When 193 countries agreed in March 2023 to a new high seas treaty, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, declared it a ‘victory for multilateralism.’ It was a historic moment that offered two genuine causes for celebration: firstly, a more hopeful future for our ocean and, secondly, a welcome reminder in turbulent times that multilateral collaboration can deliver meaningful progress.
The treaty provides a framework for the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to preserve and sustainably manage marine biodiversity in international waters.
The ocean contains 95 per cent of the planet’s ecosystems, soaks up around 30 per cent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and produces half the oxygen we breathe. It is key to healthy economies too with over three billion people depending on ocean and coastal resources for their livelihoods.
Yet, despite its intrinsic value, the ocean has lacked strong governance or a coherent protection regime and its health is rapidly deteriorating. Increasing acidification and rising sea temperatures driven by climate change are threatening marine ecosystems. Direct impacts of commercial activity at sea and on land – including air pollution, underwater noise and marine plastic pollution – are adding to this decline.
The high seas – those waters beyond national jurisdiction – account for two-thirds of the world’s ocean. Today, only 1 per cent of the high seas is governed by rules that restrict human activity in the interests of protecting biodiversity. The treaty offers countries a mandate to establish a network of MPAs to multiply that reach. It is a critical enabler of success in delivering on the ambitious ‘30x30’ commitment under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – the agreement of which, in 2022, marked another breakthrough moment for multilateralism – to protect at least 30 per cent of land, coastal areas and the ocean by 2030.
In addition, as the first multilateral environmental agreement to mention plastic pollution in its preamble, it also offers promise for a future global treaty to tackle the issue, negotiations for which are just beginning.
New precedent for environmental governance
The treaty is the product of two decades of discussion, negotiation and advocacy to navigate many thorny geopolitical issues, chief among them, how to equitably share the value of a global public good. It paves a potentially fruitful path for breakthroughs in future multilateral discussions on which the future of our shared environment depends.
Central to its agreement was a ‘High Ambition Coalition’ of nations (HAC) which committed to finalizing a high seas treaty in 2022. The laser focus of the HAC brought renewed enthusiasm to the long-running negotiations. More importantly, the HAC showed the potential for geopolitical tensions to be put to one side in the interest of global cooperation, bringing together as it did the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and China at a time when relations between these global powers in other political fora – not least in climate change negotiations – are fraught.
In forging agreement on politically charged issues – including recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, global finance mobilization in support of capacity-building and technology transfer among lower-income countries and a benefit-sharing mechanism to manage the equitable distribution of genetic marine resources and their benefits – the treaty signals hope for unlocking impasses in other key areas of global environmental governance.
Indeed, as countries work to flesh out a global fund for climate change-driven loss and damages, agreed at the 2022 UN climate change conference, lesson-sharing and coordination between negotiating parties will be key to successful diplomacy and constructive compromise.
The devil is in the detail
However, agreement on the draft treaty text marks the end of a long process and the start of another. It will enter into force only when ratified by at least 60 countries – a process which could add several more years – and many difficult questions must be answered before then.
Importantly, it remains to be seen how the provisions established under the treaty for MPAs will be actioned by countries. Countries will need to come forward with proposals for MPAs, complete with a draft management plan detailing which activities – such as fishing or commercial shipping – will be restricted in that area and which will not. Those proposals will then be consulted on by all relevant stakeholders including industry and civil society. During this consultation, countries can raise objections to the proposed MPA and its restrictions and can also apply for exemptions.
The area of the high seas to be protected, the location of protected areas, the nature of protection that those areas enjoy and the willingness and capacity of countries to enforce and adhere to what is agreed will all be subject to extensive debate.
Nevertheless, the high seas treaty can – and should – be a turning point in global governance of our ocean but it is a reminder that multilateralism can serve only to lead the proverbial horse to water. As with all multilateral processes, what the treaty delivers, after 20 long years, is a framework for cooperation and collective commitment, awaiting bold action by national leaders.