The past year has shown us the importance of strong leadership in the face of a major crisis.
For me, this is a moment of reflection as I stand down as Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and step away from national politics.
Such change can bring clarity, and it is clearer than ever that we need strong leadership to at last take global action to protect our planet.
And nothing is more important, more global, than the ocean, the majority of which lies beyond national jurisdictions, perilously beyond the reach of governance or regulation. Indeed, half of our planet’s surface does not belong to any country but must be the responsibility of every country, especially in a time when the resilience of our blue planet’s ecosystems to human activity is diminishing dangerously by the minute. Today just 1% of these international waters are protected, but our leaders have the power to change that.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the so-called high seas – the international waters that are the responsibility and heritage of all humankind – is ready to be seized.
The twenty-year quest for an international treaty to protect marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (known as “BBNJ”) is entering its final stage of negotiations and due to be completed at a final session at the UN in August.
But it is not a done deal. Disputes remain and the threat of states settling for a flimsy, toothless treaty cannot be discounted. To reverse the fortunes of the ocean, our leaders need to up their game and champion the High Seas Treaty at the highest levels.
The European Union is ideally placed to rise to this challenge and work with others to break through the last sticking points in the negotiations and get the treaty over the finish line. And that includes ensuring the High Seas Treaty lives up to its historic mandate. Our ocean deserves more than a compromise that placates the status quo. As acknowledged in the Leaders' Pledge for Nature, signed by over 80 heads of state, we need transformative change if we are to address the crisis facing our planet. For the ocean to be protected, we need a robust, binding High Seas Treaty that makes a real difference on the water.
To get there, EU leaders must raise their ambitions far beyond the safeguarding language currently on the table that risks creating yet another talking shop.
We cannot accept a treaty that codifies current practice and rubber stamps sub-standard management and “paper parks” – marine protection in name only. Current practice is not working; just look at the declining health of the ocean and its creatures. Seabirds, fish and marine mammals are dying in frightening numbers from plastic pollution and illegal fisheries, their habitats and lives continuously disturbed by noise, chemical pollution, eutrophication and seabeds damaged by human activities. And not least is the deadly threat of acidification and warming due to the climate crisis, already killing coral reefs and stressing all marine life.
We also do not want a treaty that is fatally weakened by excluding key industries, particularly fishing, seabed mining and other activities that have the biggest effect on marine life. Basic modern assessment and management requirements – much like those that apply within the waters of the EU as well as other countries– need to apply to all human activities happening in the high seas as well.
Finally, we need to learn from other multilateral bodies and avoid veto powers that allow a single country to block actions supported by the vast majority. The ongoing obstruction of new marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean by just a couple of member states of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources should stand as a cautionary tale of lowest-common-denominator decision-making.
So, what does a robust High Seas Treaty look like?
First of all, it needs to have “teeth” – including the authority to take decisions related to our shared international waters on behalf of the global community.
Secondly, it needs to be built on equality and uniform cross-sectoral assessment and management standards that apply to fishing, shipping, and all other marine activities on the high seas, together with provisions for oversight.
And, finally, it must include mechanisms for establishing and managing MPAs on the high seas, vital for fully and highly protecting the 30% of the ocean by 2030 called for by a growing number of governments.
Starting now, and in the months leading up to the final negotiations, the EU should prove they are serious about agreeing to a treaty that enables all countries to benefit equitably. That means making a credible offer to the developing world about sharing marine genetic resources and supporting the capacity building and transfer of marine technology, two of the most intractable treaty issues. To provide the breakthrough needed, this offer cannot just re-brand existing offers, but include and identify additional resources, and lay the groundwork for a genuinely fair benefit-sharing regime.
The EU and other governments also need to be more proactive about getting key sectors on board. The High Seas Treaty won’t succeed without the active cooperation of fishing and shipping bodies like Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Maritime Organization. Steps should be taken now to engage them in the discussions and consult on their roles in the treaty’s implementation. Marine protection is a complex challenge that requires collaboration, there’s no room for defensive posturing among organizations.
Every opportunity to amplify the importance of securing a strong High Seas Treaty and advance the negotiations should be taken. The EU can make sure it is on the agenda at the upcoming G7 and G20 Summits, President Biden’s Climate Summit on April 22 and other high-level gatherings, including those on the interconnected climate and biodiversity crises.
After decades of deliberation, a treaty to protect our blue planet is finally within our grasp. Now is the time for the EU to take the lead, do the hard work of reconciling tough issues, and be the champion the ocean needs. Our leaders must say no to paper parks, no to exclusions, no to business as usual and no to obstructive veto powers, and insist on a global, equitable High Seas Treaty that delivers effective ocean protection. The opportunity is there, we just need to take the plunge.
Isabella Lövin is a former deputy prime minister of Sweden. She is co-chair of Friends of Ocean Action and a network member of Ocean Unite.