The high seas extend across nearly half the surface of our planet – a vast, critical part of the world’s ecosystem that has so far escaped meaningful and much-needed regulation. Hopefully, that is about to change. This week, delegates are meeting at the United Nations in New York to begin negotiating the text of a high seas biodiversity treaty.
The treaty is a once-in-a-generation chance to safeguard Earth’s last great wilderness. As one of the most important new instruments in international environmental law for decades, it could propel the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea into the 21st Century and protect marine biodiversity and the habitats of our planet’s marine life.
We must seize the moment and protect the ocean. The multiple threats confronting the marine environment and all who depend on it have reached crisis levels in terms of loss of marine biodiversity but also as consequence of climate change. Scientists have confirmed that 2018 was the hottest year ever recorded for the global ocean, a record that is not expected to hold for long. A warmer ocean leads to more powerful hurricanes and rising seas, and drives species to migrate to cooler waters, while killing precious coral reefs.
The chemistry of the seas is also changing. After millions of years of stability, CO2 in the ocean is now causing it to acidify 100 times faster than at any other time in human history. Plastic and noise pollution permeate from pole to pole, overfishing continues largely unchecked, and deep-sea mining is poised to assault the marine environment. Populations of some of the most iconic ocean creatures, such as Pacific bluefin tuna and leatherback turtles, have already declined dramatically.
Governments and other key players have been treading water for far too long. Even though the health of the ocean is being talked about more than ever, action is failing to keep up with the catastrophic pace of the changes confronting marine life. It is time to raise our ambition.
All nations must stand together and push for a robust high seas treaty – a global framework that will do for the ocean what the Paris Agreement seeks to do for the climate. It must be legally binding, include strong measures for conserving and protecting high seas biodiversity, and be ready to be signed on schedule in 2020. Meeting this tight timetable will take discipline and leadership. It will also prove that the world is still able to unite behind multilateral solutions for the benefit of us all.
This makes 2019 a critical year for boosting global action to support ocean resilience and biodiversity. The treaty talks in New York coincide with the 10th annual gathering of the Monaco Blue Initiative, this year focusing on extending and strengthening Marine Protected Areas. Later in the year, the G20 Summit in Japan and the G7 Summit in Biarritz both have ocean and coastal resilience on the agenda. But talk is cheap. And it is not enough.
These opportunities for ocean protection must be springboards to action – decisions must be taken this year that turn global commitments into ocean action. Signatories to the treaty to conserve Antarctic marine living resources will decide on whether to protect huge areas of the Southern Ocean in late October. In early 2020, Chile will host the ‘blue’ climate COP, where the health of the ocean as a critical climate system must be recognised. This will require investments in coral reefs, mangroves and sea-grass beds to protect coastal communities and businesses, and to build resilience to change. The Beijing Convention on Biological Diversity Meeting in late 2020 must then follow scientific recommendations and adopt a target to strongly protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.
The opportunities coming up will not happen again in our lifetimes. With communities and businesses rallying around initiatives to save marine life, there is no excuse not to enact a strong high seas treaty, meet globally agreed marine conservation targets by 2020 and drive action to the next level.
Protecting the treasure trove of marine biodiversity is critical if we are to combat climate change and forge a sustainable, equitable future for all life on Earth. Both government and business leaders need to listen to communities already affected by climate change. And we all need to listen to the young people who are leaving their classrooms and taking to the streets to protest inaction on climate change. They have had enough of endless meetings without real progress. Taking action to protect the ocean that absorbs our excess heat and carbon and provides food, medicine, livelihoods and fun for billions of people – would send a strong signal that we are very serious about securing their – and our – future.
A version of this blog was published in Le Monde on 23rd March 2019 and was co-written by Richard Branson and H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.