University of Tokyo: The significance of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science

The year 2021 marks the first year of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science (UNDOS). This is a plan for the world to concentrate on promoting ocean science in order to solve various problems by 2030. Professor Yutaka Michida, who served as vice chairperson of the UNESCO commission spearheading the plan, outlines the significance of an initiative that will influence humanity’s future.

On December 31, 2020, the 75th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations took note of the Implementation Plan of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021–2030 (hereinafter, “U.N. Decade of Ocean Science”)1 in a comprehensive resolution on the world’s oceans. As the first year of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science, 2021 marks the beginning of a special international effort to achieve a variety of ocean-related goals, including the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – most notably SDG 14 (“Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”).

For us humans, the Earth is irreplaceable. It is the planet teeming with abundant life. It is the planet defined by its oceans. In this sense, the oceans are arguably nothing less than the “global commons” itself. Though the oceans are the basis of survival for all living things on Earth, including human beings, they now face many crises caused by human activity. These include not only global warming and other forms of climate change, but also pollution like that caused by marine plastics – which is rapidly becoming an issue of international importance – and concerns about the sustainability of marine resources.

However, many details about the actual conditions of the ocean and their fluctuations are still unclear. Because of the physical characteristics of seawater, which resists the passage of electromagnetic waves, it is difficult to grasp the state of the oceans with any accuracy, which makes future predictions even more difficult. For this reason, an international consensus has taken shape around the idea that there remain serious difficulties in achieving the SDGs concerning the ocean by efforts along conventional lines.

At the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC)2, which is positioned within the U.N. as a specialized organization concerned with oceanography, discussions took place regarding measures to be taken in light of this understanding of the issues. These discussions became the proposal of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science to the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations, resulting in the proclamation of this Decade at the same General Assembly.

The U.N. Decade of Ocean Science has set seven societal outcomes directly tied to the SDGs, and has adopted a stance that aims to solve the challenges we are facing via the strong promotion of ocean science. All of these societal outcomes are weighty and significant challenges, so cross-disciplinary initiatives will be essential. Together with the need for academic research across a broad array of disciplines, collaboration with governments, private companies and the public will also be indispensable. Active involvement in the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science was included as part of the Third Basic Plan on Ocean Policy adopted by the Japanese Cabinet Office (May 2018), and Japan has been making a significant contribution to it from the initial planning stages.

Other systems have also now been put in place. In addition to the positioning of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science as an important issue at the December 2020 High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, further developments include the establishment of the Japan National Committee for the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science3 in February 2021 for the purpose of providing an overview of the wide range of related activities in Japan. At the University of Tokyo, as well, the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute has proposed projects related to the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science, and is now at the point of beginning to implement these full-scale efforts.

Japan bills itself as a “maritime nation,” and is actually engaged in many high-level ocean-related activities in an incredibly wide range of fields. While all of these efforts will be able to contribute to the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science in some form or other, the Decade is also an excellent opportunity for Japan to develop a “comprehensive ocean policy” in the truest sense. By looking beyond Japan’s own interests and striving together internationally to solve societal problems based in ocean science, we can expect that this will lead to the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean as a whole.