- The Guardian
- Issue #2045
On March 4, 2023, after two weeks of negotiations and a final 36-hour sitting 193 nations reached agreement on a treaty to protect the biodiversity of 30 per cent of the high seas by 2030. At present only one per cent of the high seas are fully protected.
The Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) had at a previous sitting in August 2022 failed to reach agreement.
Reaching agreement in itself is an achievement. The High Seas Treaty, as it is referred to, lays the basis for the creation of marine parks and sanctuaries covering two-thirds of the ocean beyond national jurisdictions (30 per cent of the ocean) by 2030. Fishing could be banned or heavily restricted in these areas along with other activities that could have a detrimental impact on marine life.
The ocean has taken up much of the impact of human-made global heating, absorbing about one-quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions to date and 90 per cent of the heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions trapped in the Earth’s system. It hosts valuable biodiversity and provides food to millions. Our health and future depend on its biodiversity and health.
The BBNJ is an important step towards meeting goals and targets of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework which were adopted in December 2022 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
At the Kunming-Montreal conference UN General-Secretary António Guterres declared that “without nature, we are nothing.” He pointed to the degradation of the ocean, which is accelerating the destruction of life-sustaining coral reefs and other marine ecosystems – directly affecting those communities that depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.
He pointed the finger at multinational corporations which, he said, are “filling their bank accounts while emptying our world of its natural gifts,” and making ecosystems “playthings of profit.” Guterres condemned the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny number of mega-rich individuals.
Referring to the human cost associated with the loss of nature and biodiversity, he described humanity as “a weapon of mass extinction” which is “treating nature like a toilet,” and “committing suicide by proxy.”
The head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, described the Kunming-Montreal agreement as historic.
“This agreement means people around the world can hope for real progress to halt biodiversity loss and protect and restore our lands and seas in a way that safeguards our planet and respects the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities,” Steiner said.
“Biodiversity is interconnected, intertwined, and indivisible with human life on Earth. Our societies and our economies depend on healthy and functioning ecosystems. There is no sustainable development without biodiversity. There can be no stable climate without biodiversity.”
Nations have rights to marine resources out to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from their coastline. Beyond that there is little regulation and nothing to prevent the overfishing, threats to endangered species and other marine life, or the plundering of the ocean’s rich genetic, mineral, and other resources. Cooperation is lacking and enforcement of the few international agreements is weak.
One million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction. One third of all fished species are now overfished. There has been nothing to compare the destructive consequences of human activity with since the end of the dinosaur era.
The main stumbling block during the BBNJ negotiations was how to share the genetic wealth of the high seas. Under the agreement, all countries will now have to share benefits – financial and otherwise – derived from these resources.
Not surprisingly there was a clear divide between the developed and developing countries, with the developed countries pushing for the interests of multi-national corporations. Agreement was reached and now data, samples, and research advances will need to be shared with the world. This is a huge break-through when the power over governments of Big Pharma is considered.
To make it legally binding, the treaty must be adopted and ratified. After that it will depend on the preparedness of governments to enforce it. Only then will it become an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.