The coastal French town of Brest was the venue of the One Ocean Summit. The Summit was hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron between February 9 and 11, 2022 in cooperation with the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank.[i] The Summit had a multi-stakeholder representation from 100 countries as well as 41 States[ii], who among them account for more than half of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world. The participants came out with the “Brest Commitments for the Oceans”[iii], which has looked into ways of addressing the impact of the environmental degradation in the ocean and means of tackling the same.
Significant of the Summit
This Summit takes forward the issues of addressing environmental concerns at sea and is in continuation of initiatives taken by the UN such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Paris Climate Accords of 2015. In this regard, this Summit has taken forward the SDG’s Goal 14 which aims to– “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. [iv] Additionally, this Summit should also be seen as a continuation of the One Planet Summit, again under the aegis of the UN and in association with the World Bank, which thus far has held four summit level interactions since 2017. The fourth edition of the One Planet Summit hosted by France in January 2021 had identified the ‘protection of terrestrial and marine ecosystems’[v] as one of the focus themes. The One Planet Summit had also formed the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People. HAC has thus far got a commitment from 84 states in its 30x30 target[vi] which aim at “protecting at least 30 percent of world’s land and ocean by 2030” so as to “halt the accelerating loss of species, and protect vital ecosystems that are the source of economic security”.[vii] At present only 15% of the world’s land and 7% of the ocean are protected.[viii]
The importance of the One Ocean Summit is not only limited to the larger environmental concerns that have come to dominate global climate discourse but also the overbearing influence of the maritime space in conserving the ecology and the environment of the planet. This is because two thirds of the ocean space or about 45% of the world’s surface lies beyond the jurisdiction of any nation and thus practically beyond any meaningful marine conservation initiatives. It is in this regard that the Summit has identified the need to conclude, by the end of this year, an effective global mechanism for the efficient management of the high seas in order to protect marine biodiversity. Resultantly, the Summit has acknowledged the importance of the “High Ambition Coalition on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction” (BBNJ), which in turn would expedite the work being undertaken by the “Intergovernmental Conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine BBNJ” base on the UN Resolution 72/249 of December 24, 2017.[ix]
Decoding the Brest Commitments for the Oceans
It was in the above-mentioned backdrop that the Summit came out with Brest Commitments for the Oceans that seem to be rather modest in optics but serious in intent. Instead of hyperbolic language, the Brest Commitments are specific, focused and actionable. This is because the Brest Commitments rely more on voluntary assurance from select players, who would not only identify plausible best practices in the said domain but would also set a precedent for other to emulate. The rationale behind such a cautious approach lies in the fact that One Ocean Summit is “aware that the position of the Oceans on the international political agenda is not currently commensurate with its role in climate, environmental and social balances or with the degree of threats to marine life”.[x]
The commitments that have been made in Brest can be categorised into two broad categories. The first are general commitments that would resonate across the world and would take considerable time to be realised, while the second are specific commitments that have a narrow focus. The specific commitments are voluntary commitments made by individual maritime stakeholders, be it state or non-state player, and thus these initiatives could be realised within a shorter span for time.
Over the horizon commitments
Three general commitments have been made. The first is a legal undertaking to negotiate an internationally binding instrument on the BBNJ by the end of the year. Negotiating the BBNJ on its own will be challenging as most states would like to assert some special rights or seek preferential treatment in the high seas citing special privileges that they would claim to have long enjoyed and especially in the waters beyond their immediate jurisdiction. The BBNJ could also run into rough weather as nations would try to advance their national interests in the maritime domain both within the scope and also going beyond UNCLOS.
If the evolution of the UNCLOS is to be taken as a yardstick, the Holy Grail that governs the maritime space, then it is to be noted that this Treaty is in its third version. The resurrection of this global treaty, as UNCLOS III in 1982, was by and large an exercise of accommodation and not an international mechanism of setting rigid norms. It is in this regard that the BBNJ would face its first obstacle, since, defining the limits of national jurisdiction, would evoke a hostile reception from some quarters. This is so, as some of the most contested maritime disputes in the world’s oceans are because of diverging interpretations of the limits of national jurisdiction of UNCLOS III. It is for this very reason that the contesting parties to existing maritime territorial disputes would be hard pressed in acknowledging the extremities of their respective EEZ.
The second challenge would be technical in nature, wherein UNESCO aims to map at least 80 % of the sea bed by 2030 as part of the Brest Commitments. The challenge that UNESCO would face with respect to its ambitious undertaking lies in the enormity of the exercise as only a fifth of the said space has been mapped to any standard.[xi] At present UNESCO has already undertaken considerable works under the aegis of Seabed 2030 Project that commenced its work in 2017. At the commencement of the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, only 6% of the seabed was mapped and the figures by Hydrography Day 2021 (June 21) stood at 20.6%.[xii] Given this situation, the aim of mapping at least 80% of the sea space would also involve crowd sourcing of data from various stakeholders in the maritime domain. Despite several challenges of undertaking such a task and the importance of the same cannot be overlooked. Project Seabed 2030, will not only be an exercise of mapping the physical contours of the oceans but will be the first step in enhancing the understanding of the maritime space “including ocean circulation, tides, and biological hotspots. It also provides key inputs for navigation, forecasting tsunamis, exploration for oil and gas projects, building offshore wind turbines, fishing resources, and for laying cables and pipelines”.[xiii]
The third general commitment is with respect to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that accounts for almost a fifth of global catches. The challenges with IUU fishing are not only limited to questions of sustainability or safety and working conditions for fishers but also other areas. The primary obstacle with respect to IUU fishing would be in acknowledging and implementing the existing norms in this regard. The secondary challenge would be in terms of garnering the necessary support not only from the fishing communities but in terms of the cost related to adopting new practices and also the necessary political commitments from littoral states. The IUU aspect of the One Ocean Summit would also have to factor in the existing challenges and disputes that already dot the global fisheries.
Brass-tacks of Brest Commitments
Addressing plastic pollution in the ocean was one of the specific commitments made at Brest. With over nine million tons of this waste ending up in the ocean,[xiv] the Summit had recognised the urgency for massive investment that is required for sanitation and waste processing infrastructure on all continents. To this end, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and European Investment Bank (EIB) along with the development banks of France, Germany, Italy and Spain have committed to double their financial contribution to €4 billion 2025 under the Clean Oceans Initiatives.
At Brest, some of the participants committed to ratify the 2012 Cape Town Agreement of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Port State Measures Agreement. Both these aim to address issues of IUU fishing by standardising both the construction and the operating fishing vessels. The IMO and FAO initiatives are also expected to ensure the safety of the fishing crew, while also preserving marine ecology.
From the non-governmental side, as many as 22 European ship owners have committed to the new Green Marine Europe wherein Europe entails tangible measures with respect to underwater noise, pollutant air emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, aquatic invasive species, residues, oily discharge and ship recycling.[xv] Additionally, all the littoral states of the Mediterranean Sea as well as the EU will be working towards making the Mediterranean Sea a low sulphur emissions zone by 2025. A commitment in this regard, would be over and above the norms that were introduced by IMO in January 2020. As a result of the IMO 2020 norms, there has been a reduction of sulphur content in the fuel oil that is used in ships and thus reduced sulphur oxide emissions from shipping by 70%.[xvi]
However, the new focus on sulphur fumes from shipping in the Mediterranean Sea has the potential to reduce this form of pollutant further across the oceans. Despite the fact that the Mediterranean Sea is one of the smaller water bodies of the world, covering about 1 % of the global ocean surface, this sea accounts for about a fifth of the global maritime traffic.[xvii] Given the nature of maritime traffic, the successful implementation of any initiative in the Mediterranean Sea will positively resonate across the world, which can further reduce the discharge of sulphur pollutants into the environment.
India and the One Ocean Summit
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi addressed the Summit on the second day along with other world leaders. The PM’s brief message highlighted the importance that India attaches to maritime space, especially marine resources, by pointing to the nation’s “Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI)”. IPOI as a global initiative was launched during the East Asia Summit in November 2019. Of the seven pillars identified in IPOI, Maritime Ecology and Maritime Resources are two thrust areas that are to act as a loadstone to advance existing regional cooperation architecture and mechanisms.[xviii]
The PM not only extended his support to BBNJ but also “hope for a legally binding international treaty”[xix] to be concluded by the end of 2022. However, the specific commitment that was made by India in the Summit was to eliminate single-use plastic, which is seen to be one of the many marine pollutants that seriously degrade the marine ecology. To this end, the PM has said that the Indian Navy would be dedicating about 100 ship days for cleansing the oceans from plastic debris.[xx] PM Modi also said that India was looking forward to launching a global initiative on ending the use of single-use plastic.
It is to be noted that India’s commitment to deploying its Navy on ecological operations are not out of context, as they are on similar lines to what the EU assured the participants in the Summit. The EU, too, had said that the Navies of its member states, while on overseas operational deployment, will also operate towards addressing the challenges of IUU Fishing.[xxi] Additionally, many navies have identified the importance of maintaining order at the sea to be an integral part of their operations that also includes preserving marine ecology and environment.
Implications of the One Ocean Summit
Though the number of participants to this summit was limited and with only a handful of Heads of Government/ States putting forth their national position on environmental issues at sea, there are multiple implications of this Summit. The Summit, at the outset, is part of the larger global discourse on ecology, environment and climate change. As such the question of the environment, given its complex nature and far reaching implications, will be a near continuous work in progress. Needless to say, the realisation of a clean planet and the efforts that is required would require exhaustive commitment from multiple stakeholders. At the same time national prerogatives of all nations too need to be factored in.
In this backdrop, it is noteworthy that the One Ocean Summit has given to itself the task of realising an international mechanism to administer the maritime space beyond the national jurisdiction. Thus any progress made on the question of BBNJ as well as the commitment to tackle IUU fishing will have a lasting imprint on maritime geopolitics. Principles of UNCLOS would not only be advanced by realising the importance of BBNJ and IUU, as highlighted at the One Ocean Summit, but also the legal framework on the laws of the seas would be firmed up.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan is a research fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views are personal.
[i] Prime Minister to participate in the high level segment of One Ocean Summit on February 11, 2022, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, February 10, 2022, http://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34839/Prime_Minister_to_participate_in_the_high_level_segment_of_One_Ocean_Summit_on_February_11_2022, accessed on February 11, 2022.
[ii] The 41 States that participated in the One Ocean Summit were: Barbados, Canada, China, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Iceland, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Namibia, Norway, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Seychelles, Spain, Tanzania, Tonga, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[iii] Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[iv] International Institute for Sustainable Development, Goal 14: Life Below Water, http://sdg.iisd.org/sdgs/goal-14-life-below-water/, accessed on February 15, 2022.
[v] Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations in New York, One Planet Summit, April 18, 2021,
https://onu.delegfrance.org/one-planet-summit, accessed on February 13, 2022.
[vi] Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[vii] High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, https://www.hacfornatureandpeople.org/home, accessed on February 16, 2022.
[viii] Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 24 December 2017, United Nations, December 24, 2017, https://www.hacfornatureandpeople.org/why-30x30, accessed on February 16, 2022.
[ix] Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 24 December 2017, United Nations, December 24, 2017, https://undocs.org/en/a/res/72/249, accessed on February 15, 2022.
[x] Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[xi] One Ocean Summit: UNESCO pledges to have at least 80% of the seabed mapped by 2030, UNESCO, February 10, 2022, https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/one-ocean-summit-unesco-pledges-have-least-80-seabed-mapped-2030, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[xii] Jonathan Amos, “Mapping quest edges past 20% of global ocean floor”, BBC, June 21, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57530394, accessed on February 15, 2022.
[xiii] Explained: Why scientists want to map the entire ocean floor, The Indian Express, June 25, 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/mapping-the-ocean-floor-6473482/, accessed on February 6, 2022.
[xiv] Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[xv] Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.
[xvi] IMO 2020 fuel oil sulphur limit - cleaner air, healthier planet, International Maritime Foundation, January 28, 2021, https://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/PressBriefings/pages/02-IMO-2020.aspx, accessed on February 16, 2022.
[xvii] Luca Sisto, “The impact of Covid-19 on maritime transport: economic and security issues”, European Challenges for cooperation in the Mediterranean after the global pandemic, EUNAVFOR MED IRINI- European Union Headquarter, November 2020, Page 19, https://www.lumsa.it/sites/default/files/UTENTI/u1004/IRINI-booklet-completo-bassa.pdf, accessed on February 16, 2022.
[xviii] Ministry of External Affairs Indo-Pacific Division Briefs, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, February, 7, 2022, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Indo_Feb_07_2020.pdf, accessed on February 17, 2022.
[xix] Remarks by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the One Ocean Summit, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, February 11, 2022, http://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/34857/Remarks_by_Prime_Minister_Shri_Narendra_Modi_at_the_One_Ocean_Summit, accessed on February 17, 2022.
[xx] Remarks by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the One Ocean Summit, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, February 11, 2022, http://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/34857/Remarks_by_Prime_Minister_Shri_Narendra_Modi_at_the_One_Ocean_Summit, accessed on February 17, 2022.
[xxi] Brest Commitments for the Oceans, Elysee, February 11, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/02/11/brest-commitments-for-the-oceans, accessed on February 14, 2022.