Your Serene Highness, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here today. And my sincere thanks go to the Belgian government for organising today’s event – part of the very important global conversation on oceans and climate change.

[the challenge of climate change]

Climate change is the most important challenge of this century.  And time is quickly running out. All of us here in this room know it.

So do the 100,000 people who marched for climate action in Brussels on a chilly winter’s day last month.

And the tens of thousands of Belgian schoolchildren who continue to take to the streets week after week.

And the thousands of German and Dutch teenagers and students who are organising themselves under the hashtag “Fridays for Climate”.

And the 80,000 French citizens who joined climate demonstrations on the last Sunday of January.

And perhaps most impressively, at their head, Greta Thunberg. Greta is  the 16 year old girl from Sweden who became an online sensation and a real world actor. She told world leaders at Davos last month to start taking action - now.

They are all concerned citizens. They are young people who will have to live with climate change and its effects for decades to come. They are Europeans with a clear message: there is “no Planet B”.

We cannot count on back-up plans.

[the role of the oceans]

But we can turn to the ocean.

Because the ocean is the genesis of life.  And now it is on the front-line in the fight for survivial.Fragile ecosystems are among the first victims of climate change. Warming seas, higher pollution, increased acidification. All take a toll.

But the ocean is also a wellspring of solutions.

For many years oceans have fought the good fight on that frontline. They have absorbed 25% of human carbon dioxide emissions and 90% of the world’s extra heat. But the ocean can only hold the line for so long.

The oceans are warming up. They are also acidifying. And the combined results are there for all of us to see: rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, coral bleaching, dead zones, and changes in the volume of fish that fishing communities around the world can catch.

Consider this:

  • WWF estimates that 30% of Mediterranean species risk extinction, even if we limit global warming to 2 degrees. With no action, this rises to 50%.[1]
  • Over 500 million people rely on coral reefs for their daily subsistence. If we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, coral reefs would decline by 70 to 90%. With 2 degrees, virtually all reefs would be lost.[2]
  • By the end of the century, coastal floods could affect more than 3 million Europeans a year.
  • And global fisheries could lose 10 billion dollars – nearly 10% of their annual revenue – within a generation.[3]

Unfortunately, the upcoming special IPCC report on the oceans and the cryosphere looks set to confirm these trends.

It seems that the ocean is rapidly reaching the high water mark.

[EU action]

So what do we do?

I am convinced that, faced with this almost unimaginable challenge, there is only one possible response. And that response is collective. We need to work together to address the impacts of climate change on the oceans and its biodiversity.  

This is a top political priority for the EU. And our policy for better international ocean governance brings that priority to the highest political levels.

For the first time, we are addressing ocean challenges across departments & across institutions.

And let me highlight three ways we are doing so:

  • First, we are promoting ocean action to implement the Paris Agreement;
  • Second, we are taking the ocean-climate debate to international fora and negotiations;
  • And third, we are supporting ocean research and observation.

[1/3 – oceans and the Paris Agreement]

First, oceans can – and must – play an important role in implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Clean energy from the waves and tides can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these sources are still waiting to be tapped. My colleague, Miguel, will speak about this later today.

Moreover, marine and coastal ecosystems like wetlands and mangroves are crucial in preserving biodiversity, trapping carbon, and boosting climate resilience. They are, quite literally, our life-support system.

Since 2017, we have dedicated more than 17 million euros to restoring marine and coastal ecosystems in different regions around the world, from the Mediterranean to West Africa to Southeast Asia.

We are also helping countries reduce their vulnerability to climate change effects in sectors like fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.

In the Pacific (and Isabella will know this well) the European Union and Sweden have set aside 45 million euros to protect marine biodiversity, promote marine protected areas and enhance resilience to climate change.

The EU’s ECOFISH programme is providing similar types of support for countries in and around the Indian Ocean.

Closer to home, we have proposed integrating climate change into our post-2020 European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Under this proposal, 30% of the Fund will be spent on meeting our climate objectives.

[2/3 – Oceans in international fora]

Second, the European Union is making sure to bring the conversation about oceans and climate to the international stage. Let me give you five examples:

  • First, in the obvious context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – and I would like to reiterate the EU’s support for the Ocean Action Days organised as part of the CoP meetings in recent years.
  • Second, in the G7 and the G20.
  • Third, in international organisations like the International Maritime Organisation, where we support strong global action to halve shipping emissions by 2050. Or in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, where we have agreed to develop guidelines on climate change adaptation and mitigation in fisheries and aquaculture.
  • Fourth, in the ongoing work to develop a new agreement for protecting marine biodiversity in the High Seas.And fifth, in preparing for an ambitious post-2020 Biodiversity Framework at the COP 15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing.

We also put climate at the top of the agenda when the EU hosted the Our Ocean Conference in Malta in 2017. Governments, companies and others, including the EU, made7 billion  euros in commitments. A legacy that lives on as the Our Ocean conferences continue.

[3/3 – Supporting ocean science]

Third and finally, we have to recognise that we do not have all the answers we need to guide future action.

So we are investing heavily in ocean research and observation.

Over the past two years, we have devoted 23 million euros to the Copernicus Marine Service to provide global ocean observation, forecasts, and analysis, including on climate change effects.

We plan to expand Copernicus by launching four new satellite projects in Africa. This will allow the 18 participating countries and the African Union to better monitor and protect their waters and coastlines from natural and man-made disasters.

We have also started publishing annual ‘Ocean State Reports’ reporting on the health of ocean, and allowing us to track the changes year by year.


Ladies and gentlemen,  have five grandchildren. Four of them are in primary school. The youngest is only one year old.

Perhaps that’s why the following story struck such a particular chord. I was reading a BBC article about the recent climate demonstrations here in Belgium. Groups of primary schoolchildren were marching with their grandparents. One child held up a hand-written sign. It said: “2080: what are polar bears?”

I do not want to tell my grandchildren that we lacked courage, or ambition, or a sense of urgency.

I do not want to say that we had all the science and facts at our fingertips, but refused to heed the warnings.

I want to say: we did everything we could.

There is no ocean B, just as there is no planet B.

So what are we waiting for? Us.

Thank you.


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