UN high-seas biodiversity treaty struggles to set sail
UN observers are holding their breath that the long-stalled deal can cross the finish line.
A two-week negotiating session on a convention to preserve the high seas concludes Friday, with UN observers hoping that the long-stalled pact will finally be completed.
Negotiators have yet to negotiate a legally binding agreement to address the mounting environmental and economic concerns surrounding the high seas, also known as international waters – a zone that includes nearly half of the earth – after 15 years, including four previous formal sessions.
Many had their hopes high for the fifth session, which began on August 15 at the United Nations headquarters in New York, to be the last and achieve a final text on "the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction," or BBNJ for short.
The High Ambition Coalition, a group of 50 countries led by the European Union, has even asked for a full BBNJ agreement to be completed by the end of the year. However, the worldwide environmental organization Greenpeace believes that the discussions are on the verge of failure due to "the greed of countries in the High Ambition Coalition and others like Canada and the United States."
Read next: Thousands of dead fish wash up in Germany, Poland to blame
One of the most contentious topics has to do with the distribution of potential revenue from the development of genetic resources in international waters, where pharmaceutical, chemical, and cosmetic industries hope to discover miracle treatments, goods, or cures.
Such pricey maritime research is generally the domain of wealthy nations, but developing countries do not want to be excluded from potential windfall revenues derived from marine resources that belong to no one.
A draft text released a few days earlier appeared to side with developing countries, with a stipulation that 2% of all future sales be shared. However, there has been a "big step backward" since then, said Greenpeace's Will McCallum, who accuses the EU of rejecting the proposal. "It's not even real money. It's just hypothetical money one day. That is why it is really frustrating," he told AFP.
"We are willing to contribute to the BBNJ agreement through various finance sources, which in our opinion shall include a fair sharing of profits from marine genetic resources globally," according to one European negotiator.
Similar issues of equity between the Global North and South arise in other international negotiations, such as those on climate change, where developing nations perceive disproportionate harm from global warming and attempt in vain to persuade wealthier nations to contribute to mitigating those effects.
'Too close to fail'
Though Greenpeace is pessimistic, some believe an agreement may be reached by Friday. "It is slow but there is still a lot of will inside the room to get it done," said Liz Karan with the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts. "I wouldn't call it a failure yet but the clock is ticking," she added.
Jihyun Lee, a youth ambassador with the High Seas Alliance, said a compromise was conceivable, but it would require countries, "especially those who claim to be ocean champions, to show more ambitions and flexibility so we can get the treaty done."
"We cannot afford to water down the high seas treaty and we don't have any time to waste," she told a press conference. "We're too close to fail."
The high seas begin at the borders of nations' exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which are limited by international law to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from each country's coast and are not under the jurisdiction of any state. This group includes 60% of the world's oceans.
Read next: Mediterranean ecosystem suffering 'marine wildfire'
Even though healthy marine ecosystems are critical for humanity's future, particularly in limiting global warming, only 1% of international waters are protected. A key pillar of an eventual BBNJ treaty is to allow the creation of marine protected areas, which many states hope would cover 30% of the Earth's ocean by 2030.
"Without establishing protections in this vast area, we will not be able to meet our ambitious and necessary 30 by 30 goal," said US State Department official Maxine Burkett at a press conference.
However, delegations continue to dispute the process for creating these protected zones, as well as how to apply a requirement for environmental impact studies before the new high-seas activity.
"I think they have made a lot of progress in the last two weeks on issues that were very controversial," said Klaudija Cremers, a researcher at the IDDRI think tank, which like multiple other NGOs has a seat with observer status at the negotiations.
She told AFP that the final talks Friday "could be the push to get an agreement."
Read next: Firms causing packaging pollution accused of 'blatant greenwashing'