Singapore undertakes new voluntary commitments for ocean protection

The nine new commitments made are non-binding. Ocean governance experts and civil society representatives question their ability to drive ambitious action for marine protection, in Singapore and beyond.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at UN Ocean Conference 2022
Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering Singapore’s National Statement at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon on 28 June 2022. Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.

Singapore will be renewing the 10 voluntary commitments previously submitted at the first United Nations Oceans Conference (UNOC), and undertaking nine new ones for marine protection. 

Three of the island state’s new commitments involve environmental research projects. These are related to sustainable management of marine fish populations, the use of solar energy to facilitate coral growth, and a Marine Climate Change Science programme.

Other new commitments seek to spearhead the shipping industry’s green transition, for example by incentivising ship owners to become more sustainable. The country wants to lead the charge on the maritime industry’s transition to energy efficient technologies and low or zero carbon fuels, said its foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan, delivering an official statement at the UNOC in Lisbon, Portugal, this week. 

“The challenges facing the ocean have increased with each passing year. We need to urgently scale up actions to collectively protect the ocean, and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Dr Balakrishnan told member states.

What are voluntary commitments?

At the first UN Ocean Conference which took place in New York in 2017, member states agreed to create a list of commitments to further the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14, “Life Below Water”.

Ocean governance experts that Eco-Business spoke to, however, have expressed doubts about the efficacy of the voluntary commitments. The non-binding nature of these commitments raises questions about their ability to drive ambitious action for marine protection, in Singapore and beyond.  

Dr Michelle Voyer, a researcher on ocean governance at Australia’s University of Wollongong, said that there can be problems evaluating whether the commitments have been implemented as planned, or if countries are succeeding in meeting their objectives.

“There is no mechanism that I am aware of at present which tracks the performance over time,” she said.

While submitters can update their commitments with a progress report on the Registry, this is not mandatory. 

Globally, over 1900 voluntary commitments have been registered on the Ocean Conference Registry. These have primarily been made by governments and non-governmental organisations, but also include other stakeholders like United Nations entities, academic institutions, and the scientific community. 

Based on the registry data, the Singapore government has submitted a total of 33 commitments since 2017, including the nine new ones. A check by Eco-Business found that progress updates have been submitted for at least 23 commitments, and seven commitments have been completed to date.

Ho Xiang Tian, co-founder of environmental advocacy group Lepak in SG, is confident that implementation would not be an issue for Singapore.

“The real question is whether the voluntary commitments can fulfill the needs of what the oceans require to thrive,” he said. “There is a global target to protect 30 per cent of Earth’s oceans by 2030, but I don’t think we are anywhere close to that.”

The 30 by 30 initiative seeks to designate 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean as protected areas by 2030. More than 100 countries have publicly committed to this goal to date.

Land reclamation and dredging practices need better management: youth activists 

Kathy Xu, a marine conservationist from Singapore and founder of social enterprise The Dorsal Effect, said she was happy to see the focus on research on ocean species and sustainability in Singapore’s new commitments.

“The areas of the research sound promising, and I’m all for science based methods,” she said.

“However, the devil is in the details that we do not have,” Ms Xu noted. She added that she hopes the government will tap on the diversity of marine expertise in Singapore, including civil society stakeholders, “not just academic ocean conservationists”.

Alice Soewito, a member of environmental group Singapore Youth for Climate Action, said that while Singapore has made advances in the maritime shipping industry, the government could better manage land reclamation and dredging practices.

“These practices can result in chronic sedimentation that harm and kill corals, thereby impacting the rest of the marine ecosystem,” she said.

Since the 1960s, Singapore has adopted an aggressive approach of land reclamation to accommodate industrial activities and a growing population. The island’s land area has expanded by nearly 25 per cent over the last two centuries. The National University of Singapore’s Reef Ecology Lab has said that many coral reef ecosystems were “smothered” by past reclamation practices.

These environmental impacts extend beyond Singapore’s borders. A 2010 report by international NGO Global Witness claimed that sand mining practices in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, from which Singapore imported sand up till 2016, severely depleted local fish and crab stocks. 

Malaysia and Indonesia banned sand exports to Singapore in 1997 and 2007 respectively due to environmental concerns. 

On a global scale, Dr Voyer pointed out that many current commitments have a strong emphasis on research and science, as well as capacity development.

“Of course we always need to be improving the knowledge base,” she said. “But I would like to see greater emphasis on recognising the existing capacity within many coastal communities and amongst ocean stakeholders.”

“This includes engaging with local knowledge, and being bold in trying ideas put forward by the communities,” said Dr Voyer. 

Negotations underway for new global ocean treaty

This year’s Ocean Conference, which took place from 27 June to 1 July, sought to scale up ocean action with a specific focus on science and innovation. Member states adopted a political declaration reaffirming their commitment to ocean conservation. 

While this declaration is not binding, it lays the political foundation for an upcoming legally binding instrument — the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, colloquially known as the BBNJ TreatySingapore serves as the current president of the Intergovernmental Conference and will help to facilitate the fifth round of negotiations taking place in August this year. 

In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan called on all delegations to “work towards the conclusion of an ambitious and future-proof BBNJ treaty as soon as possible”.

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