How well does it really protect the oceans?

“Implementation is often the Achilles’ heel of such agreements”

UN High Seas Agreement: How well does it really protect the oceans?

30 percent of the sea areas should be under nature protection by 2030. This would also benefit the animal species living there.

After 15 years of tough negotiations, it’s done: On Sunday morning, the member states of the United Nations (UN) agreed on an agreement to protect the high seas, or High Seas Agreement for short. A nearly 40-hour marathon session in New York brought the final breakthrough. The states have now laid the foundation for sustainable marine protection: the internationally binding treaty provides, among other things, for areas of the high seas to be protected. The high seas include all areas of the oceans that are more than 370 kilometers from the nearest coast. That is around 60 percent of the sea surface.

So far, the high seas have been an almost lawless area – which, however, has not been unproblematic. For example, the 30 times 30 goal could not be implemented without a set of rules. The world community had agreed on the 30 times 30 target at the World Biodiversity Conference. It aims to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and sea areas by 2030. The High Seas Agreement is therefore the logical consequence of the World Biodiversity Conference. But can it actually help to protect the oceans and their inhabitants in the long term?

Where are the protected areas created?

The High Seas Agreement has not yet been formally adopted. The states didn’t manage to do that in their marathon session in terms of time. Nevertheless, Stefan Hain rates the agreement as a “great success”. It offers a good framework for advancing the protection of marine areas beyond national sovereignty. “But the agreement itself is just the starting signal,” the researcher from the Alfred Wegener Institute made clear, “the actual work is only beginning now.”

For example, the countries must now decide for themselves where the protected areas will be created on the high seas. The High Seas Convention does not regulate that. There are only 22 criteria for the protected areas – including “uniqueness”, “special importance for the species occurring there”, “fragility”, “resilience” and “economic and social factors”. This is to ensure that areas that are worth protecting are also protected. However, the criteria are not really concrete. The States reserve the right to further develop and revise them at any time through a scientific and technical body.

But the federal states do not only have to take the criteria into account. When selecting the protected areas, they should also work together with local stakeholders – i.e. with scientists, indigenous peoples, local communities and national bodies. The aim is to bring together the “best available scientific knowledge and information”, according to a first Draft High Seas Convention. At the same time, working together can help uncover and resolve conflicts of interest by finding compromises together.

A three-quarters majority is sufficient for decisions

It was by no means certain that the international community would agree on protected areas in the high seas. Until recently, China and Russia in particular had insisted that such a decision be taken unanimously. Then a single country’s veto would have been enough to block the High Seas Agreement. A three-quarters majority is now stipulated in the contract. This means that if a resolution is not passed unanimously, it is sufficient if three quarters of the government representatives present vote in favor of it. This could simplify the decision-making process in the future. New resolutions could be launched more quickly.

From Hain’s point of view, another success is that the states have agreed on environmental impact assessments. For companies and governments, this means that in the future they will have to assess how this affects the marine environment before any economic activity on the high seas. The researcher is convinced that this will lead to “higher environmental protection standards” and “more specific rules than those already contained in the Convention on the Law of the Sea”. If those responsible do not carry out an environmental impact assessment, they must justify this publicly and scientifically. The extensive reporting by the federal states increases the transparency and comprehensibility of the rules, says Hain.

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Adopted to share benefits for poorer countries

However, one point caused a dispute between the states to the end: the monetary sharing of benefits. More precisely, the question was how the profits from the use of marine genetic resources are shared between the Global North and the Global South. Because the seas are not only important oxygen producers and carbon dioxide stores that can cushion climate change. For this reason alone it is important that they are in good condition. The seas are also important research sites: Scientists hope that finding previously unknown creatures in the deep sea, which has hardly been explored, will lead to breakthroughs in medicine, for example.

Should there actually be fundamental discoveries in the seas, profit could probably be made from them. Industrialized countries are likely to have an advantage here. They are better able to commercialize natural treasures than products. Therefore, the UN member states have agreed to make an annual lump sum payment. This in turn could help poorer countries to meet the requirements of the High Seas Convention. How high the lump sum will be is still unclear. It will probably be based on the respective economic power of the countries.

Hain is convinced that the concrete form of the sharing of benefits will remain a key issue. “Implementation is often the Achilles’ heel of such new international agreements,” he warned. So far, the states still have a lot of room for interpretation when implementing their projects. The High Seas Agreement is a first rough framework that still lacks important details. However: “Without good implementation at international and national level, the wording in the new agreement will remain good intentions, but in reality little will change in terms of protecting the high seas.”

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