Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Jennifer “J.R.” Littlejohn, Principal Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Sue Biniaz and USAID’s Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell

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Online Press Briefing with Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Jennifer “J.R.” Littlejohn, Principal Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Sue Biniaz and USAID’s Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell

16 April 2024 , The USA

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I would like to welcome everyone joining us today’s for this virtual press briefing.  We are very honored to be joined by Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Jennifer “J.R.” Littlejohn, the Principal Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Sue Biniaz, and USAID’s Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell.

Finally, a quick reminder that today’s briefing is on the record.  And with that, let’s get started.  Thank you all for joining us.  Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn, I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.

MS LITTLEJOHN:  Great, thank you so much, and good morning, everyone, or good afternoon.  Thank you for joining us during the ninth Our Ocean Conference, which is being held this year in Athens.  I am pleased to be here with Sue Biniaz, Principal Deputy Special Envoy for Climate, who will discuss some of the climate work that has come out of Our Ocean Conference, and with Gillian Caldwell, USAID Chief Climate Officer, who can discuss in more detail the impressive and wide-ranging work that USAID is doing around the world to restore the health of the ocean and support local communities.  And of course, welcome to all of you.

This is the ninth Our Ocean Conference, and the United States is quite proud of our role in initiating this conference and of what we have accomplished together over the years.  Now, we’ve hosted the first Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2014, as you may recall, and this was part of a broad vision to bring together governments, the private sector, NGOs, philanthropies, youth, experts – all ocean advocates.  And it’s really to work together and step up efforts to restore the health of the ocean before it’s too late.

Now, this year’s host, the Government of Greece, has done a wonderful job bringing us all together again to galvanize concrete action to help protect our ocean at a critical point in time.  I said we accomplished a lot, and frankly, we have.  In the preceding eight conferences, participants made a total of nearly $128 billion in commitments to protect the ocean.  But as all of you know, we have so much more to do.  We know the ocean is facing the detrimental effects of the climate crisis.  Sea levels and ocean temperatures are rising, and marine pollution and habitat destruction are impacting every ocean ecosystem – from the shores of the Mediterranean to the furthest parts of the deep ocean.  And of course, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions of people around the world.

Now, the science tells us that this is the critical, if not decisive, decade in which we must take action to reverse the decline of our ocean’s health.  And frankly, the time for action – from our perspective – is now.  The countries represented at Our Ocean have heeded that call.  For example, 24 countries have now endorsed the Our Ocean Conservation Pledge.  The United States initiated this pledge at the 2022 Our Ocean Conference, and these countries – including the United States – are committing to conserve or protect 30 percent of ocean waters under their national jurisdiction.  This is, I would say, an important step to meeting the 30 by 30 target for the global ocean.

Now, the international community has adopted the High Seas Treaty and an agreement on fisheries subsidies, and of course we’ve built critical partnerships to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.  And now the international community is working on an agreement to end the scourge of plastic pollution in our environment.  Here at Our Ocean this year, the United States announced over half a billion dollars in concrete actions to help Our Ocean and the coastal communities feeling the impacts – the immediate impacts – of climate crisis.  These actions add to a long record of turning ambition into action.  This year’s initiatives will protect the health of our ocean by advancing marine protected areas, supporting sustainable fisheries, and building the blue economy for all those who depend on a healthy ocean for livelihoods and food.

Now, these include actions like our support for conservation of marine biodiversity and to improve management of marine protected areas in the Caribbean; collaborating with the Atlantic community through the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation on Atlantic Ocean observation, marine spatial planning, scientific capacity building, and sustainable blue economy development.  Of course it also includes our efforts to protect critical ecosystems in the Caribbean, Central America, and Madagascar, The Gambia, and Ghana; support the development and delivery of climate information services, including early warning systems, for Pacific Island communities.

These systems will help these communities understand, anticipate, and prepare for climate impacts to public health and safety, food security, water resources, and coastal areas; support, again, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty and sustainable fisheries practices in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific.  They’ll help us to support – excuse me, protect and open an IUU fishing center of excellence in Hawaii to combat IUU fishing in the Indo-Pacific and support maritime security capacity in 24 countries.  And of course, it’ll also help us to combat marine pollution, including through the Save our Seas Initiative and the End Plastic Pollution International Collaborative, or EPPIC.  EPPIC is a critical effort to bring together public sector, private sector, NGOs, and academia to mobilize solutions to plastic pollution now, particularly as we work to finalize the text of a global plastic pollution agreement by the end of this year.  Now, of course this list is not exhaustive, and we will release a fact sheet with all of the U.S. Government announcements shortly.

So let me conclude with my main message, and that is the United States is steadfast in our commitment to an ocean that is healthy, resilient, and productive for generations to come.  I’ll now turn to our Principal Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Sue Biniaz to speak to our work to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis on the ocean.

MS BINIAZ:  Thanks, J.R.  First – and hello, everybody.  First I wanted to congratulate the Government of Greece.  They’ve really done a fantastic job not only in terms of the setting and the logistics, but in terms of putting together incredibly interesting topics and panels for the conference.  They’ve also put extraordinary effort into mobilizing ambitious announcements from governments, from NGOs, from companies, et cetera, all to protect our ocean.  They’ve also supported the travel of many people who could not otherwise necessarily have joined the conference.  So we appreciate everything they’ve done.

As you know, the ocean is central to our fight to address the climate crisis.  On the one hand, it has absorbed more than 90 percent of human-induced global warming, and it’s one of the fastest-changing indicators we see at the climate crisis – from sea level rise to more powerful storms.  On the other hand, it’s an important source of climate solutions – from green shipping initiatives to offshore wind to blue carbon ecosystems and more.

Generally speaking, we work all sides of the equation.  We try to reduce emissions so that we don’t have impacts or so that we reduce the impacts on the ocean; we work on ocean-based mitigation such as offshore wind and reduced emissions from shipping; and we work on adaptation.

Accordingly, here in Athens, we’ve been making many announcements across the board.  One set of announcements involves supporting new ocean climate research, including on the impacts of rising sea levels and how extreme weather events affect ocean and coastal ecosystems.  We’re also announcing support for coastal resilience and disaster forecasting and preparedness, particularly in small island developing states, and national actions, including publication of our National Ocean Acidification Action Plan.

We’ve also done a lot of work to help decarbonize shipping over the past few years of the Biden administration.  That’s why two years ago at the Our Ocean Conference in Palau, I was – I had the privilege of highlighting the urgent need for the shipping sector to get serious about reducing its emissions.  Later that year, we went to COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh and launched the Green Shipping Challenge with Norway in an effort to mobilize new commitments to align the shipping sector with the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  And I’m pleased that we’ve made the Green Shipping Challenge a vehicle through which we have secured commitments not just from countries, but from companies and ports that are ready to bend the curve on maritime emissions.

The Green Shipping Challenge kicked off in 2022 with over 40 new announcements, and last year at the COP in Dubai we held a second event with more than 60 new or updated announcements.  These are concrete, exciting opportunities to reduce emissions, including next-generation vessels, zero-emission fuels, new partnerships to build the first e-fuel hubs, and developing green shipping corridors.  Here in Athens we have made additional announcements to support the shipping sector, including $1 million to facilitate green shipping corridors in developing countries and additional support to help implement the International Maritime Organization – IMO – its greenhouse gas strategy in developing countries, particularly small island developing states and least developed countries.

So now I’ll turn it over to Chief Climate Officer for USAID Gillian Caldwell.

MS CALDWELL:  Thank you so much.  Honor to work next to such dedicated servants as Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn and Deputy SPEC Sue Biniaz, and really appreciate all of your time today and your coverage of this important initiative.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, for those who may be unaware, is, I think, the world’s largest development agency.  We work in over 100 countries, we have over 12,000 staff, and we have budgets in excess of 25 to 30 billion dollars.  We are leading on humanitarian response in many global hotspots.  We have focuses on programming on democracy and education, and of course on climate and marine biodiversity, which is what brings us here today.  And I think the – sort of the central tenet of this conference is that the ocean represents an ocean of potential.  It’s also an ocean, as Sue Biniaz just noted, under significant threat due to climate change amongst other impacts.

So USAID is working to turn the potential of the ocean into practical solutions and interventions by working with both the local and national governments, civil society and the private sector in key countries.  We’re focused on conserving marine biodiversity, on tackling the impacts of climate change and plastic pollution, on fighting food insecurity, and on implementing innovative solutions hand-in-hand with the communities who rely on the ocean for their lives and livelihoods.

I’m excited to share that this year, as part of the U.S. Government’s more than one-half of a billion dollars in commitments, USAID has announced funding for 15 new and ongoing initiatives totaling more than $103 million to conserve and protect our oceans.  Our programs in marine, coastal, and fisheries management, in nature-based solutions, in ocean plastic pollution and others aim to tackle the threats to the oceans both from overfishing and rising greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to marine pollution, USAID is tackling ocean plastics head on through our Save Our Seas Initiative, which the Assistant Secretary Littlejohn mentioned at the top.  This initiative has already prevented the equivalent of 10.7 billion plastic bottles from polluting our oceans – that’s almost 100,000 metric tons – by helping partner countries strengthen solid waste management and better reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic.  We’re also partnering with countries to conserve marine biodiversity and promote sustainable fisheries and particularly to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices that threaten local economies and food security.

Earlier today I had the opportunity to meet with Ghanaian Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development, the Honorable Mavis Hawa Koomson, who has done some really incredible work through partnership with USAID and our Feed the Future program to implement regulations to counter illegal fishing activity on their coast.

Finally, I just wanted to remark on what an inspiration it has been to see the youth delegates here for Our Ocean Conference.  There was a youth leadership conference that preceded the opening of the Ocean Conference this year, and USAID is committing more than 4.8 million to support youth engagement and development for climate action in the Pacific Islands.  When we think about an ocean of potential, that is exactly the type of work we’re talking about.

With that, we welcome your questions.

MODERATOR:  Thanks to all three of you for those very thorough opening remarks.  We do have a few questions that have been submitted.  So first we’ll go to Alice Hancock from the Financial Times here in Belgium.  Alice asks – she’d like to ask about the EU dimension:  “I’d be very interested to know to what extent U.S. officials see EU backtracking on environmental policy or if they see this more as political posturing ahead of the EU elections this June.”  I guess I’d throw out it to all three to decide who would like to respond to that.

MS BINIAZ:  This is Sue Biniaz.  I’ll take a stab at it just from a climate point of view.  The way we see it, the EU shares our strong commitment to tackling climate change, and the partnership is basically stronger than ever.  I would say that’s across multi or many dimensions.  One is we have a very strong relationship with respect to the climate negotiations that take place every year on the road to the COP.  Number two, they’ve been a very strong partner with us and other countries on the kind of non-negotiated initiatives that contribute to keeping the 1.5 degree limit within reach.  That includes the Global Methane Pledge, which we kind of co-sponsored with the EU, the Methane Finance Sprint.  They’ve joined the Green Shipping Challenge, which I mentioned a few minutes ago.  And then third, just domestically, the EU is taking steps to fulfill its Fit for 55 agenda, which is a very ambitious group of policy proposals to reduce GHG emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.  So I would say across the board we see them as a very ambitious partner.

MS CALDWELL:  Maybe I could build on that – this is Gillian Caldwell with USAID.  We have an especially strong relationship with the Nordic countries at USAID.  We recently at COP28 launched IMCA, which is the Investment Mobilization Collaboration Agreement, with countries including Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.  And through our combined force, we’re drawing on their loan guarantee capability and our technical assistance and concessional finance to set the stage for private sector investment in mitigation and adaptation.  And when we think about the challenges governments worldwide have faced in reaching the commitment to deliver 100 billion to developed economies – to developing countries, we know that we will never fill the gap, the estimated 3 to 5 trillion-dollar gap that’s forthcoming when it comes to mitigation and adaptation, without the engagement of the private sector.  So we very much appreciate the Nordic countries for their innovative approach to catalyzing private sector investment alongside USAID.

MODERATOR:  Thanks very much for that.  We’ll go to our next question, this time from Bernhard Poetter from Table Media in Germany.  The question he’s directing to Ms. Biniaz.  He asks:  “As I cover international climate negotiations, what role will nature-based solutions (i.e. oceans) play at this year’s COP29?”

MS BINIAZ:  Thanks for that question.  Well, let me say a little bit about COP29 and then maybe try to fit the question into it.  The main negotiated outcome of this particular COP relates to agreeing on the successor to the $100 billion mobilization goal.  And that’s going to be the main thing that the parties sort of must agree on at the COP.  Another theme of the COP – it’s not something to be negotiated, but the timing dictates that countries will absolutely be talking about their next round of targets under the Paris Agreement, so-called NDCs, because they’re going to be due just a couple months after the COP.  They’re due kind of mid-February 2025.  So I’m sure countries will be – some will be coming forward with – either with their NDCs or giving some kind of preview of their NDCs, and I think that will be one of the themes of COP29.

The third maybe theme – and it’s a little bit like alphabet soup, because this one is called BTRs for short, and those are the biennial transparency reports, which sounds like a mouthful, but it’s actually really important.  It’s the reporting and accountability regime under the Paris Agreement which kicks in this year, so parties’ reporting is due at the end of this year.  And so a monumental effort is being made through capacity building and raising of awareness to make sure that as many parties as possible are able to meet the deadline, and that’s something that the COP presidency – Azerbaijan – is very focused on achieving.

But when you ask about nature-based solutions, including ocean, they might find their way into some kind of negotiated decision.  It’s conceivable that they could show up in some kind of cover decision or a decision on mitigation that wouldn’t be required, but nevertheless might be part of the outcome.  The U.S. for sure wants mitigation to be part of the outcome, even though it’s not, strictly speaking, dictated.

But in any event, nature-based solutions and the ocean are very likely to find their way into the so-called action agenda, which are the things that parties put forward that are not necessarily negotiated and they might be among subsets of parties as part of non-negotiated outcomes that kind of surround the formal decisions.

Every year there’s – these days, there’s an Ocean-Climate Dialogue, and there’s going to be one of those in June at the meeting of the subsidiary bodies.  So those issues could easily be taken up.  The topics have not yet been determined for this year.  Those could easily become topics this year, in which case it would be even more likely that there would be a focus on those issues at this COP.

MODERATOR:  Perfect.  Thank you for that.  We have one more question that was submitted from Attracta Mooney.  Attracta asks:  “We have just had a year of record-breaking sea temperatures and we’re in the middle of a fourth global coral bleaching event.  Are you concerned that the seas can no longer absorb the world’s extra heat.  And what does all that mean for climate change?”

MS BINIAZ:  This is Sue again.  Well, of course we were disturbed to see the stories over the last day or two about this major bleaching event that’s on the horizon.  It actually – I mean, it’s a terrible thing, but it just – to have the Our Ocean Conference at the exact same moment just points out how important the Our Ocean Conference is, because it’s tackling those exact kind of issues, which are both mitigation, trying to make sure that we reduce the amount of warming and acidification that goes into the ocean, and that we promote adaptation of the oceans.  And there are actually people here specializing in coral reefs and able to speak to the rehabilitation of coral reefs that suffer bleaching incidents, so it’s actually been kind of timely.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Any other input on that last question?

MS CALDWELL:  Yeah, maybe just to build on that, of course when we think of coral reefs we think of the beauty inherent in the ocean ecosystem and, of course, many economies that depend of tourism, whether it’s snorkeling or scuba diving.  But let’s not forget that 3 billion people around the world require the protein coming from fish in order to ensure healthy diets; 20 percent of their protein source is coming from fisheries.  And if we have bleaching events on this scale, we have serious food insecurity and economic insecurity on our hands.  So yes, we take this problem incredibly seriously, and it just demonstrates why we have to really focus on bringing those carbon emissions down, and recognizing the ocean as a key player in that context, because mangroves and seagrasses are very carbon-dense landscapes.

And to your early question on nature-based solutions, with USAID’s goal to reduce carbon emissions by 5 billion tons by 2030, part and parcel of that is preserving 100 million hectares of carbon-critical landscapes and seascapes.  So all of this work has to go hand-in-hand and be seen comprehensively, and it’s all about balancing the needs of people alongside the planet so we can coexist.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, ma’am.  That was the last question, and we are actually just about out of time.  So this seems like an appropriate moment to close the call.  Thank you, Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn; thank you, Principal Deputy Special Envoy Sue Biniaz; and of course, USAID’s Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell – all for joining us today.  And thank you to our participants as well for your questions and for joining us.

Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available.  We’d always love to hear your feedback.  You can email us at TheBrusselsHub – it’s one word – at state.gov.  Thanks again to everyone for your participation today, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing in the near future.  This ends today’s briefing.


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