Consensus through exhaustion – this tried and tested method of international environmental diplomacy has again led to success. On Saturday evening, an agreement was negotiated in New York that would allow better protection of the high seas. “The ship has reached shore,” said conference president Rena Lee after a 38-hour marathon of negotiations at the end of the two-week conference.
In this, an agreement was negotiated to implement the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which for the first time creates the possibility of placing areas in the high seas under protection and banning fishing or underwater mining there. The high seas include all sea areas outside the 200-mile zone (370 kilometers) and make up two-thirds of the sea area and almost half of the earth’s surface. So far, it has not been possible to designate protected areas there, since neither customary law nor UNCLOS offered a legal basis for this.
The new agreement makes it possible to implement a species protection agreement that was adopted last December. This aims to designate protected areas by 2030 that cover 30 percent of the planet’s land and sea surface. Without the possibility of placing areas in the high seas under protection as well, this goal would hardly have been attainable at sea from a purely mathematical point of view. “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 of the environmental organization Greenpeace.
The new agreement still has to be formally adopted at a follow-up conference. It will come into force once 60 countries have ratified it. A decision can then be made at conferences of the contracting parties as to where the new protected areas are to be created. The decisive factor here is that no consensus is required for this, but voting is possible. A single country cannot prevent a protected area.
The biggest sticking point was the sharing of profits from the use of genetic resources in the sea. Around 230,000 animal and plant species are known to exist in the sea, but there are probably several million species. The genome of the as yet unknown species could hold the key to the development of new medicines and could therefore be very valuable. But exploring the deep sea is expensive and is therefore only pursued by the rich countries.
From the point of view of the developing countries, however, the high seas and the biodiversity there are “a common heritage” of humanity and they therefore demanded that they also benefit financially from the commercialization of genetic resources. How exactly this problem could finally be overcome was still unclear immediately after the end of the conference, because the text had not yet been published.
Another sticking point was environmental impact assessments for activities that potentially pose a threat to marine biodiversity, such as underwater mining. The seabed in some places is rich in various metals such as manganese and companies from some countries want to exploit these deposits. However, a lot of sand is whirled up, which can pose a danger to some species. For this reason, many states are calling for a moratorium on underwater mining.
However, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) does not have the option of rejecting applications for mining licenses across the board. By creating mandatory environmental impact assessments for such activities, the new agreement puts the ISA in a better position to take environmental considerations into account when issuing mining licenses. Exactly what the rules for these tests look like cannot yet be said due to the lack of text.
In contrast to many other UN environment conferences, money was only a side issue at the negotiations that just ended. The EU has pledged €40 million to help poorer countries ratify and implement the new agreement. In addition, at another conference, which also ended on Saturday, further funds were pledged: This year the EU is investing 816 million euros in marine research and the USA is providing almost seven billion dollars for an unspecified period. In addition, some large charitable organizations are active in marine conservation. As soon as the new agreement enters into force, significant progress in protecting the seas should therefore be possible relatively quickly.