New ocean treaty will safeguard biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction
On Saturday, March 4, at United Nations Headquarters in New York, two decades of negotiations culminated in the first global agreement to protect and conserve biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). In other words, international law now aims to protect life on “the high seas”—areas of ocean more than 200 miles from shore.
Without this new BBNJ Agreement—also known as the High Seas Treaty, or Ocean Biodiversity Treaty—it would not have been legally or practically feasible to achieve the goal of the new Global Biodiversity Framework, agreed in Montreal in December, which calls for protecting 30% of both land-based and marine ecosystems by 2030. The BBNJ Agreement will allow nations to establish universal standards for equitable sharing of benefits from sustainable use of the high seas, by far the largest global commons.
While the CBD process adjudicates biodiversity conservation and the United Nations Climate Change process determines international climate law, the majority of the biological Earth system is in the area known as the high seas — beyond 200 nautical miles from shore — which have long been loosely governed or not at all. Without sufficiently robust and permanent protection of life on the high seas — which cover half the surface of the planet and comprise the majority of the volume of the global ocean — we cannot expect to succeed in averting catastrophic climate disruption.
A study by Deloitte has found that failure to avert catastrophic climate disruption will cost $178 trillion by the year 2070. As awareness of the unaffordable costs and unmanageable chaos resulting from nature loss and climate breakdown becomes mainstream, there is increasing urgency to align national and international law with sustainable priorities.
Finding ways to develop sustainably, without depleting irreplaceable natural systems, and the wildlife they contain, is coming to be understood as an operational imperative for nations, and for industries and investors. The new Ocean Biodiversity Treaty creates a legal foundation for addressing that imperative, sustainably and responsibly.
The BBNJ Agreement was achieved not only by the interaction of governments, but by the careful stewardship of consensus-building informal dialogues involving more than 100 countries.
If the BBNJ Agreement does not yet, explicitly, provide clearly defined legal mechanisms for stopping global loss of biomass, biodiversity, and climate stability, the Conference of Parties will need to provide the legal mechanisms for doing so. Otherwise, any sharing of benefits—monetary and non-monetary—will be happening in a world rife with chaos and disruption. As the Deloitte climate study makes clear, industrial breakthroughs in such a world will not be worth what people imagine they will be worth from our relatively comfortable present-day vantage point.
While this is not its explicit purpose, this new Ocean Treaty creates new opportunities for integrated work across Conventions, so the commitments nations make to planetary health and sustainability can be secured and implemented efficiently and effectively, on all fronts.