The United Nations has resumed talks on a treaty that would protect over half the surface of the Earth, including 61% of its oceans. But how close are we to finalising the agreement, and how would its adoption affect us?

The long-awaited verdict on the United Nations High Seas Treaty may soon finally be delivered, after member states entered into a new round of negotiations last week. In fact, this will be the sixth time members have convened to discuss the treaty, with the most recent occurrence in August of 2022 again failing to reach consensus. There’s hope that this latest attempt will mark the finalisation of the historic agreement.

What is the UN High Seas Treaty?

Early talks about how to address the threat to ocean biodiversity that is presented by climate change were initiated back in 2007. Yet it would take another decade before an official body dedicated to the cause was established. Beginning in 2017, the United Nations launched a series of Intergovernmental Conferences (IGC), tasked with the ultimate goal of establishing a global agreement to protect areas of the ocean that exist outside of national maritime borders. The IGCs resolve to set a modern global protective order for our oceans, with the last international agreement was signed back in 1982 (known as the UN Convention on the Law of Sea).

This new agreement would establish policy regarding the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. It colloquially became known as the UN High Seas Treaty or Treaty for the High Seas.

Whilst previous IGCs have yielded some progress, none have come close to delivering a final outcome that achieved the intended goals of the treaty. In August 2022, some 168 UN members assembled for the fifth such effort, yet stalled on matters relating to fishing rights, funding and support for developing countries in service of the treaties goals.

The current IGC convened at the UN headquarters in New York on February 20th, and is expected to run until at least March 3rd.

So far, the international meeting has been fueled with a sense of promise and optimism, with conference chair and president of the Intergovernmental Conference Rena Lee remarking as such during the opening of the latest round of talks.

“There is a lot of positive energy in this room. So, it behooves us to enhance this positive energy, keep our focus, keep our eyes on the prize, and really work to make this (conference) final.”

A green turtle underwater by the Great Barrier Reef
A green turtle on the Great Barrier Reef. Source: Sam Power/Unsplash.

It’s high time the seas were protected

Should the treaty finally be ratified, it will be one of the largest and most impactful environmental protective agreements in history, due in part to the sheer volume of area it will cover. Effectively, the regions of the ocean known as the ‘high seas’ make up over half the surface of the Earth. This space is so named as it exists beyond international jurisdictions (the ocean space just outside of a nation’s borders). Although this vast zone constitutes 61% of all oceans on Earth, as little as 1% of it is currently protected.

The ‘high seas’ effectively make up over half the surface of the Earth. Yet as little as 1% of it is currently protected.

International organisations including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have warned of disastrous consequences should this latest conference go the way of the others and fail to produce a final, binding treaty. In fact, another stalled IGC could threaten the 30×30 goal that was set just last December during COP15 in Montreal. The 30×30 framework asks the international community to protect and conserve 30% of the ocean, with the resolution to ensure 30% of currently degraded areas are in the process of restoration by 2030.

Should the treaty be successful, it will put pressure on the organisations, businesses and governments that currently support (or turn a blind eye) to the plethora of harmful human activities that currently threaten our oceans. Deep-sea mining, oil and gas extraction, rampant pollution, illegal and over-fishing would all suddenly be in the crosshairs, activities that are difficult to control and regulate in international waters.

A healthy ocean means a healthy planet

Over half of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced by creatures in the ocean, which also stores up to 50 times more carbon dioxide that is found in our atmosphere. Not only does it absorb all that CO2, but also 90% of the heat caused by global warming. Yet the warmer the ocean gets, the less CO2 it can store, a vicious cycle with a bad ending, not only for humans but for the myriad creatures that live in the sea. UNESCO estimates that if we do not course-correct, half of all ocean life will be classified as critically endangered by the end of this century.

There is hope that the current treaty talks will foster a renewed sense of collaboration and responsibility from UN members, with representatives’ discussing the possibility of sharing resources and the role of developing nations in the agreement since the talks resumed. However, this is just the next step in a longer process. Once the treaty is finalised, it is then up to national governments to transform the agreement into protective laws.

Should governments adopt the treaty and provide sufficient resources to ensure it is actioned accordingly, humanity will have achieved a historic environmental outcome.

And it come not come at a better time. After all, the future of the world’s oceans is at stake.