In a monumental, jaw-dropping demonstration of global community, the nations of the world made history when they agreed The High Seas Treaty - to protect 95% of the habitable space on Earth. Ed Goodall explores how we got there and what happens next.
Last summer I was feeling frustrated when I wrote a blog about the need to agree a High Seas Treaty. It’s commonly understood by leaders that nations need to come together to protect those vast areas of ocean that do not fall under the governance of any country. As I wrote, we were in the middle of the fifth session of negotiations and by the time these talks ended, everyone who was involved or looking on was exasperated when countries could not find common ground … again. Those discussions ended in yet another stalemate and a date for their resumption was kicked down the road. Meanwhile we were hurtling ever closer to the tipping points of climate chaos and biodiversity collapse.
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Kicking the can
Decision-makers are fully aware of the scientific realities of what they need to do. At times I find this wasting of precious time unbearable. But then in December, something changed.
The world’s countries gathered in Montreal for another of the United Nation’s merry-go-round of ‘COPs’ – COP15 of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the twin sister of the more well-known climate-COPs, which were both born at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. COP15 had been delayed by the pandemic and then again as the world opened up because China had the presidency and therefore hosts the conference. China was kicking the can of all life on Earth down the road until the CBD secretariat, based in Montreal, offered to host the conference, with China retaining the presidency.
Months of hastily organised meetings in the lead-up to Montreal produced various versions of the draft texts for the Global Biodiversity Framework. Each one attempting to shed the weight of bracketed text. Brackets mean no agreement. Brackets mean time. Brackets can mean another species goes extinct before we have done anything. Montreal came around and beleaguered delegates, exhausted from a jam-packed series of conferences to try to save the world, sat in windowless rooms as snow fell, still trying to shed the brackets. Up until the final day it felt like we were destined to kick that can again.
Then something changed. Countries started to come together around a text prepared by the presidency. The loss of brackets from the text made people look at the bigger picture, the common elements that unite us all – Mother Earth needed everyone and the world bowed before her. It wasn’t perfect. Global agreements that require consensus never are, but the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was born. It was less ambitious perhaps than the most ardent conservationists would wish for, but it went further than some countries would have ever committed to before getting to Canada. I was there and I genuinely believe when that gavel came down in the early hours of the morning on 19th December 2022, it was a turning point in history.
Delegates returned to their corners of the globe, escaped from their formal wear for a few days and spent time with their loved ones as the Earth completed another orbit around our star. 2023. Seven years to save the world. Off we go again.
Montreal had, amongst many ambitious targets and goals, set the world the challenge to protect and restore 30% of land and sea by 2030, the so-called 30x30 goal. This inclusion of the seas would be problematic as without a mechanism to legally protect the High Seas, it would essentially be impossible. Delegates knew this in New York as they reconvened the fifth session of talks in February. The first few days followed a similar pattern to Montreal. Brackets. Hours of discussion over individual words. Dismay.
Drop becomes ocean
Then that little drop of hope. A breakthrough. Brackets being lost. The drop became a trickle, a stream, a torrent and then an ocean. All of a sudden a text appeared. What was happening? The world was collectively realising that it could come together. Almost 20 years. A human generation of talks to get there but the world had the text of a High Seas Treaty to protect two-thirds of the ocean – or 95% of the habitable space on Earth.
At WDC, we have been part of the High Seas Alliance, pushing the case for a strong and legally binding agreement that means we can protect huge swathes of the surface of the planet, the miles of ocean beneath the waves and all the life it contains from the greatest whales to the tiniest worms. We will be able to do this by creating marine protected areas (MPAs) collaboratively across countries. Of course, we must ensure these MPAs are meaningful and not allow for any biodiversity-negative practices, but we know this can be done and the benefits are astounding. Life bounces back every time. Countries have to ensure their legislation matches that of the Treaty, getting rid of loopholes to allow for malpractice.
The Treaty itself is not yet in force. It must be ratified – a long and laborious process which will probably take until 2025. That’s not such bad news, but it does mean we have to be ready for 2025. High Seas MPAs need to be identified and management plans drawn up. The race is on to hit the water swimming at full speed, by which point we’ll have less than five years to save the planet.
One thing we desperately need the Treaty to assist us with is influencing the International Seabed Authority to bring about a moratorium or precautionary pause on deep-sea mining – a treacherous and almost ACME style way to obliterate life even more effectively than we do already. The seabed is where incredible amounts of carbon are stored. Whales sink to the ocean floor and contribute to this important climate maintenance tool, but deep-sea mining would be like lighting a fire under a bath that was already too hot.
The doomsday clock is ticking ever louder but if you listen closely, you can hear the ocean and her might swelling in the background. A mightiness booming with whale song and dolphin clicks. An ocean just waiting to come back to life. Let’s give her back some breathing space. Let’s start with 30%. Let’s see how much higher we can push that number as the world realises what collectively we can achieve when we realise what is at stake.
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