contract ahoy? Talks to protect the high seas near the finish line

Greenpeace activists hold a banner in front of the United Nations headquarters during negotiations for a treaty to protect the high seas.

UN countries on Friday seemed closer to reaching agreement on a long-awaited treaty to protect the high seas, a fragile and vital treasure that covers almost half the planet.

After more than 15 years of informal and then formal talks, negotiators are nearing the end of two more discussion weeks, the third “final” meeting in less than a year.

“I don’t think there’s a resolution out of sight,” conference chair Rena Lee said in a brief plenary session Friday afternoon, urging delegates to “stock up on snacks” as they try to finalize the treaty ahead of the scheduled deadline finish line to bring the talks to an end later in the day.

“We have a window to seal the deal and we must not let this opportunity slip through our hands,” she added, acknowledging that the highly political issue of benefit-sharing for marine genetic resources remained a sticking point.

Even if compromises are found on all remaining disputes, the treaty cannot be formally adopted at this meeting, she explained.

But it could be “closed” without resuming discussions on key sections before formal adoption at a later date, Lee added.

Even without the adoption on Friday: “It’s a huge step,” Greenpeace’s Veronica Frank told AFP.

Controversial issues include the process for establishing marine protected areas, the model for environmental impact studies of proposed offshore activities, and the sharing of potential benefits of newly discovered marine resources.

The high seas begin at the borders of countries’ exclusive economic zones, which extend up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the coast. They therefore do not fall under the jurisdiction of any country.

While the high seas make up more than 60 percent of the world’s oceans and almost half of the earth’s surface, they have long attracted far less attention than coastal waters and some iconic species.

ocean of troubles

Graphic outlining the environmental degradation of the oceans caused by human activities.

Only about one percent of the high seas is currently protected.

Marine ecosystems produce half of the oxygen that humans breathe and limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide released by human activities.

North-South “Justice”

But they are threatened by climate change, pollution and overfishing.

For many, any settlement hinges on justice between the rich North and the poor South.

Developing countries that cannot afford costly research fear being left out, while others benefit from the commercialization of potential substances discovered in international waters.

In a move seen as an attempt to build trust between rich and poor countries, the European Union pledged 40 million euros ($42 million) in New York to facilitate the treaty’s ratification and early implementation.

The EU also pledged $860 million for ocean exploration, monitoring and conservation in 2023 at the Our Ocean conference in Panama, where the United States announced $6 billion in pledges.

Observers polled by AFP say resolving these politically sensitive financial issues could help resolve other sticking points.

If an agreement is reached, it remains to be seen whether the compromises made will result in a text robust enough to effectively protect the oceans.

“The text is not perfect, but it shows a clear path towards 30 by 30,” said Greenpeace’s Frank, referring to the commitment of world governments to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030 agreed in Montreal in December.

© 2023 AFP

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