World Ocean Day 2021

How law can help protect our oceans

8 June 2021

Professor Tim Stephens on World Ocean Day 2021

For World Ocean Day 2021, Professor Tim Stephens speaks about the key role of law in environmental protection.

Professor Tim Stephens, Sydney Law School

Professor Tim Stephens, Sydney Law School

Today is World Ocean Day — a day to encourage people everywhere to celebrate and take action for our shared ocean.

The 2021 World Ocean conservation action focus is to support and grow the “30x30” global movement to protect at least 30% of our blue planet by 2030.

We had a chat to Sydney Law School's Professor Tim Stephens about his research into ocean acidification and the role of national and international law in regulating human impact on marine ecosystems.

What’s something that gives you hope for the future health of our oceans?

Cover of Polar Oceans Governance in an Era of Environmental Change

Polar Oceans Governance in an Era of Environmental Change

Scientific understanding of the oceans has brought new awareness of the threats that they face, and the solutions we have at hand to address them. This is especially clear when it comes to climate change impacts on the oceans. It is good to see many governments prioritise ocean issues when addressing climate issues. In Australia’s neighbourhood, many Pacific island states have made this connection more clearly than anyone else and we have a lot to learn from their close connection to the ocean world.

In addition to taking action globally, there are many things governments can do to promote ocean health, such as expanding marine parks, curbing plastic and other forms of pollution, and phasing out offshore oil and gas production.

What should government and law-makers do to improve Australia’s record on environmental protection?

World Ocean Week 2021 logo

Australia has an enormous ocean estate and we have historically managed many parts of our marine areas well. For example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has been instrumental in safeguarding this natural wonder for decades. Australia’s fisheries are also, overall, quite healthy and have been sustainably managed.

There are major new threats on the horizon, including warming waters and ocean acidification, and this calls for urgent action nationally and internationally.
Professor Tim Stephens, Sydney Law School

The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is unlikely to survive as we know it unless fossil fuel use is phased out rapidly, as it has experienced a series of coral bleaching and mortality events and these are set to worsen. Law-makers and policy-makers need to engage with Australia’s coral reef and other marine science experts to work on the actions needed to protect Australia’s expansive and remarkably ecologically diverse marine bioregions.

Why is ocean acidification a concern and how can the law help?

Cover of Research Handbook on Ocean Acidification Law and Policy

Research Handbook on Ocean Acidification Law and Policy

The oceans are undergoing major transformations as a result of climate change. They are warming up as they absorb excess heat in the system. Their chemistry is changing as they draw down huge volumes of carbon dioxied (CO2) from the atmosphere.

The oceans are the world’s most important carbon sink — without them we’d already be experiencing extreme temperatures. However, when the oceans absorb CO2 it causes the oceans to become acidic.This is affecting ecosystems and organisms globally, especially those that form structures from calcium carbonate, such as corals.

The first and best option to curb ocean acidification is to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. That means we need to turn to the UN climate treaties to solve the acidification problem.
Professor Tim Stephens, Sydney Law School

You’ve written about ocean acidification at the Poles. Have you ever travelled to the Poles?

I have not travelled to the Poles, but I have had an opportunity to see polar law being made at an Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting!

Tim Stephens is Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney Law School, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law, and a member of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law and Sydney Centre for International Law.

Tim teaches and researches in public international law, with his published work focusing on the international law of the sea, international environmental law and international dispute settlement.

In 2019 he completed an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship on International Law and the Anthropocene (grant FT140100822).

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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