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Secretary-General Patricia Scotland noted that 45 per cent of the world’s coral reefs and many of the world’s small island developing states are in the Commonwealth

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Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, speaks at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Nov. 16, 2022.AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Oceans don’t get enough respect.

That could be seen as a unifying theme of the 5th International Marine Protected Areas Congress, held recently in Vancouver. It was also a key message from Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, who spoke at the conference.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 56 countries, including Canada. The 2012 Commonwealth Charter sets out core principles including democracy, human rights and good governance, but the group has been criticized for granting membership to some of the world’s longest-ruling authoritarian regimes, including Rwanda, Gabon and Togo.

Ms. Scotland is the sixth Secretary-General for the organization, the second from the Caribbean and the first woman to hold the post. The Dominica-born casts the Commonwealth as an authoritative voice on ocean issues – noting 49 of 56 member countries border the ocean, that 45 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are in Commonwealth countries and that members include 25 of the world’s small island developing states, which are considered vulnerable to climate change.

The Globe and Mail spoke to Ms. Scotland at IMPAC5 on Feb. 9.

Why did you come to IMPAC5?

IMPAC5 is an incredible opportunity to think about how we’re going to implement the promises that we’ve made. In Montreal, at COP15, there were agreements in terms of what we’re going to do with Marine Protected Areas. And also, how we are going to manage the whole of the ocean. Because although 30 per cent should be protected, the commitment is that 100 per cent should be managed.

[The United Nations Biodiversity Conference, COP15, was held in Montreal in December and ended with a landmark agreement with targets including protecting 30 per cent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. Canada had previously committed to the 30 by 30 goal.]

This is what this meeting is all about. We’ve made the commitments. Let’s come together, let’s look at what works, what doesn’t work and what are the steps that we, globally, need to take.

One of the criticisms of conferences such as the COP and IMPAC gatherings is that they tend to result in big announcements that don’t necessarily translate to results. Can you talk about areas where you have seen specific results, or hope to?

One of the things we did in 2018 is we understood that so many of our countries, all of them, in fact, had made commitment on oceans, but many of us had difficulty actually delivering them. So we came up with the Blue Charter. It has 10 action groups. This is a country-led initiative. [Canada is leading the ocean observation group.] So all the countries came together and said, “Okay, what do we need, what do we have?” These action groups were very practical to help get our countries moving more quickly.

Seychelles has been a brilliant example of what working together can do. Seychelles has managed to deliver the 30 by 30, and they’ve done it 10 years early.

In the Commonwealth, we have created a climate change ecosystem. We’ve got now the Blue Charter, we’ve got the Living Lands Charter which is seeking to implement the three Rio conventions and we’ve created something called CommonSensing. It uses geospatial data, satellite data, so that we can give the information to our member states so they can make better choices. So for example, we’re able to better predict when there’s going to be a cyclone, or better predict when there is going to be a drought or floods.

You’ve talked about the importance of data – will there be some central clearing house or system for sharing information from these various groups?

One of the purposes of creating the Blue Charter is sharing data so we know what works. But also, we are pooling what does not work. Because many of our member states will have tried to do things that would have been really sensible, but they just didn’t work. And many of us are trying the same things, because it looks sensible. So sharing data means we only make one mistake. That pooling of information is critically important.

In your speech at IMPAC, you talked about ocean health being close to the point of no return. Do you see any bright spots?

I think the work we’re doing on the Blue Charter is breathtaking. Because for so long, people thought that what we are now doing, couldn’t be done – that people wouldn’t come together, that they wouldn’t be able to share. You used to have climatologists, sociologists, people who wanted to do circular economy, biomimicry – and they were all in hermetically sealed little compartments, as if none of them were interrelated. There is now the appreciation that we have to have a holistic approach.

We need all of it, we need Indigenous people, we need that knowledge, we need the science, we need the technology, we need all the disciplines. If we’re going to respond to this multifaceted problem, we have to have a multifaceted holistic response. And so what I’m thrilled about is there is a real understanding of that and that it is starting to happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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