2023 in Review: A Year of Progress for Oceans, the Environment, and Science

2023 in Review: A Year of Progress for Oceans, the Environment, and Science

2023 was a year of real progress in protecting the ocean and environment and advocating for space and science cooperation.  In numerous multilateral fora and with partners in the United States and around the world, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs helped lead the charge for a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow.  Let me share with you some of the ways we moved from ambition to action in 2023.

Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn leads a panel at COP28. She is sitting on stage with other presenters.
Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn leads a panel at COP28. [State Department photo]

Supporting Meaningful Progress at the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP28)

COP28 in Dubai was considered by many to be the most important climate conference since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015.  The U.S. delegation played a central negotiating role and joined consensus on historic outcomes, including a call for all Parties to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems to achieve net-zero by 2050.  The conference also agreed to create a fund to assist vulnerable developing countries to respond to loss and damage due to climate change.  Additionally, the Parties’ decision on the first “global stocktake” under the Paris Agreement sets forth ambitious global goals for this decade, including tripling renewable energy capacity, doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements, halting and reversing deforestation by 2030, and substantially reducing emissions of methane and other non-CO2 gases.

Protecting the High Seas

After two decades of discussions and negotiations, the United Nations adopted a new treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity in June.  The United States played a leading role in the negotiations and signed the High Seas Treaty (also known as the BBNJ Agreement) in September.  The high seas account for almost two-thirds of the ocean.  This historic agreement creates, for the first time, a coordinated approach to establishing marine protected areas on the high seas, a critical step to reach the “30×30” target to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of the global ocean by 2030.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Senior Coordinator for Atlantic Cooperation Jessye Lapenn at the launch of the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation in New York, September 2023.
Secretary Blinken and Senior Coordinator for Atlantic Cooperation Jessye Lapenn at the launch of the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation in New York, September 2023. [State Department photo]

Creating a New Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation

The United States and 35 other coastal states are recognizing the Atlantic Ocean’s importance to our shared future by forming the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation, launched in September.  This is the first multilateral forum encompassing Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and North and South America to utilize the Atlantic Ocean as a convener, creating an Atlantic community in the process.  Together, the Partnership will affirm our commitment to a peaceful, prosperous, open, and cooperative Atlantic region and protect the ocean as a healthy, sustainable, and resilient resource for generations to come.

Negotiating Progress on Combating Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution has found its way to nearly every corner of globe, and there is more of it every year.  To counter this growing threat, the international community has come together to negotiate a new global agreement on combating plastic pollution.  OES is leading the U.S. negotiating team and participated in two negotiating sessions this year.  The United States is seeking an agreement under which every country commits to – and actually takes ambitious action on – addressing plastic pollution.  These are difficult negotiations, but it is important to reach the goal of completing a text by the end of 2024.

But we are not waiting until an agreement enters into force to act.  In September, the State Department launched an international public-private partnership called the End Plastic Pollution International Collaborative, or “EPPIC,” with $14.5 million in initial funding.   We see EPPIC as a partnership in which national and local governments, the private sector, civil society organizations, and others work together to galvanize innovative global action, raise awareness, and mobilize substantial resources to solve the plastic pollution crisis.

Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn delivers remarks at the APEC Catalyst Pitch Competition, San Francisco, September 2023. She is speaking from behind a lectern and there is an APEC2023 Catalyst banner behind her.
Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn delivers remarks at the APEC Catalyst Pitch Competition in San Francisco, September 2023. [State Department photo]

Combating Nature Crimes

Nature crimes – criminal forms of logging, mining, wildlife trade, land conversion, and associated activities, as well as crimes associated with fishing – generate hundreds of billions of dollars annually in illicit revenue.  This year, we continued the fight against these crimes with the launch of the Nature Crime Alliance in August.  The United States is proud to be a founding member of this cross-sector initiative that brings together diverse stakeholders to improve and leverage data, learning, tools, and technologies to target the routes, operations, products, and proceeds of nature crime globally.

In addition, OES provided capacity building for dozens of stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region on cutting-edge technologies for detecting illegal logging and illegal forest products in international trade.  We trained a network of over 100 journalists in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to investigate and expose nature crimes. T he United States revitalized an agreement with Peru to work together on fighting illegal gold mining and related crimes, including in the Amazon.  These are just some of the steps we took this year as we continue to tackle these crimes and criminals that prey on nature and vulnerable populations.

Moving Cities Forward Together

At the Cities Summit of the Americas in April we launched the Cities Forward initiative to enable cities in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States to work together to create sustainable, inclusive, and resilient futures with expert support, access to financial resources, and diplomatic engagement.  We started by matching 12 U.S. cities with counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). For example, Dallas is paired with Guatemala City, a city of about 3 million people; Fortaleza, Brazil, a city of 2.7 million people, is working with Hawaii County and so on.  Next up, the LAC cities will develop projects that will be connected to financial resources.

Defining the United States Extended Continental Shelf Limits

In December, the State Department released the geographic coordinates defining the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf in areas beyond 200 nautical miles from the coast, known as the extended continental shelf (ECS).  Like other countries, the United States has rights under international law to conserve and manage the resources (e.g., corals, crabs) and vital habitats on and under its ECS.  The outer limit’s of the Unite States’ ECS are the product of a two-decade collaboration among the Department of State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and numerous other federal and academic partners.  The U.S. ECS area is approximately one million square kilometers spread across seven regions — in total, roughly twice the size of California.

Addressing Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

With our partners the United Kingdom and Canada, we doubled the membership of the IUU Fishing Alliance and in the fall, kicked off new initiatives that will strengthen countries’ ability to monitor their waters and their fishing fleets.  We expanded essential multilateral tools to combat IUU fishing, including at-sea inspection programs, harmonized data collection and monitoring tools, and a global information exchange mechanism to ensure that bad actors cannot slip the net.  Reaffirming our commitment to the Pacific OES negotiated and signed a new 10-year economic assistance agreement with Pacific Island nations that, pending congressional appropriations, triples the value of U.S. assistance under the agreement to $600 million over 10 years.

Reaffirming our Commitment to the Pacific 

OES negotiated and signed a new 10-year economic assistance agreement with Pacific Island nations that, pending Congressional appropriations, triples the value of U.S. assistance under the agreement to $600 million over ten years. 

Graphic of the flags of all the Artemis Accords signatories. Test reads: Artemis Accords United for Peaceful Exploration of Deep Space.
Artemis Accords Signatories [NASA image]

Promoting Peaceful, Safe, and Sustainable Civil and Commercial Space Activity

In May, Secretary Blinken released the first-ever Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy.  The Framework calls for leveraging diplomacy to advance space cooperation, integrate space into broader U.S. diplomatic objectives, and to build capacity at the Department of State for this work.

A key element of this work is the Artemis Accords, which lay out practical principles grounded in international law to guide safe and transparent civil space activity and promote peaceful cooperation in space exploration.  In 2023 we added 11 new signatories, including India and Germany, to the Artemis Accords.  New signatories also include emerging spacefaring nations, like Angola. Signatories understand that clear transparent ground rules for space activities benefit all nations.

Advocating for Science and Science Cooperation

Through our Science Envoy program, we sent U.S. scientists and experts to 29 countries to advocate for science and to promote science cooperation.  They engaged with peers and audiences around the world on issues such as quantum information science, climate change, Indigenous Knowledge, ocean conservation, and One Health.  This year’s cohort was the largest and most diverse in the program’s history.  OES maintains bilateral science and technology cooperation agreements with nearly 60 countries.  These agreements are a key mechanism for promoting scientific exchanges and cooperation with governmental partners around the world.  We have leveraged many of these partnerships to advance the responsible collaborative development of critical and emerging technologies — such as fusion energy, quantum information science and technology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence — that will significantly shape the future of humankind. 

And Everything Else – Working to Achieve Long Term Goals

Two themes run through all our work.  First, we aim to use technology for good.  We must use innovation and discovery to improve lives and to help solve the key challenges of our time.  We are doing this with our work on the Artemis Accords and through our science and technology agreements.  Second, we are committed to incorporating the views and talents of women and, girls, Indigenous Peoples, and underrepresented groups around the world.  While these people often bear the brunt of climate change and degradation of natural resources, they also may help find solutions.

While we are proud of our accomplishments that make headlines, much of our important work takes place behind the scenes, in long term partnerships, through strategic and targeted cooperation directly with other countries, and the sometimes slow but significant steps toward real policy change and commitments.  Take, for example, the strong U.S. support for the 2023 UN Water Conference in New York – the first such meeting in over 40 years – which has set a new course for international cooperation on global water security.

Our teams also tirelessly work with developing countries to reduce highly toxic mercury pollution and fight deforestation by setting up cooperative forestry projects around the world.  We support seed banks in Central America, Africa, and Asia and are training local women to run them.  And we are advocating for and protecting environmental defenders, often from marginalized or Indigenous groups, who face significant risk for speaking out. We advocate for bringing more women and girls into science and technology-related fields and have instituted training programs for entrepreneurs and pitch competitions to help build a new cohort of innovators, entrepreneurs, and scientists to help us address the challenges of our time.  Across the bureau, there are many projects and areas of work, all which support our long-term goals of protecting the ocean and environment and promoting science and scientific cooperation.

It has been a busy and productive 2023.  Even as the challenges before us loom large, we are making progress to build a better future for Americans and for people and nature around the world that will continue into 2024 and beyond.

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