Rena Lee, chairwoman of the UN High Seas Treaty Committee, announced that an agreement had been reached. Her emotions reflected her relief, exhaustion and sheer human effort that multilateralism requires.
It is difficult to get 193 countries to agree on anything in a divided world.
But reaching a brand new politically-sensitive pact covering nearly two thirds of the planet’s oceans that don’t actually belong to anyone is another thing entirely.
This is why UN member countries have struggled for more than two decades to find a way to protect the high seas.
They have achieved this on paper and it was not too late.
Life on Earth is supported by our oceans and the biodiversity they contain.
They produce almost half the planet’s oxygen, absorb 25% of its carbon dioxide, and take in the excess heat it produces.
However, they are at grave risk from global warming, overfishing, and pollution.
John Kerry, US climate envoy, said it recently: “The Ocean is Life itself.”
“Life is at risk because of the reckless and careless actions of humans without considering the consequences and without considering that it is a living organism, an integrated system. This system can also be destroyed if it is given the wrong inputs.
Jane Fonda, actress and activist, put it less delicately: “We are pooping inside our kennel. We are supposed be so intelligent. We destroy things that we don’t even know.”
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What’s in the High Seas Treaty? Why is it necessary?
In a nutshell the treaty will establish a legal framework to create vast marine protected areas (MPAs).
All activities on the high seas will now be subject to environmental impact assessment, and member states will be held responsible for their actions.
According to charity WWF, the treaty itself is focused on four areas: marine genetic resources and area-based management tools; environmental impact assessments; and transfer of marine technology and capacity building.
This could result in restrictions on fishing and activities like deep-seabed mining or deep-seacarbon capture and storage.
Before now, attempts to protect marine species such as dolphins and whales and human communities that depend on fishing and tourism related to marine life have been hindered by a confusing array of laws.
It is hoped that the requirement on developed countries to share knowledge, technologies, and build capacity will lead to, especially for developing nations, more participation in the conservation and maintenance of the high seas.
Jessica Battle, an oceans governance expert from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, stated that the treaty would help to connect the various regional treaties in order to address threats or concerns.
The UN high seas agreement is a landmark in a long journey that has been fraught with failures, false starts, and countless setbacks.
There is much more to do.
The agreement establishes the legal framework to create vast marine protected zones that will allow for deep-sea mining, fishing, and shipping control. It also allows for equitable distribution of newly discovered resources.
This will make it extremely difficult in practice because of the many competing industries and organizations that have to find a way for them to work together in an environment that has been lawless.
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Experts warn that the treaty needs to be quickly adopted, ratified, and implemented to have any real impact.
They warn that it is still not clear how this will be implemented.
Delegates will realize all this as they travel home from New York.
They will be able to say that they were part of a historic agreement that showed the power and potential of multilateralism in addressing the climate crisis.