“Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, also referred to as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was adopted in 2015. It comprises a set of 17 ambitious, interconnected goals with 169 specific targets and provides a framework for all countries to get on a track to sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – by 2030. UN member states are expected to use the goals to set their national agendas and policies.

One of the goals, SDG Goal 14 “Life Below Water”, focuses on the oceans and coasts and calls on nations to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” While SDG 14 is the only goal solely focused on ocean issues, numerous other goals — including eliminating poverty and hunger (SDGs 1 and 2), ensuring decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), and combatting climate change and its impacts (SDG 13) — also depend on or influence ocean health.

Under SDG 14 are ten specific targets, including reducing marine pollution (Target 14.1), minimizing and addressing the impacts of ocean acidification (Target 14.3), ending overfishing and destructive fishing practices (Target 14.4), conserving coastal and marine areas (Target 14.5), and providing access to small-scale artisanal fishers to resources and markets (Target 14.B).

EBM and MSP in the SDGs

Of particular relevance for EBM and MSP practitioners is the second target for SDG Goal 14:

“Target 14.2: By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans.”

The indicator for this target is the “proportion of national exclusive economic zones managed using ecosystem-based approaches.” Although the details of how this is to be measured and at what point the target is considered achieved are still being developed, the development of marine spatial plans with ecosystem approaches globally will likely contribute to achievement of Target 14.2 directly, and the SDGs as a whole indirectly.

Also of particular interest to ocean planners and managers: the concept of “Future Ocean Spatial Planning” (FOSP) has been suggested by the Council of Global Problem-Solving as a framework for implementing ocean-related SDG targets. FOSP is the idea of an MSP process extended to development scenarios at the global level with a focus on the future. FOSP would look at the ocean “as a finite resource with possibly conflicting future uses by different sectors, nations and regions.” It would examine current and future requirements of the oceans and coasts and identify current and future crisis hotspots and opportunities for development.

What’s next for the SDGs?

To track progress on achieving the SDGs, an interagency expert group under the UN Statistical Commission has agreed on an initial set of 230 global indicators – quantitative and qualitative – for the 169 SDG targets. The UN will prepare an annual report on progress achieved for all of the indicators, targets, and goals. Additional indicators will be developed and assessed at national and regional levels.

In addition, the oceans are now a focal point for UN efforts. The UN will be hosting a high-level meeting devoted to supporting SDG 14 implementation, informally known as the Oceans Conference, from June 5-9, 2017, in New York City. SDG 14 will also be one of the six goals reviewed in depth at the July 2017 UN high-level political forum on sustainable development.

Implementing the SDGs: Interview with legal expert Julien Rochette of IDDRI

To answer a range of more detailed questions about the SDGs and how they could be implemented, particularly SDG 14, MEAM interviewed Julien Rochette, a legal expert on marine and coastal issues and the director of the Oceans Agenda at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), who is tracking SDG implementation closely.

MEAM: Can you name some countries that are taking strong action on SDG 14? What are some examples of what they are doing?

Rochette: All countries are already developing actions for the implementation of the Oceans SDG because most of the ten targets are not new but a restatement of existing commitments adopted under different umbrellas and agreements. For instance, Target 14.1 on the prevention and reduction of marine pollution of all kinds draws from many international and regional agreements, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Target 14.4 on restoring fish stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield is inspired by the 2002 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. Target 14.5 on the conservation of at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas partly recalls the Aichi Target 11 adopted under the Convention on Biological Diversity. In this context, it is obvious that States have already developed instruments and activities aimed at addressing some of the SDG 14 targets. However, the adoption of the Agenda 2030, and the inclusion of a stand-alone SDG on oceans and coasts, rank the health of the marine environment among the most pressing development challenges and call the international community to step up the efforts. It includes ocean sustainability issues in a universal and indivisible agenda, and calls States to go beyond the traditional sectoral approach in the management of the ocean.

To that purpose, some States have established institutional arrangements aimed at coordinating the actions of the different sectoral agencies that have a mandate on the marine and coastal environment (e.g., fisheries, science, extractive activities) or can impact it (e.g., agriculture). For instance, the Swedish government appointed a special delegation for Sweden’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda, including SDG 14. Other States are currently reorganizing their national strategies on the marine environment in light of the Oceans SDG. In this regard, Germany just released a new strategy for sustainable development that is framed according to the 17 SDGs, including SDG 14. In a similar way but through a different approach, Madagascar organized a conference last January to present and discuss the country’s vision on ocean governance in light of the Oceans SDG. Discussions on the implementation challenges and opportunities of the Oceans SDG are on-going in many countries and take various forms.

We will have a more comprehensive view of the actions currently undertaken during the UN Ocean Conference to support the implementation of SDG 14, to be held on June 5-9, 2017, in New York. Co-chaired by Fiji and Sweden, this conference will be the opportunity for States and other stakeholders to discuss the implementation challenges of the Oceans SDG. A call for action and a list of voluntary commitments will be adopted during this event, which will give an initial view of the boost given by SDG 14 for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans.

MEAM: How would you characterize the relationship of these actions to the SDGs? For example, are these completely new actions taken in response to the development of the SDGs, previously planned actions that just happen to align with the SDGs, previously proposed actions given a boost by the development of the SDGs, or something else?

Rochette: As the SDG 14 related targets are well-known to the international community, the challenge is not so much to reinvent the wheel and develop completely new actions, but to redouble efforts and broaden collaboration between all interested stakeholders. In this regard, and it is difficult to generalize as the situation really differs from one State to another, the adoption of the SDG 14 has given a new impetus to the discussions on ocean sustainability. In the Western Indian Ocean for instance, countries met last year to discuss their respective strategies on the implementation of SDG 14 and share experiences and good practices. It was interesting to note, for example, that States were keen on responding to the integrated nature of the 2030 Agenda by establishing linkages between activities around SDG 14 and other commitments on food security (SDG 2), reducing inequalities (SDG 10), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), employment and growth (SDG 8), and climate action (SDG 13).

Some developed countries such as Germany have also developed strategies based on three levels of intervention: (i) implementing the Oceans SDG at the national level, i.e., undertaking domestic actions to implement the different targets; (ii) implementing the Oceans SDG by reducing the impacts abroad, e.g., by restricting imports to sustainable sources; and (iii) implementing the Oceans SDG through the international cooperation, via development aid for instance. This example illustrates that SDGs are a great opportunity to reframe national policies and embark on more sustainable pathways.

MEAM: Are there any mandatory actions associated with the SDGs, particularly SDG 14? 

Rochette: As previously mentioned, some SDG 14 related targets are a restatement of commitments adopted under different agreements, including legally-binding treaties. But the strength of SDGs is also political. The 2030 agenda is a collective project agreed by the international community to combine development and protection of the environment. States are therefore accountable to this commitment. Of course, there is no international judicial mechanism to enforce SDGs, and the tracking process is considered by many to be pretty light. However, civil society organizations are key players in the accountability of governments with respect to their commitments. In countries where they have acquired a political space, they provide analysis on the substantiation of measures undertaken and also apply pressure to those who go back on their promises. The ocean community includes many NGOs that are well-positioned to play this “watchdog” role.

MEAM: Might there be any negative repercussions, such as UN actions, for countries for not participating in the SDG progress (aside from not gaining the environmental and societal benefits of having made progress toward the goals)?

Rochette: It is clear that the tracking and enforcement mechanisms are not very restrictive. But standing apart from the SDG progress is certainly not a good idea in terms of access to public and private funding and support to capacity building, for instance. Moreover, the risk to be “named and shamed” is important, as all targets are complemented by associated indicators that must be reported on regularly.

MEAM: Are there any funds available or other “perks” for initiating new actions to address the SDGs, particularly SDG 14?

Rochette: In both the Agenda 2030 and during the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, multiple voluntary initiatives and commitments were announced. These announcements complement the commitments in the text and are expected to support their implementation. They were made by all actors – governments, international organizations, development banks, businesses, civil society, and the philanthropic community. Several initiatives also form new partnerships among different actors that join forces to achieve shared goals (e.g., the Sustainable Development Goals fund).

Moreover, the Agenda 2030 is supposed to inspire the international and bilateral donors in their financial strategies. Some donors, such as the German Development Agency, have already reorganized their funding mechanisms in order to align with SDG 14. Moreover, the role of the civil society should not be neglected. Some NGOs interested in marine issues have restructured their strategies and now make the implementation of the Oceans SDG a priority. This generates additional efforts and provides States very welcome support, especially in developing countries.

MEAM: Anything else you would like ocean planners and managers to know about the SDGs, particularly SDG 14?

Rochette: The implementation of SDG 14 and related targets is obviously first and foremost the responsibility of the national authorities. States must transpose these commitments into standards and policies, establish monitoring mechanisms, and provide regular reporting on actions undertaken.

In addition to this fundamental process conducted at the national level, intergovernmental organizations may contribute to supporting States in the implementation of their commitments. Neither fish stocks nor marine pollution are bound by national borders. Addressing SDG 14-related challenges therefore requires collective and coordinated actions by States to develop innovative approaches to ocean governance and solutions to shared problems. In this respect, recent developments in international environmental policy demonstrate the added value of a regional approach and the crucial role played by regional organizations.

In light of the transboundary nature of the marine environment, the implementation of the Oceans SDG will certainly fall short of the transformative ambition of the Agenda 2030 without an effective coordination at the regional level. It is therefore to be hoped that regional partnerships for the implementation of the Oceans SDG will soon be developed and strengthened. That could be an important outcome of the June Ocean Conference, and there are already good signals in this direction, for example, in the Pacific and Western Indian Ocean.

Editor’s note: Julien Rochette can be contacted at julien.rochette@iddri.org.

Editor’s picks for more SDG reading

By Sarah Carr, MEAM Editor

In preparing for this article, I read quite a bit about the SDGs, particularly SDG 14. The quantity of documents is quite voluminous, and the goal of this article was to get short, cohesive answers to key questions about the SDGs. If you wish to read further and stay abreast of SDG progress, sources of information I found particularly useful/interesting were:

For official UN information about SDG 14, I recommend: