Hari Vishnu, Chief Editor, OES Earthzine magazine, Venugopalan Pallayil, Vice-President of Technical activities at OEES, Christopher Whitt, President, IEEE OES
The global ocean covers 71% of Earth’s surface. 38% of people live within 100 km of it, and it provides 17% of food protein and supports 12% of human livelihoods. It has been a key element of development of all life on Earth. Understanding the ocean holds the key to solving many problems facing mankind such as food shortage, social development, poverty, climate change and energy security. Recognizing the urgent need for humanity to improve its understanding of the ocean, the United Nations has proclaimed 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which we all now know as the Ocean Decade.
In relation to this, the UN Ocean conference (UNOC) was organized in Lisbon from 27 June to 1 July, 2022 (https://www.un.org/en/conferences/ocean2022). It was co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal, and came at a critical time as the world is seeking to address many of the deep-rooted problems of our societies laid bare by the COVID pandemic and which will require major structural transformations and solutions anchored in the sustainable development goals. The UNOC sought to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action.
Three volunteers from IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) had the honor of representing IEEE at this conference. In response to the launch of the Decade, OES has started an Ocean Decade Initiative to synergize its participation in the movement. One of its aims is ‘bringing engineering to the Decade’ – to highlight the importance of engineering in creating transformative and impactful solutions to the Decade objectives. OES participation in this conference was part of this initiative. While the Ocean Decade states a focus on science for sustainable development, it is engineering guided by science that will ultimately build the capabilities for fostering a sustainable ocean. In response to this need, IEEE OES is well-placed to bridge IEEE, the world’s largest professional society of engineers with this global movement. Events like the UN Ocean Conference provide an avenue for engagement and identifying like-minded individuals and organizations with whom IEEE and OES can partner with to generate impactful outcomes.
The opening high-level plenary session of the UNOC saw attendance from many world leaders, marking the importance of the landmark event in addressing humanity’s relationship with the ocean. It was opened by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called on world leaders, the private sector and civil society to take bold climate action to save our ocean and our shared future. The Cabinet Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry for Environment & Forestry, Tobiko Keriako, stated that we are all in agreement that we cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Marcelo Rebelo De Sousa, President of Portugal, said that his country, together with Kenya, wanted to “make the conference a sign of peace, both with nature and among people, a symbol of multilateralism in the face of alluring unilateralism and a moment for mobilization and not contemplation”.
The conference also saw heavy media coverage, and engagement with celebrities, whose presence improved the public appeal and outreach element to the conference, and furthered its visibility to all sections of society. In the build-up to the conference, world-renowned surfer Maya Gabeira was designated as the UNESCO Champion for the Ocean and Youth, to spread the message of the ocean via her activities. Apart from scientists, academics and various industry representatives, there was also significant participation from diverse fields such as fashion designers, sports personalities, artists, philanthropists, and policy-makers.
In addition to the plenaries and side events, the conference also hosted ‘Interactive dialogues,’ – where eminent scientists, technologists and policy-makers spoke in a forum of high-level representatives from countries around the world. Participation was allowed in a select number of Interactive dialogues, and OES had the honour of participating in one on “Increasing scientific knowledge and developing research capacity and transfer of marine technology.“ The panel included, amongst others, Vladimir Ryabinin (executive secretary of the Intergovernmental oceanographic commission), Margaret Leinen (Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Jane Lubchenco (Dep. Director for Climate/Env at US Whitehouse). Lubchenco emphasized that during this decade, we need to change the script on the relationship between mankind and the ocean. “We used to first think of the ocean as too big to fail, and then, as being too big to fix. But now, we must see it as too important to ignore.” Inspiring words indeed.
Vladimir Ryabinin highlighted the worrisome fact that, with respect to ocean science and technology, we under-observe, under-research, and under-coordinate what we are doing. The ocean covers 70% of Earth’s surface, but gets only about 1.7% of global spending in terms of research and development. He emphasized that the Ocean Decade implementation plan, that has been developed in the first year, discusses on energizing the science to break this barrier by focusing research on infrastructural developments in ocean science. Capacity building is an important part of ocean science study as well. He outlined that we are now in the second year of the Decade, and what we (the Decade) had created so far was the approach towards energizing science. The Decade has 43 endorsed programmes, and is the largest undertaking in ocean science ever.
Early-Career Professional and public engagement:
One of the thrusts in the Decade is on enabling and uplifting Young Professionals (YPs) in the ocean sciences/engineering domain (referred to as Early Career Ocean professionals, or ECOPs) so that they can take up this movement in coming years, and are able to sustain it beyond the span of these ten years. As part of this, the OES YPs have also been involved in activities that contribute to the decadal aims of awareness and education by participating in various student outreach activities around the world.
The Ocean Decade also has a specific endorsed programme geared towards ECOP development and coordinating networks around the world. This programme also had a presence at the conference, and OES had many opportunities throughout the conference to have productive conversations with their representatives, especially the ECOP-Asia node. Thanks to the effective use of social media tools and efforts from the ECOP program to coordinate the communication, the ECOPs at the conference were very connected and unified. The ECOP program organized an ECOP Networking walk (Netwalk) to promote conversations amongst the attending ECOPs, which was a great experience – the group walked around the conference venue and past the iconic Miradouro da Ponte Vasco da Gama. The ECOP program has shown a keen interest to get OES onboard in training programs for ECOPs around the world. This fits in well with our vision of being a leader in promoting engineering and its importance during the Decade. It is a great opportunity for OES to engage and inspire the next generation of students to take up engineering and technology in the ocean sector. The ECOP program is also keen to collaborate with our existing ECOP outreach activities such as underwater robotics competitions and technology committee webinars.
In tandem with the conference, there were also exciting art exhibits organized in other parts of Lisbon city sponsored by the Oceano Azul foundation, highlighting the importance of the ocean to the public. It caught quite a bit of public attention as it was parked in the heart of the city at Rossio square, and the message was conveyed through attractive photos. This is very important because it plays to one of the key aims of the Decade – to get the common person involved in caring for the ocean. The exhibit photos can be accessed here: https://www.theoceanagency.org/exhibition
Two examples of the art exhibits at Rossio square, (a) by designer Herri Susanto (original available here) highlighting the importance of the ocean to the public. Clearly, the ocean affects not only those who live near it in coastal areas, but even those in off cities and towns who live far off from it. The impact of the ocean on human livelihood and climate is felt on all parts of Earth. (b) by designer Sean C. (available here). There is a lot to explore in the depths of the ocean, as much as there is beyond the limit of our skies.
One of the most useful outcomes from this conference was that it gave us many opportunities to network with other groups with similar interests, which included academics, industry and philanthropic organizations. We re-energized our communication with the Schmidt Ocean Institute (a philanthropic organization active in ocean exploration) who have been supporting us in our ocean technology endeavors by involving in our conferences and symposia. We also created valuable contacts to initialize our idea of theme-focused panel discussions and workshops (called Future Ocean endeavor). One recent successful outcome from this was born out of our talks with experts working in carbon-dioxide removal – a potentially disruptive technology in nascent stages, that may be one of the keys to how humanity battles the climate crisis. As a result of this, the Ocean Decade initiative also supported organizing a successful panel discussion on carbon-dioxide removal at the recent OCEANS 2022 conference in Hampton Roads, by Ocean Visions. Such discussions will be paramount in taking the conversation forward on how to tackle this technological barrier, and in creating awareness of it. A future Beacon report will cover this panel.
Ocean Decade Forum
A collective forum organized on the penultimate day of the conference gave a good round-up of several Decade-endorsed actions, programmes and activities around the world. The forum followed a rotating panel format, where the panel was rotated every 1 hour, focusing on each of the 7 “desired outcomes” of the Decade. At the forum, The Ocean Foundation announced that they were making available resources for promoting 3 Cs – Codesign, Capacity development and Communication. The Schmidt Ocean Institute announced a partnership with National Geographic to promote diversity and equity in ocean exploration with specific focus on ECOPs, including via funded shipboard time opportunities. Another philanthropic organization, RevOcean, also announced that they were making available shipboard opportunities for deserving ECOPs.
As part of this, a call to action to protect the ocean was announced by The Ocean Decade alliance – a high-level network of eminent partners of the Decade that aim to lead by example to catalyze support for the Decade through targeted resource mobilization, networking, and influence. The call drew attention to the significant threats the ocean is facing, including climate change, unsustainable exploitation of marine resources, pollution and uncoordinated development of the ocean and coastal zone. It recognized the importance of investing in relevant and solutions-oriented science as the basis for action to restore the health of the ocean (see full proclamation in Figure below).
A call to action announced by the Ocean Decade alliance, accessible here
One of the most exciting developments revealed during the conference was the progress made by the Seabed 2030 program in mapping the depths of the world’s ocean. Mapping the ocean forms one of the many crucial parts required for us to map this important sphere of Earth. Until 2015, only 5% of the ocean was mapped to modern standards. By 2020, that number had more than quadrupled to 21%, through the efforts of the program and its partners including GEBCO and The Nippon Foundation. At UNOC 2022, Seabed 2030 announced that the percentage of seabed floor mapped had increased to 23.4%, which is a big step forward in this endeavor.
Marine data interoperability
We had a useful discussion with a set of experts who have been promoting marine data sharing and interoperability standards, as well as the promotion and adoption of best practices in ocean sciences (these discussions and takeaways from a related panel session will be presented in a separate report by us). Given that data has turned into one of humanity’s most valuable assets during the ongoing information age (as of 2017, data surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable resource), and with the expectation that the accelerated ocean exploration this Decade will yield an explosion of data from different quarters, ensuring this data is interoperable and/or standardized is as important as ensuring it is accessible (desired outcome #6 of the Decade). The community discussion stressed that no real change in the status quo on ocean data can be made without the digitization, sharing, and management of data, information, and digital knowledge of the ocean. A first step forward in data sharing and interoperability is finding who are the different stakeholders holding the data, so that they can be convinced to join sharing networks. The process of searching for this data also needs to be simplified, so that it becomes more accessible. The discussion agreed that eventually, data-sharing is a practical need for all ocean stakeholders.
This is one sector where IEEE can make a great impact during the Decade – for example, we could be a potent contributor through the framework provided by IEEE Standards and synergize it with the needs to pursue standards in ocean data, observing and exploration. We have a large network of experts spanning different fields, geographic regions and stages of career, who could contribute towards developing these standards. We could also use our multiple IEEE conferences as avenues to hold important discussions required to form multi-stakeholder consensus for building these standards.
The UNOC was also a great avenue for IEEE and OES to give visibility to our ongoing and planned efforts and contributions to the Decade. We stressed the role of IEEE and OES in promoting the role of engineering in the Decade objectives, and shared many of our ongoing and planned activities undertaken by chapters, technology committees and special interest communities. Our science communication magazine of IEEE OES, Earthzine, and society magazine Beacon regularly publish special thematic articles on the Decade and its impact on humanity, thus catering to our aim of educating the masses about this movement. Earthzine is predominantly run by the OES YPs, thus bringing them to the forefront of this movement. Several OES-sponsored conferences and workshops in 2022 have been endorsed by the Ocean Decade, namely OCEANS 2022 conference in Chennai, AUV Symposium, SAUVC and OCEANS 2022 conference, Hampton Roads, which is a great source of pride for IEEE. OES also participates in several Decade-endorsed programs including Ocean Best practices group, Coastpredict, ECOPs-Asia, and the Technology and Innovation working group. OES is also giving thrust to more Decade activities by incentivizing events and initiatives that align with the goal of the Decade, including through its Ocean Decade Ambassador program, Earthzine article coverage incentive, and a chapter funding program through which 5 OES chapters across the world were funded for pursuing events and activities in synch with the Decade.
At UNOC 2022, we received great interest for some of our ECOP-outreach events such as SAUVC, ERL and Earthzine (some twitter coverage here: https://twitter.com/eumissionocean/status/1544013731155398659 ). Our attendance at this event was also well-covered on IEEE OES social media outlets. At the end of the conference, OES submitted a statement on our takeaway from the conference, proudly displayed at the Ocean Decade website here.
In the coming editions of UNOC, we hope that OES can participate in a more advanced and pro-active role by organizing some side-events at the conference and get actively involved in a larger capacity. Our presence at this conference has laid the groundwork for us to work towards that aim in the coming UN Ocean conferences. We should also integrate the aims and challenges of the Decade into our existing conferences, workshops and symposia via targeted events in this direction.