Friday, October 07, 2016

Virtual world vs. real world - What really counts?

Apparently, Antonio Guterres, the new UN Secretary General-Elect, has no Twitter account. The two accounts I could find under his name are unofficial, and opened only a few hours or days ago. One (with 27 tweets to date) may have been opened by friends or fans of his (with or without his knowledge), the other one (1 tweet) could have been created by anyone who had nothing better to do.
So, were the other candidates campaigning for the UNSG post via Twitter wasting their time? Obviously, the P5, the permanent members of the Security Council were not impressed.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


I posted this on my Facebook, on 11 March around midnight, a few hours before leaving Tokyo.

It is past midnight in Tokyo, and today the country will mark the 5th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, and of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe that struck Japan on 11 March 2011. 

As I was walking the street after a meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Tokyo yesterday morning and passed the Ministry of Energy, Trade and Industry (the famous METI), I spotted the anti-nuclear tent installed there and maintained by Japanese activists for 1643 days (if my calculator is correct, that's 4.5 years).

I stopped and chatted for a few minutes with the activists on shift.

This action alone is not going to resolve the issue it addresses (of course). 

But one thing you can say of anti-nuclear activists is that they are as persistent as Plutonium

And this is good.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Climate N Test

Photos: Courtesy Oceana 2011 (c)

News from  Moscow and St.Petersburg has it that the launch of the first Russian floating nuclear reactor in the Arctic is now approaching. 

Announcements have also now been made in Canada and China that these two countries also want to build and operate floating nuclear reactors, 

And now we know that the main reason to invest in this is to supply the energy needed to drill for oil and other minerals in the Arctic and other deep oceanic regions.

It would be good to know what the conventional nuclear industry thinks of this. We have all seen in the last two decades the nuclear industry putting itself forward as solution to climate change (notwithstanding unresolved issues of nuclear safety, radioactive waste management, non-proliferation, liability and other costs). But of course, using nuclear technology to extract oil from the deep ocean, including the Arctic, fatally undermines all nukes claims of climate-friendly credentials.

So, I think it'd be interesting to ask nuclear power plant operators like Electricité de France, Areva, Tepco (Japan, of Fukushima fame/shame), Electrabel,  Iberdrola, Endesa, or E.On (to only name a few), and nuclear technology suppliers like Siemens, Toshiba, MitsubishiSuez, or Bouygues (to only name a few, again) what they think of that floating reactors business; and to challenge them to say all with one voice: "we don't like that oil drilling and seabed mining business; the global climate system cannot afford Arctic oil drilling; it's a recipe for disaster; the risks are too high; we won't put our fingers in it; we ask our colleagues from the nuclear sector in Russia, Canada and China to drop it".

Paris, the centre of climate policy this year (and also to a large extent the nerve centre of the nuclear industry worldwide -- 80% of the electricity consumed in France comes from nuclear reactors) could be a good place to launch this Climate N Test.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The big deal

  Night-long BBNJ negotiation  last week-end - (C)  IISD/ENB Dan Birchall

I was in New York last week at the meeting of the UN Working Group on Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, known to Ocean policy nerds (such as me) as the "BBNJ", and which was open to all UN Member States. This group has been meeting for nearly a decade, since 2006, to discuss whether a supplementary agreement (known as an "implementing agreement" in legal jargon) to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be adopted to protect the high seas. The high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction, are the portion of the global ocean that lies beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of coastal States (generally beyond 200 nautical miles).  This may sound boring or complicated to laypersons, but you'll realize it's a very big deal when you know that the high seas represent 64% of the global ocean, less than 45% of our entire planet!

Humankind has been interacting with the high seas for a long time, but our impact has increased in recent times.

We've been sailing and shipping stuff across the high seas since time immemorial, but with the contemporary trends in economic globalization, ocean-based international trade has now grown at a scale that was unpredictable not long ago. Now, more than 90% of all the goods we purchase are moved about the planet by ships.

We've also used the high seas as a waste dumping ground until this practice was banned permanently in the early 1990s. However, pollutants from land-based activities have not abated, quite the reverse, which dramatically affect the high seas. While floating plastics are the most visible ones and the most in the public eye, micro-plastics (small particles of plastic) are the most pervasive, and have been found in every corner and crevice of the ocean, If that was not enough, there are also high concentrations in the ocean of pesticides and other organochlorine compounds, radioactive substances, and heavy metals.

We've been laying underwater cables since the middle of the 19th Century, first to send telegrams, then to make telephone calls and now to send data through the Internet. Those of you who are not at this time in mainland Europe (where I am as I type) are reading this blog after it swam under the ocean. 

We've also fished the high seas for some time. Until the 1950s most fish stocks were still in reasonably good shape (putting the commercial whaling episode aside -- whales are not fish). Things started to go wrong soon after with the decrease of fish resources in coastal waters, within EEZs, triggered by increased demand which lead to overfishing to meet that demand. Fishing fleets supported by rich government subsidies acquired the capacity to catch, package and freeze their prey in the high seas. That was the beginning of what some called the "cold rush" for fish in the high seas.  Environmentalists often quote a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which estimated that 80% of fish stocks had been fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or were recovering from depletion. Others dispute this figure, but the truth is that it would already be alarming even if it was the case for only 50% of fish stocks.

The most recent and still emerging chapters of human exploitation of the high seas concern mineral and genetic resources.

Mineral resources found on and under the seabed have been for the mining industry in the last decades a sort of Holy Grail which is now apparently starting to become technically feasible, but it's unclear whether seabed mining is another bubble. Both economic and environmental aspects remain untested with the potential damage and equity issues causing concern. According to UNCLOS, mineral seabed resources found on and under the seabed of the high seas are part of the common heritage of humankind, and their exploration and exploitation are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. In recent years, ISA has granted exploration licenses to a number of consortia, and - should exploitation begin - ISA is meant to equitably distribute any arising benefits. But equity concerns are not limited to the distribution of benefits; they also include the impact of mining on legitimate uses of the sea such as fishing or genuine scientific research.

Unlike mineral resources, the living resources found in the high seas' water column are not considered part of the common heritage of humankind under UNCLOS. Fishing in some high seas areas is regulated internationally by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) but they distribute quotas, not benefits to third parties. The ownership of marine genetic resources found in the deep ocean is subject to debate. Genes from the deepsea, especially the precious few that have been looked at so far,  are known to have important value for the medical and biotechnology sectors (hence for future human health). However, their exploitation (and even their existence) had not been envisaged when UNCLOS was drafted and negotiated in the 1970s and 80s. Developing countries (the so-called Group of 77 plus China) vehemently consider that marine genetic resources are part of the common heritage and they warn against what they consider biopiracy in the high seas. Hence it was agreed in 2011 that the sharing of the benefits resulting from the exploitation of deepsea genetic resources would be addressed, as part of a package of issues that would be taken into consideration if/when negotiation of a high seas legal instrument would take place.

The Nagoya Protocol, a recent supplementary agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is meant to guard against biopiracy, but it does not apply to high seas resources. The principle of access and benefit sharing enshrined in UNCLOS (for mineral resources) and in the CBD (for genetic resources within national jurisdiction) is what's behind the US pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporate lobby's aggressive campaign  which to date has prevented the US Congress from ratifying both treaties. By the same token, it's the explanation of  the US' long standing opposition, until early hours of Saturday morning (24th January), to the proposed High Seas Implementing Agreement.

After dragging their feet for nearly a decade, UN member States reached consensus at the eleventh hour and negotiations will begin in earnest next year. Other elements of the 2011 package include rules to designate and manage marine protected areas in the high seas [to date, only 1% of the world's ocean is fully protected], a mechanism to conduct environmental impact assessments in the high seas like on the rest of the planet, and provisions for capacity building and information exchange, A study commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission last year has shown that life in the high seas is providing irreplaceable "ecosystem services", including mitigating human-induced climate change by taking up 500 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon per year. That alone makes high seas protection a big deal.

The high seas are often described as the Far Wild Wet or a lawless zone. Frankly, it's a bit of an exaggeration, because certain activities in the high seas are regulated internationally, such as shipping by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) or fishing by RFMOs in certain areas of the high seas (but enforcement of fisheries regulations remains weak, particularly in the high seas). The problem with high seas governance, outlined in the recent report of the Global Ocean Commission, is a mixture of gaps and fragmentation (both geographic and sector-wise). This is what the Implementing Agreement is meant to address and resolve.

UNCLOS is often described as the Constitution of the Ocean, and there is no doubt that it represents a milestone in international governance. But it was adopted in 1982 after a decade-long negotiation, and it entered into force in 1994. The political, social and economic contexts and the environmental landscape have changed immensely since that time, and in ways that no one could have predicted. Concepts like biodiversity, sustainable development, the ecosystem approach were in their infancy, let alone our understanding of climate change. The upcoming negotiation of the High Seas Implementing Agreement is the opportunity to bring UNCLOS into the 21st Century. A big deal!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Arrgh! As I was preparing a new post (soon to come), and I was disrupted by a domestic affair, and inadvertently wiped out my "Good Mourning" piece about Charlie from earlier this month. Merde!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seal pup on the sand

When I decided to spend a few days this month in Samos, the Greek island in the Agean Sea closest to the coast of Turkey, I knew that it was one of the very last Mediterranean monk seal breeding grounds, but I was not expecting to see any.

I knew a few basic things about the Mediterranean monk seal: it is one of the most threatened marine and European mammals; there are only about 50 of them left in the Agean Sea (and there are very few left in the rest of the Mediterranean); and they stay away from humans, spend their days in underwater caves and go out for fish only at sunset. So, to expect a seal sighting in Samos was like planning a holiday in the Pyrenees and expect to encounter a bear, or to go to a fiesta in Andalucia and hope to run into a lynx. The odds were so slim, it was not even within my plans.

I had been marginally associated in the late 1970s in advocacy to protect the Mediterranean monk seals, but to say the truth, nearly fourty years later when we arrived in Samos by boat a week ago, I was not even quite sure whether decades of conservation efforts had borne fruit and whether there were any seals left in Samos.

So, when a local gave me a tip and told me that a seal pup had been sighted and reported as staying for several months not far from where I was staying, my mind was blown away. Although the explanation was vague, I decided to try and check it out for myself.

After getting lost a bit on the road, I made it and ran into the seal pup. Under the protection of Paulos Teka, a volunteer from Finland who works for the Archipielago Institute of Marine Conservation, a Greek NGO that works for biodiversity and ocean protection in the Greek islands, the orphan female seal pup has been spending most of her days on the same small beach since the month of March. Her behaviour is almost unheard of. What's most likely to have happened, Paulos explained, is that the calf's mother got caught as by-catch in a fishnet, and maybe it's a miracle the seal pup survived. So far.
With Paulos Teka (seal pup on the bottom right)

The future of the seal pup is uncertain. At first sight, one can see that she may be developing a skin desease (sunburns?). An Israeli vet has been able to examin her hearing functions, Paulos told me. But little can be done because the priority is to prevent interference from humans. So, during the summer months Paulos and his colleagues have fenced part of the beach area and, under a beach umbrella, their job is to maintain tourists at a distance.

Paulos confirms that normally Monk seals stay away and hide from humans. But now the Archipielago Institute is concerned that the pup is becoming used to the presence of humans. She even seems to look for it, and that can be a problem when (if) she grows up. Tourists brought by cruise liners take the sun and swim, most of them not knowing that it is a unique nature wonder they have alongside. "It's better this way", says Paulos, "we don't want the seal to become a sightseeing spot". Of course, and that's why I'm not giving details on where the pup is to be found.

Click here to support and donate to the Archipielgo Institute of marine Science.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

One ocean

Today is June 8 - World Oceans Day on the United Nations calendar. A perfect day to revive my blog which I've kept sleeping for eight months.

My message to the UN on this day is "change the name". Today should be called World Ocean Day, not oceans. The ocean supplies the oxygen in every second breath we take; billions of us rely on it for food, fresh water, energy, medicine, transport and trade; it covers 70% of the Earth's surface and supports all life on Earth. If we want people to protect it and use it wisely, we've got to stop managing the ocean on a sectoral basis and modernize ocean governance to meet contemporary and emerging challenges. And this won't happen if we do not look at the ocean as one single interconnected system.

The main reason why I've been very lazy with my blog in the last eighteen months, and completely silent for eight months has been my current responsibility as Deputy Executive Secretary of the Global Ocean Commission. In that capacity, I had to write extensively with incredibly tight deadlines, first taking the lead to prepare the Commission's Policy Options Papers and other documents, and since the month of March preparing the Commission report which will be made public in New York on 24 June. So much to do, I completely ran out of steam for the blog. On Friday we were able to put the report to rest, which goes tomorrow to the printer and translators.

The adjective "global" in Global Ocean Commission does not only refer to the widespread geographical representation of the commissioners. A key message we're trying to convey is that there's only one "global ocean".

If you think that talking of  "one ocean" will cost you a bit at the beginning, a very practical thing you can do is update your spell check programme, so that it automatically removes the s in the ocean.