Fuel for Thought
UN on Brink of Global Deep Sea Mining Ban
Mar 05 2023
Negotiations are underway at the United Nations headquarters in New York to conclude talks for a treaty to protect the high seas. Almost two-thirds of the world’s ocean lies beyond national boundaries, where laws are loosely enforced and exploitation is more susceptible. Fishing, shipping, and scientific research activities are allowed practically at will, with only 1.2% of the high seas protected. Increasing reach of fishing and shipping vessels, deep-sea mining, and “bioprospecting” threaten the high seas, which is critical for human life as it provides half of the oxygen we breathe, represents 95% of the planet’s biosphere, and soaks up carbon dioxide.
The high seas treaty negotiations, the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), are in their final talks and are aimed at protecting huge swathes of the world’s ocean from exploitation. The conference has been ongoing for a while and is the fifth round of negotiations, which ended last August without an agreement. The current round of talks began last week and will end on 3 March.
If the treaty talks are successful, it will create a network of high sea marine protected areas (MPAs) to establish “reservoirs for adaptation and resilience” for species in a changing climate. The deal would also set out rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for other activities, including resource exploitation.
Currently, there is no legal mechanism for establishing protected marine areas on the high seas, rendering any promises to protect 30% of the ocean (as well as 30% of the land) by 2030 meaningless. The talks are critical to enforcing the 30x30 pledge from the UN biodiversity conference in December.
The hold-ups in the treaty talks are practical and ideological, and some countries are protecting their interests. Some of the countries pledged to conclude the talks by signing up to a “high-ambition coalition” for BBNJ at the One Ocean summit in Brest, including the UK, the US, and the EU. However, there are still issues yet to be resolved, such as how this new treaty body will interact with existing organisations, in particular, the fisheries organisations.
Immediate overfishing and illegal fishing are the biggest drivers of environmental decline in the ocean, and a legally binding high-seas treaty would be crucial to breaking down the existing silos between current management bodies, resulting in less cumulative impact and better cooperation. Greenpeace warned that the treaty was in jeopardy, and negotiations must accelerate as major areas of disagreement remain.
There is a real opportunity to make history with this treaty. It is arguably one of the most important international negotiations that no one has ever heard of. The high seas are critical to human life, and a successful high-seas treaty would protect them from exploitation, create a network of high sea marine protected areas, and set out rules for conducting environmental impact assessments for other activities.
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