Sustainability at the Ocean-City Nexus: A New Frontier in Ocean Governance

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Sustainability at the Ocean-City Nexus: A New Frontier in Ocean Governance

Nearly 2.4 billion people (about 40 percent of the world’s population) live within 100 kilometers of the coast. As coastal cities continue to grow, so too will their influence as actors in shaping sustainable development. A new paper highlights the largely overlooked role of ocean cities in international legal frameworks to address environmental degradation in marine and coastal environments.

Stöfen-O’Brien, A., Doelle, A. J., & Del Savio, L. (2022). Cities and Sustainable Ocean Governance: A Neglected Link, The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law (published online ahead of print 2022). DOI: 

Traditionally, international legal frameworks only include national governments. Those governments then dictate whether cities can act independently in exercising authority over natural resource management and land use development. The established frameworks generally underestimate the unique contributions cities could make in meeting international sustainable development goals. Additionally, existing research is limited regarding the importance of cities as emerging actors and subjects in public international law relating to climate change and ocean governance.  

In a new article published in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, Dr. Aleke Stöfen-O’Brien and her colleagues at the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden, and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, explore the crucial emerging role of non-State actors in meaningful international ocean governance. They contend that cities are a neglected link between ocean governance and global sustainable development.  

The authors first define ocean cities1 and then categorize the ways various land- and sea-based activities within those cities affect marine environments. For example, ocean cities rely on building and infrastructure development, maritime tourism, and the ability to dispose of waste effectively. Such activities have direct impacts like biodiversity loss, thermal pollution, and excess nutrient runoff or indirect impacts like sea temperature and ocean acidification. These types of in-city activities harm marine environments. But cities can enact targeted regulatory solutions with significant potential to create positive change. The authors find that to strengthen marine protection, ocean cities require resilient urban planning—focusing on low-carbon infrastructure plans and local, sustainable economic development. 

After establishing cities as essential actors in marine environmental protection efforts, the authors ask: “How are cities currently being addressed under the international framework? What role can cities take in that context to reduce their impacts?” 

To answer that question, the authors embark on a systematic review of over twenty international and regional conventions, treaties, and agreements relating to ocean governance. They determine how—and to what degree—regulations already exist for certain types of pollution and direct/indirect impacts from cities. They inspect these regulatory instruments by category, starting with pollution, moving to biodiversity and species, and ending with chemicals and waste. 

The authors find that the norms and policy goals of different international instruments continue to overlook the role of cities. And even if cities are addressed, it is generally only through a sectoral-specific approach. Further, while some global initiatives consider solutions and innovation opportunities at the ocean-city nexus, they tend to be ad hoc and non-strategic. The study concludes that despite inherently presenting severe risks to marine environments, cities also have vast potential to become leading examples and leverage points in marine environmental protection on a global scale. 

As evidence of this potential, many cities worldwide have voluntarily started integrating themselves into international frameworks for ocean governance. On the international negotiations stage, however, the authors emphasize that there has only been limited consideration of strategic planning regarding the ocean-city nexus in instruments of international law. Moving forward, international legal frameworks should expand the scope of ocean governance approaches to sustainable development beyond state actors to recognize the role of cities.  

(1)According to the authors,“ocean cities may be understood through their interconnectedness with the ocean through waterways or the atmosphere, but alsothrough impacts on food systems through consumption and production patterns.”

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