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What is the UN Ocean Treaty and Why was it Essential?

In this article we’ll look at why an international treaty to protect our oceans was needed, and how the UN Ocean Treaty will help to protect the Earth’s oceans and marine biodiversity.
Business
2023-03-31T00:00:00.000Z
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The UN Ocean Treaty is a historic step towards achieving the target of protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. A long awaited and hard won international agreement, the UN Ocean Treaty represents years of discussions and negotiations between UN member states. 

In fact, at points it was feared that a consensus between UN members would never be reached - with a clear divide between developed nations who fought to maintain their benefits under the freedom of the high seas principle, and developing nations who pushed for the common heritage of mankind principle. However, after compromises on both sides, in March 2023, members of the United Nations finally agreed on an international treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters. 

👉 In this article we’ll look at why an international treaty to protect our oceans was needed, and how the UN Ocean Treaty will help to protect the Earth’s oceans and marine biodiversity.

Why is the ocean so important?

In order to appreciate why the UN Ocean Treaty is such a crucial development, it’s first important to understand why the Earth’s oceans and seas are so important. 

It’s  called the blue planet for a reason - oceans and seas cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Not only do our oceans provide food, regulate our climate, and produce most of the oxygen that we breathe, they’re also a basis for much of the world’s economy, supporting sectors such as fishing, shipping and tourism. Let’s take a closer look at some of these crucial functions in a bit more detail: 

turtle swimming under the sea

Climate regulation and oxygen production

The Earth’s oceans absorb as much as 25% of all carbon emissions, and is the world’s largest carbon sink, helping to prevent rising levels of CO2 from entering our atmosphere and further warming the planet. Not only this, the Earth’s oceans also crucially produce as much as 50% of the oxygen needed for us to survive.Our oceans and seas therefore not only help to combat climate change but also act as the lungs of our planet. 

Another great feat that our ocean’s perform is that they absorb more than 90% of excess heat in the atmosphere which has helped to regulate temperatures on land. Without the ocean’s cooling effect, the world would be a lot hotter than it is today.

Food

The ocean provides the Earth’s growing population with 15% of the animal protein we eat and in many developed countries seafood is actually the primary source of protein. This is why sustainable fishing practices and protecting the ocean’s biodiversity is so important. Under current fishing practises more than 10 million tons of fish are wasted every year, and UNESCO predicts that over 50% of the world’s marine species may face extinction by the end of the century if we don’t do something to prevent this from happening. 

fish

Jobs and livelihoods

Nearly 3 billion people - almost 50% of the world’s population - rely on our oceans and sea for their livelihood! Worryingly, over 60% of the marine ecosystems that form the basis of these livelihoods are being exploited in unsustainable ways, with some even being completely destroyed. 

On top of this, plastic pollution is entering our marine ecosystems at increasingly high levels - over 11 million tons of plastic a year - this costs the global economy an estimated $13 billion USD in clean up costs and losses to fisheries and other marine based industries.

Economic development

Our oceans and seas represent a significant economic asset, and ocean economies are some of the most quickly growing, with a value of $3 trillion USD a year (ie. 5% of global GDP). Oceans are particularly important for developing countries, as it helps them to attract foreign investment, and to grow their industries. 

Oceans are also hugely important to countries who rely on them for tourism - 80% of tourism is linked to water bodies such as oceans and the sea, and this sector sees a growth of $134 billion USD every year. With rising oceans and coral bleaching, oceanfront communities are at increasing risk of displacement and loss of income.

catamaran on tropical beach

Human survival

Most crucially the ocean is central to our survival as a species. The ocean plays a significant role in climate regulation, the provision of food and jobs, and the world's economy. It’s therefore crucial that we protect the Earth’s oceans.

Why are our oceans in danger?

Despite the crucial role of our oceans and seas, they are facing a grave threat as a result of human activity: Climate change is damaging and destroying coral reefs and other important marine ecosystems; overfishing is threatening fish and marine life; over 11 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in our oceans annually; pollution is resulting in ‘dead zones’; and almost 80% of wastewater is discharged without treatment. These issues threaten the survival of our oceans and seas, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency. 

Part of the problem comes from the lack of regulation over our oceans. Countries have jurisdiction over their immediate coastal waters - up to 230 miles from the shoreline - however, after this point, the high seas are largely left as an open free for all. There’s very little to stop them from being exploited, in fact 43% of our oceans are vulnerable to overfishing practices, unregulated deep-sea drilling and bioprospecting (ie. the practice of searching for plant and animal species for the purpose of creating medicinal drugs, biochemicals or other commercially valuable material). 

Thankfully, the issue has been recognised by a majority of countries, and under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, these countries have been working towards founding some kind of legal protection for the world’s oceans.

plastic bottles washed up on beach

UN Ocean Treaty context

Although there was a general consensus amongst nations that some kind of legal protection was needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and seas, agreement on the wide ranging issues was hard fought. Discussions started nearly two decades again and negotiations at the UN Headquarters in New York spanned from 2018 to 2023, over six meetings lasting two weeks each. 

Each  of the previous five attempts fell through as leaders failed to agree on how to fairly distribute benefits from marine life, establish protected areas or agree on a process for environmental impact assessments. 

Many lay blame on countries within the High Ambition Coalition (of which there are 51 members including the UK, Norway, Germany, Switzerland and France) alongside the US and Canada. The High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People is an intergovernmental group that champions a global deal to halt the loss of species and protect our ecosystems, therefore, you’d think that they would be strong proponents of an effective treaty to protect the ocean. However, countries within the HAC and the US and Canada were accused of greed and prioritising hypothetical future profits from marine genetics resources over the need to protect our oceans. This led to negotiations reaching a stalemate after the fifth UN Treaty Talks in 2022, leading many to fear that an agreement could ever be reached.

Agreement reached on the UN Ocean Treaty

Throughout negotiations there was a clear divide between developing countries who argued that the high seas were the ‘common heritage of mankind’, and developed nations (including the UK, the US, and most EU states) who favoured the freedom of the high seas principle which would for the most part allow countries to do as they pleased. It was only by reaching a compromise between the two positions that it was possible for a consensus to be reached by the countries. The final text incorporates the common heritage of mankind principle while also maintaining “the freedom of marine scientific research, together with other freedoms of the high seas”.

It was on Saturday 4th March 2023, after almost two decades of discussions, that UN member states finally agreed on a treaty to protect the Earth’s oceans. Let’s take a closer look at how exactly the UN Ocean Treaty will achieve this.

The UN Ocean Treaty in detail

The UN Ocean Treaty, also known as the UN High Seas Treaty is a historic deal to protect international waters. After many long years of discussion, followed by years of tense negotiations, UN member states have finally agreed on a legal framework that will conserve parts of the high seas, outside their maritime boundaries. 

The UN Ocean treaty which currently exists as a 54 page draft agreement titled the ‘Draft agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of maritime biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction’, aims to “ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity”.

In addition to this primary focus, it also recognises “the need to address, in a coherent and cooperative manner, biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems of the ocean, due to, in particular, climate change impacts on marine ecosystems, such as warming and ocean deoxygenation, as well as ocean acidification, pollution, including plastic pollution and unsustainable use.”

So, how does the UN Ocean Treaty purport to achieve these goals? We’ve laid out some of the most important features of the treaty in more detail below.

outside the United Nations building in Geneva

Common heritage of mankind

Under traditional principles of international law, our oceans have been subject to the freedom of the high seas principle, which means that essentially the high seas are open to all nations. However, this free-for-all access has meant that our oceans have become over-fished, a dumping ground for excess waste and over-exploited for oil and other resources. With no limits on unsustainable use, and no commitments to conserving marine biodiversity, our oceans and seas have been exploited without repercussions for too long. 

The UN Ocean Treaty endeavours to address this. It contains the ‘common heritage of humankind’ principle, which views our oceans and their ecosystems as a vital and complex ecological system that belongs to mankind - both present and future generations. By including this principle in the UN Ocean treaty, signatories will bear a responsibility to act in the interests of mankind when it comes to their use of the high seas and its resources.

Many countries, including the EU, have been criticised for trying to omit this principle from the text, but thankfully a compromise was reached. The principle of common heritage of humankind now sits on an equal footing with freedom of marine scientific research, together with other freedoms of the high sea. 

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

One of the key measures contained within the UN Ocean Treaty established a road map for establishing Marine Protected Areas, which some also like to call national parks of the sea. What this means in effect is that in about 30% of the world’s oceans, problematic human activities such as drilling for oil or commercial fishing could be either limited or completely prohibited. 

This aligns with the 30x30 target. In 2016 the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) called for 30% of each marine habitat to be designated as highly protected MPAs, with the ultimate aim of 30% of the Earth’s Ocean to be protected by 2030. This will help to preserve our marine ecosystems and will ensure that our oceans are more resilient to the effects of climate change. This target of 30% has since been adopted by countries around their world as part of their own targets (190 countries to be exact), as well as by a number of international organisations. Most recently the 30x30 target to protect 30% of the plant’s land and water by 2030 was agreed on at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), which took place in December 2022, participants included the EU and G7 countries.

underwater coral and fish

Polluter-pays principle

The adoption of this principle in the UN Ocean Treaty places responsibility on polluters to take responsibility for their pollution - this means they must manage and bear any costs of actions resulting in pollution. 

Access to marine genetic resources

First up, let’s briefly define what we mean by marine genetic resources. Marine genetic resources are the genetic material of marine plants, marine animals, or microbial specimens that hold value on account of their genetic and biochemical properties. These genetic resources can be used for a variety of different applications - for example, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food, industrial processes and scientific research. Reaching an agreement on access and benefit sharing of marine genetic resources and eventual profits was a major sticking point in previous negotiations on the UN Ocean Treaty, with developing nations fighting for benefit sharing. 

The UN Ocean Treaty will regulate how these resources are shared, and will aim to ensure equitable distribution. Countries agreed to develop a multilateral benefit sharing mechanism which includes things like access to samples, digital sequence information, access to scientific data, technical cooperation and transfer of marine technology and capacity building. The details on the sharing of financial benefits are also laid out in the UN Ocean Treaty under the  section on financial mechanisms.

scientist in lab with microscope and samples

Global standards for environmental impact assessments

The new UN Ocean Treaty mandates that environmental impact assessments must be carried out before any new exploitation of marine resources takes place beyond national maritime boundaries. 

The UN Ocean Treaty contains 13 articles that set out the guidelines and standards for how EIAs will be carried out, monitored and reviewed. Environmental impact assessments on commercial activities in our oceans will also take into consideration the cumulative impact of the activity, as well as the combined or incremental impact of different activities. 

What's important to note is that the aim of the UN Ocean Treaty is not to render Earth’s oceans untouchable but instead is about adopting a precautionary approach to using maritime resources in a responsible and sustainable fashion.

👀 Looking forward

There’s no doubt about it, the UN Ocean treaty is a historic and significant moment in the protection and preservation of Earth’s oceans. It offers a new level of protection with regards to our marine ecosystems and represents a global consensus and commitment when it comes to protecting the future of our oceans. 

However, the battle is not over. It is now up to the individual countries to adopt the treaty provisions into domestic law. And history has shown us that international treaties are not always readily translated into reality - the US for example is still to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea despite the fact that it was signed over 40 years ago! 

turtle swimming in the ocean

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If you enjoyed this article, check out our legislation tracker to discover what frameworks, regulations and guidelines apply to your business and industry.

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