UN members reach a historic agreement to protect Earth's seas
It is a scientific fact that human life depends on oceans and their biodiversity. In the last decades, an incredible number of species in the sea have reduced in number so much that they are now at risk of extinction. The scientific community found that under business-as-usual global temperature increases, marine systems will likely experience mass extinctions on par with past great extinctions. Therefore, protecting the biodiversity created in the seas in the last 50 million years is now a critical and urgent global matter. In late August, a fifth round of negotiations for a UN ocean treaty to protect and manage the high seas failed in New York. However, last Saturday, March 4, these negotiations concluded positively. For the first time, the United Nations members have agreed on a unified treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas. This marks the end of 15 years of arduous negotiations and a historic moment for our species' future survival.
The exact content of the treaty has yet to be released. Still, the negotiations focused on four key areas: (1) Establishing marine protected areas for more than 30% of the earth's surface; (2) Improving environmental impact assessments; (3) Providing finance and capacity building to developing countries; (4) Sharing of marine genetic resources - biological material from plants and animals in the ocean that can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food. One of the most sensitive issues revolves around sharing possible profits gained from developing genetic resources in international waters, where pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetic companies hope to find miracle drugs, products or cures. Such costly research at sea is primarily the prerogative of wealthy nations. Still, developing countries want to be included in potential windfall profits drawn from marine resources that belong to no one. Similar issues of equity between the Global North and South arise in other international negotiations, such as on climate change, where developing nations feel outsized harms from global warming and try in vain to get wealthier countries to help pay to offset those impacts.
The treaty now aims to protect the high seas, which begin at a maximum of 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometres, from the coastline and are not under the jurisdiction of any state. Those waters, representing more than 60% of oceans, have long been ignored in environmental regulations. And only around 1% of the high seas are currently subject to conservation measures. Once enacted, the new agreement will create a new body to manage the conservation of ocean life and establish marine protected areas on the high seas. During the conference, global powers also pledged billions of euros worth of funds to help protect the world's oceans. The European Union promised 40 million euros to facilitate the treaty's ratification and to help with its implementation. Beyond that, it has also pledged more than €800 million for ocean protection in general by 2023. There were "341 new commitments" worth nearly €18 billion made at the conference, including almost €5 billion from the United States. Despite the breakthrough in agreeing on the treaty, there is still a long way to go before it is legally agreed upon. The treaty must first be formally adopted at a later session. Then it only enters "into force" once enough countries have signed up and legally passed it in their own countries. Russia was one of the countries that registered concerns over the final text. Governments have to start looking at practically how these measures would be implemented and managed.
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