We had the chance to visit the Our Ocean Conference, which took place this year on October 29. and 30. in Bali, Indonesia. The conference, … …set up by US-politician John Kerry in 2014, is a multi-stakeholder platform with participants from politics, non-governmental organizations, global and local businesses and science. For the first time, the conference was hosted by an Asian country, following USA (2014, 2016), Chile (2015) and Malta (2018).
We were lucky to participate as delegates and thus, could enter the secured plenary hall of the modern conference center in Nusa Dua. We immediately dived into the deep blue sea with glimmering water and fish swarms rushing over the wall sized screens and projections on the sidewalls. The Indonesian government represented themselves as professional hosts with a colorful opening show and a thoughtful opening speech by President Joko Widodo.
The overall goal of Our Ocean is to foster the sustainable use and protection of the oceans. This year’s theme was “Our Ocean. Our Legacy”. The conference’s “areas of action” range from geopolitical topics such as maritime security to economic issues, e.g. blue economy and fisheries, to environmental issues such as marine pollution, climate related impact on the ocean, marine protected areas and ocean disaster risk management. These topics structured the program with plenary sessions, multiple side-events and “Ocean Talks”. Commitments, given by a series of stakeholders in time spots of one minute each, are central to the conference. Governments, NGOs and companies use these commitments to emphasize their engagement and willingness to act.
The plenary sessions, however, did not include controversial discussion or critical inquiry on the effectiveness or usefulness of presented initiatives, as seen during academic conferences. Yet, we assume that many of the closed side-events might have been more controversial. Furthermore, to us, reporting on the progress and implementation of the commitments made by previous conferences, appeared to be quite eclectic.
Since our research focuses on plastic pollution, we attended these events particularly, and were spoilt for choice: plastic pollution was a key topic and therefore, many side-events addressed solutions to combat ocean plastics. It appeared to us that many of our interlocutors, with different key areas of action, were overwhelmed by the number of plastic events and the ever-presence of the plastic problem.
Main international actors, who lead the fight against plastic pollution, used the conference as platform to present and lobby for their work. Ocean Conservancy and Circulate Capital, together with international companies such as Unilever, Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Procter and Gamble, introduced an initiative to raise money for investments combating plastic pollution. Furthermore, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched commitments of their New Plastics Economy initiative. We were delighted to see that apparently everyone agrees that plastic pollution needs to be tackled at the source, focusing especially on big multinational companies that use plastic packaging for their products. Nevertheless, we remain critical on how far single, voluntary corporate action might sustainably solve the problem. A German expert for circular economy at one Ocean Talk put it this way: “Everyone who brings plastic packaging on the market is responsible for that packaging. However, we cannot rely on voluntary actions, but a national law is needed.” For Germans this sounds rather unspectacular, having an extended producer responsibility (EPR) mechanism (“Duale System”) in place. Although many Asian countries are increasingly aware about their plastic pollution problem, at least at a national level, the idea to set up EPR schemes is quite challenging.
Our impression was that by having the conference held in a South-East Asian country, the topic of plastic waste leaking into the environment places solid waste management a bit higher on the political agenda in Asian countries. However, solutions such as solid waste management, recycling, design of products and extended producer responsibility are issues which need to be addressed not only by environmental authorities, such as the Ministry of Marine Affaires and Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry which hosted the conference, but also by ministries responsible for the economy, industry or commerce.
To sum it up: the purpose of the conference might not be to negotiate action and binding agreements in the first place. But, with all the blue animation leading you to dive into waterscapes in the plenary hall, the emotional movies at display, the passionate talks and the well-intentioned commitments, the conference’s purpose for sure is to create an excited feeling of being part of a global movement, to save the oceans and make the world a better place. For some others, this is just a big show on a global stage.
Heide Kerber und Johanna Kramm