UN Ocean Conference: the CNRS and the challenge of sustainable oceans


France hosted the One Ocean Summit earlier this year, and researchers and actors focusing on oceans are now meeting at the United Nations Ocean Conference. The event will be held in Lisbon from 27 June to 1 July, and will welcome a large CNRS delegation, with multiple missions.

The United Nations adopted seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with goal 14 involving the conservation of ocean life. SDG 14 is at the heart of the UN Ocean Conference, co-organized by Portugal and Kenya in Lisbon from 27 June to 1 July. It follows on a first conference held in New York in 2017, and is part of the "decade of action to achieve the sustainable development goals," launched by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

"Major actors connected to the ocean will meet in Lisbon to conduct a progress review in attaining SDG 14 targets, and will exchange regarding on-going and future actions," explains Joachim Claudet, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Island Research and Environmental Observatory (Criobe).1  "We hope to see states commit to new measures for the oceans on this occasion."

SDG 14 is divided into a number of clearly identified targets, such as preventing the acidification of oceans, banning subsidies for non-sustainable or illegal fishing, developing marine protected areas, and sharing technology and scientific knowledge with all countries. "Each day of the conference will be devoted to one of the SDG 14 targets," Claudet adds. "The CNRS will lead or contribute to different events throughout the week, with international actions matching up with one another." An "off" programme will supplement these activities, with topics such as ocean pollution from plastics, or the carbon footprint of container ships.

The CNRS will be accompanied in Lisbon by a number of other French research organizations, such as IFREMER and the IRD, along with various NGOs. Representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Ecological Transition, and the Secretariat General for the Sea will also be present. This broad range of speakers reflects the fact that the UN Ocean Conference goes beyond exclusively scientific subjects.

"In Lisbon, a large part of the discussions will revolve around business, the blue economy, and biotechnology," points out Françoise Gaill, a scientific advisor at the CNRS's Institute of Ecology and Environment. “In what way are oceans a new source of wealth, such as mining or genetic wealth? Geostrategic issues will also be discussed, with respect to the various treaties managed by UN governing bodies: maritime transport, the seabed, food resources, etc." The High level panel for a sustainable ocean economy, or Ocean Panel for short, will be central to these questions.

The CNRS delegation, headed by CNRS Chief Research Officer Alain Schuhl, will also lead the International Project for a Sustainable Ocean (IPOS). Drawing inspiration for the success of the IPCC and IPES, this platform dedicated to the evolution of the ocean seeks to use scientific knowledge to model its behaviour, as well as to identify actions to secure a sustainable ocean. The concept will be presented in greater detail in an article published by the group in Nature.

"The reactions of the aquatic environment to climate change are much slower than those on land, it is therefore important to be concerned about long-term consequences starting now," Gaill insists. "We are a core group of fifty scientists from various disciplines, with the involvement of international civil society entities as well. Our publication on IPOS will lead to a reinforced dynamic, but the Lisbon conference will also be a fine opportunity to discuss and envision the future with other international entities."

The CNRS Chief Research Officer will open a session focusing on IPOS, in the presence of multiple authors of the seminal article. As the co-construction of knowledge is a major area of focus for IPOS, representatives from small island states will also be invited, along with various networks led by youth and international NGOs.  The evolution of academic research on oceans is one aspect that could benefit from the CNRS's interdisciplinary approach, which was implemented as part of the GDR OMER.

Fabrizio D'Ortenzio, from the Villefranche Oceanography Laboratory (LOV),2 will take part in the day devoted to his specialty, ocean observation.

"Ocean observation is essential, for only the massive gathering and analysis of data can inform us about how they function," he explains. "This is incidentally one of the targets of SDG 14. Since the sea is a difficult environment to access, countries and research communities will try to coordinate in Lisbon, in an effort to combine their efforts and maximize results."

This need for data is also crucial for developing a digital twin of the ocean. Much more detailed than traditional simulations, these digital twins aim to serve as a representation of reality, for example by taking into account the real-time circulation of ships, or the position of schools of fish. Making them operational would be a scientific feat, and would offer a powerful tool for ocean research.

"To achieve these digital twins, we need observation systems that are equal to the task," D'Ortenzio stresses. "One of the issues is that all countries do not have access to the technology required, and data is not always shared between all countries. Certain diplomatic aspects must also be addressed, such as facilitating the passage of foreign research ships in another country's waters. The Lisbon conference is the right place to have these discussions."

The UN Ocean Conference will provide an opportunity in advance of Mercator Ocean International (MOI). This European undertaking, which was initiated in France and specializes in ocean modelling, has received the agreement of the governments involved to transform into an intergovernmental organization. This process was initiated during the One Ocean Summit in Brest, which was held in February as part of an initiative driven by the French presidency of the European Union. MOI aims to become the European operator of reference for the digital twins of the ocean, with the goal of playing a role globally.

"Mercator Ocean International represents an incredible success of the French and European scientific community," affirms D'Ortenzio. "The CNRS made major contributions to this success, especially with the involvement of numerous scientific specialists in ocean modelling, but also thanks to the observations regularly and systematically gathered by CNRS teams. The relation between Mercator Ocean International and CNRS research is an invaluable tool that must be preserved for the future."

These points, which are not exhaustive, show the wealth of the UN Ocean Conference programme, one that underscores the importance of the challenges ahead for the emergence of sustainable oceans.

  • 1CNRS/EPHE/Université de Perpignan Via Domitia.
  • 2CNRS/Sorbonne Université.