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UN Agrees on Unprecedented Treaty to Protect the High Seas

Previous rules to protect the ocean have been vague and weakly enforced, leaving the seas, marine ecosystems and the people who work them vulnerable to exploitation.

International waters cover nearly half the planet’s surface but have largely remained lawless, until now.

On March 4, almost 200 countries signed a legally binding treaty to protect marine life in international waters after a marathon, multi-day session in New York. The treaty finally provides legal frameworks needed to establish and manage protected marine areas as sanctuaries for ocean biodiversity. It also establishes environmental-assessment frameworks for evaluating damage from commercial activities before they’re started and requires signatories to share ocean resources.

High seas are the area of ocean beyond territorial waters. They embody over 60 percent of the ocean’s surface area — comprising the largest natural habitat on earth — and are home to millions of species. Billions of people rely on food harvested on the high seas; and the oceans are the world’s greatest climate buffer — absorbing 90 percent of excess heat generated by emissions and absorbing a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions.

But the high seas, however vast, are existentially threatened by both climate change and human encroachment. The ocean loses its ability to store carbon as it heats; and it is beginning to acidify — higher temperatures and acidity are already killing coral reefs at an alarming pace. Scientists have also been sounding the alarm on overfishing for decades; and the search for elements needed to electrify the economy — such as lithium — is now expanding to the sea.

Previous rules to protect the ocean have been vague and weakly enforced, leaving the seas and the people who work them vulnerable to exploitation. Less than 8 percent of the ocean was protected — a far stretch from at least 30 percent protection that experts say is needed to maintain a healthy ocean.

A treaty is just what the doctor ordered; and time is short.

“This is a historic day for conservation and a sign that in a divided world, protecting nature and people can triumph over geopolitics,” said Laura Meller, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic. “We praise countries for seeking compromises, putting aside differences and delivering a treaty that will let us protect the oceans, build our resilience to climate change and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. We can now finally move from talk to real change at sea … The clock is still ticking to deliver 30 × 30; we have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent.”

The new treaty ushers ocean governance into a new era, including modern requirements to assess and regulate human activities that could harm marine life. It also provides pathways for greater transparency.

The UN high seas treaty is also a key tool to deliver the Kunming-Montreal target, adopted at COP15, of at least 30 percent of the ocean being protected by 2030 — a number that scientists say is required to maintain a vibrant, healthy ocean.

The treaty was a real success for multilateralism: China played a positive role in the final negotiations; and Global North nations agreed to set aside money to assist developing nations with treaty implementation.

“The negotiations forced leaders from the Global North to work closely with leaders from the Global South,” John Hocevar, who directs ocean campaigns at Greenpeace USA, told Sustainable Brands®. “The treaty wasn't going to solve global inequality or erase hundreds of years of colonial exploitation; but it did lead to significant access and benefit-sharing measures.”

The road to a treaty spans 20 years — starting in 2002, when the UN ICP discussed protection of the marine environment. After 20 meetings through the years (and a marathon 30-hour-plus final negotiating session), the parties reached an agreement.

“The meeting started a bit slowly, and we started to worry that they would once again run out of time,” Hocevar said. “By the second week, there were still large areas of disagreement, and much of the treaty language was still not agreed upon. As the final day of negotiations stretched late into the night, doubt crept back in. But enough delegates were resolved to stick it out that they finally agreed on language after 30 hours of non-stop meetings.”

Greenpeace worked with organizations such as the High Seas Alliance to galvanize support and build awareness. They sailed from the Arctic to Antarctica; and worked with influencers including Jane Fonda, Javier Bardem and David Harbour to reach wide audiences. Now that the treaty has made it across the finish line, Greenpeace is harnessing the momentum it built for treaty support to push for the rapid protection of places such as the Sargasso Sea, the Saya de Malha Bank, and the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount chain.

All that’s left is for nations to formally adopt the treaty. The UN will convene again sometime this year to formally adopt treaty language; then, all 60 countries must ratify the treaty for it to take effect. Then, the work of saving the ocean actually begins.

“As 40 states are members of the High Ambition Coalition, we do not think this needs to take a lot of time,” Hocevar said. “We want to see that happen within a year, which will be necessary for governments to meet their commitment to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.”

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