Social Good

The High Seas Can Finally Be Protected Under New UN Treaty

UN member states agreed on a legally binding international treaty to protect the high seas on Saturday night, finally ending a decade and a half of discussion.

Over 100 countries agreed to the treaty’s text, which aims to conserve marine biological diversity and use oceanic resources sustainably, hopefully curbing humanity’s habit of destroying the world.

“The ship has reached the shore,” Singaporean UN ambassador and conference president Rena Lee announced, receiving a standing ovation at the UN’s New York headquarters.

The treaty establishes new rules for oceanic mining, pledges economic investment in marine conservation, and will be instrumental in ensuring the UN meets its 30×30 target. Set in December last year, the 30×30 pledge aims to conserve and protect a third of the world’s land and oceans by 2030.

The high seas are any waters that are 200 nautical miles or more from a country’s coastline, and thus fall under no jurisdiction. Previously, there was no formal, legal mechanism for establishing marine protected areas on the high seas. As such, the high seas are currently largely unprotected, with around 99 percent of them open for whatever exploitation and defilement any country can dream up.

“This breakthrough — which covers nearly two-thirds of the ocean — marks the culmination of nearly two decades of work and builds on the legacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

In addition to protecting marine habitats, the UN’s new treaty is a significant step in the fight against climate change. Oceans absorb around 25 percent of all carbon dioxide, and produce approximately half of the world’s oxygen. They also capture up to 90 percent of heat produced by greenhouse gas emissions, keeping the globe much less toasty than we deserve.

The main sticking point holding up negotiations was how marine genetic resources should be shared, as different countries have varying levels of resources available to invest in such research. Such material can be used in developing medicine, cosmetics, and food.

The draft agreement now stipulates that no country may claim ultimate authority and rights over marine genetic resources that have been collected on the high seas. Further, any research using such materials is to be “for the benefit of all humanity” and “shall be carried out exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Though UN member states have agreed on the treaty’s wording, it isn’t technically in place yet. The UN delegates will convene again to formally adopt it at a future date, finally taking steps to protect one of Earth’s most precious assets.

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