Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech at the 9th “Our Ocean Conference” in Athens

Excellencies, dear colleagues, your All Holiness, your Beatitude, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to Athens for the 9th “Our Ocean Conference”.

Ocean, “Ωκεανός” in Greek, was the son of the Earth and the Sky, one of the Titans that preceded the Olympian Gods. Our love of the sea runs in our veins, it has shaped our history and our culture, and today it continues to support us, to nurture us, and to give us great joy.

But that joy is tempered by the twin crises we face today. This Conference meets at the intersection of both. The first, the climate crisis, is changing our planet daily. Here in Greece, we see that season by season, year by year, with rising temperatures, even more devastating fires, and catastrophic floods.

The other crisis is that of our Ocean. The Ocean has absorbed CO2 and excess heat, and we now see dramatic shifts in sea ice cover, sea temperature, and the overall health of marine ecosystems.

Only this week scientists reported the fourth global mass bleaching event – where coral gets stressed and turns white because the water it lives in is simply too hot. Our Ocean is literally sending us distress signals.

And of course, long before we understood climate change the Ocean was already under attack from over-exploitation and from pollution.

It has been for many years the destination – the dumping ground, really – for our farms and factories. For people who make a trip to the beach, for cities and their waste, for ships that cross the Ocean to deliver the goods that we need.

The Ocean has paid a heavy price for its service to humankind. It has been a vital source of life and livelihood. We have not been kind to it in return.

So, we meet today with a new sense of urgency. Our world is changing faster than our capacity to adapt to change. This is creating immense pressures – political, economic, physical, and social. No one can make any plan without accounting for the climate crisis.

The long-term solution is very clear: to achieve a dramatic decline in greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades. Greece is doing its part. Our emissions have fallen by 43% since 2005, this is the largest percentage decline in the European Union. Our electricity generation from coal is down nearly 90%.

Greece is a leader when it comes to renewable energy, ranking fourth in the EU in terms of the penetration of wind and solar in our electricity mix. And we will continue to lead, especially in new fields, such as off-shore wind.

But no matter how fast we reduce emissions, we cannot outrun the climate crisis. Last year, Greece experienced our longest heatwave on record, followed by a mega forest fire in NorthEastern Greece, at the region of Evros, and then an unprecedented flood from Storm “Daniel”. All this happened in the span of a few weeks. The frequency and severity of extreme events is rising.

So, as we build the low-carbon society of the future, we must also shore up the society of the present. We must invest in cost-effective resilience and civil protection, and we must devote more resources to helping people recover. We must build, and rebuild, for the climate of the future.

But mitigation and adaptation are not enough. We must also focus on protection and restoration, to insulate lands and seas from harmful human activity, and to give space to nature to heal. And nature can heal, as we saw during Covid, when a short break from fishing helped rejuvenate fishing stocks at an astonishing pace.

Economic activity and protecting nature can and must go hand-in-hand. And this protection is not only a scientific, it is also a spiritual, it is also a moral imperative, underscored by the presence here of his All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Thank you for being here and thank you for leading and speaking about the climate crisis, well before many of us were aware of the challenges we would face.

We must ensure continuity in our efforts. This is why I am proud to announce that private philanthropy, led by the Bloomberg Ocean Fund, has agreed to help fund a secretariat that will support future conferences, starting with the next hosts, South Korea, by following up on existing commitments and their implementation.

Here in Greece we have adopted by law the target of protecting at least 30% of our land and sea area by 2030. Greece was also the first EU country to recognise “Key Biodiversity Areas” in its national legislation.
We have set up a special protection status to forbid the construction of new roads and other artificial surfaces in nine emblematic mountainous areas. It is an initiative we named “Untrodden Mountains.”

We have extended this logic to the sea, identifying more than 200 beaches in marine protected areas where we prevent any commercial exploitation. Some areas must remain untouched and completely unaffected by mass tourism.

At this conference we have expanded our commitments, let my just highlight 4 important ones:

We will establish two additional marine national parks, one in the Ionian, one in the Aegean, increasing the size of our marine protected areas by 80% and covering about 1/3 of our territorial marine waters.

We will ban bottom trawling in our national marine parks by 2026 and in all marine protected areas by 2030.

We will establish a state-of-the-art surveillance system, powered by drones, satellites and artificial intelligence, to effectively patrol these areas by 2026.

And we will remove plastic litter in the water by 50%, and microplastic by 30% by 2030, relatively to 2019.

In total, in preparing for this Conference, Greece has identified 21 actions enabled by €780 million in secured funding, making what I believe is a significant down payment on the future health of our Ocean.

We are also pleased to announce the launch of an important initiative: a dedicated Decarbonization Fund for our islands, paid for by allowances from the European Emissions System.

This fund, depending on the price of carbon, could ultimately be worth €2 billion, to connect our islands to the mainland grid, to fund storage and renewables, including offshore wind. It will help build multipurpose water reservoirs. On top of its “infinite blue,” the Greek Polynesia must and will become greener.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Greece chose to host the 9th Our Ocean Conference to catalyse action. We are heartened by the commitments that have been made during this gathering: over 400 pledges, exceeding $10 billion in value.

These announcements, and the presence of so many of you here today, shows that we have the political will to act. Only by working together, governments, business, civil society, and by being true to the spirit of equity and solidarity, can we tackle this global challenge.

It is my hope that we will look back at the 9th “Our Ocean Conference” as a turning point in the long arc of protecting our Ocean. Only through our actions can we say that we truly made our mark, in helping our Ocean reach its potential.

Thank you once again for coming to Athens.