High Seas Treaty: UN agrees historic deal to protect 30% of international waters by 2030

The High Seas Treaty aims to place 30% of the seas into protected areas by 2030 and was finally agreed by the UN in New York late on Saturday night (4 March). The treaty has been agreed in principle by all 1903 parties, who will meet to formally adopt and ratify the text at a later date. Conference president, Rena Lee of Singapore has confirmed that the text would not be renegotiated.

Negotiations on a global treaty for the oceans have been in the works for more than two decades, and the formal negotiations for the High Seas Treaty have run for more than two weeks in 2023, since they started on 20 February. It is the fifth round of talks for this treaty, following unsuccessful negotiations in August last year.

The High Seas Treaty will act as a key enabler to enforce the 30×30 pledge made by nations at the COP15 biodiversity summit late last year. The global agreement commits nations to protect a third of the world’s seas and land by 2030.

The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat generated by man-made activity since 1970 and sequestered about a quarter of human-caused emissions in the same timeframe. Around half of the global population depends on oceans for their livelihoods, according to the OECD.

The new treaty accounts for almost two-thirds of the oceans that lie outside of national boundaries and nations will adopt a legal framework for new marine protected areas (MPAs) in these areas to protect wildlife. It will also establish a new conference of the parties (COP) for the High Seas Treaty to further develop the framework and hold member states to account.

One of the key breakthroughs of the treaty is the unlocking of finance, with some states paying more, to help the development of the MPAs.

Last year, at the One Ocean Summit, European public banks pledged €4bn of ocean finance by 2025 and a major new private-sector coalition was formed with the aim of leveraging increased investment in marine conservation and restoration projects.

The public finance commitment was led by the European Investment Bank (EIB), France’s development agency and Germany’s KfW development bank, under the existing Clean Oceans Initiative. The Initiative was already working to raise €2bn of finance by 2023 and used the Summit to announce an ambition to double that amount by 2025.

To help speed up the treaty process, the EU has pledged €40m to ensure it is ratified and implemented.

Commenting on the treaty, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition’s Sofia Tsenikli said: “Time is not on our side, and while the Treaty comes into force, it’s imperative that States take all actions necessary to protect the ocean, including the fragile ecosystems and biodiversity of the deep sea.

“As an immediate action, we call on all States to join the growing momentum in support of  a moratorium, precautionary pause or a ban on deep-sea mining, and we urge the few flag States still allowing their vessels to bottom trawl on seamounts to agree to phase out the practice in ABNJ.”

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