  • Ishii: UTokyo would like to be a part of this journey of the peace process.


© Anton Balazh / Adobe stock


* This article was originally printed in Tansei 43 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of September 2021.

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