April 19, 2024

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First Cop15, now the high seas treaty: there is hope for the planet’s future | Cop15

Late last Saturday in New York, exhausted negotiators reached a landmark agreement on protecting life on Earth: the high seas treaty, the second big environment deal in just three months after Cop15, the biodiversity summit in Montreal. The moment, nearly two decades in the making, overwhelmed the president of the conference, Rena Lee, who cried as she announced that a deal had been done.

On paper at least, countries nearly have a complete strategy for action on the three planetary crises of our era: the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and pollution. Governments are still negotiating a UN agreement on plastics pollution, with another round of talks scheduled in Paris this year. But world leaders, business heads – all of us – know what we must do in the next decades to avoid disaster.

More urgently than ever, governments must stick to their word, and get on with what they have pledged. Maintaining a livable planet for future generations is on the line, says the UN acting biodiversity chief, David Cooper, who voiced cautious optimism that momentum was building, while also noting not enough is being done.

“Politicians are catching up with much of the public on this. Because people – and particularly young people and Indigenous people – see what is happening and they see what their future will be like without taking these actions. They have been pushing governments to act and I think what we saw in Montreal and again in New York is the result of that pressure. I think it’s very encouraging, despite all the other tensions we have in the world,” he says.

The president of the conference, Rena Lee of Singapore, was brought to tears when she announced that an agreement on protecting the oceans had been reached. Photograph: Mike Muzurakis/IISD/ENB

“[Delivering on the agreements] is really the difference between a livable planet in many parts of the world and one that is barely habitable for people,” he adds. “To some extent, the momentum was established in Montreal at Cop15, particularly with the target to protect 30% of land and sea. But we need agreements like the high seas treaty to meet that target.”

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A guide to the Cop15 deal for nature

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Here are the main points of the once-in-a-decade deal to halt the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems, called the Kunming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework:

30×30
The most high-profile target at Cop15, the final wording commits governments to conserving nearly a third of Earth for nature by 2030, while respecting indigenous and traditional territories in the expansion of new protected areas.

Indigenous rights
Indigenous peoples are mentioned 18 times, which some activists are pointing to as a historic victory. The language in the text is clear: Indigenous-led conservation models must become the norm this decade.

Subsidies
The final text says harmful subsidies should be reduced by at least $500bn a year by the end of the decade. It does not specify whether they should be eliminated, phased out or reformed, but this is recognised as one of the strongest parts of the agreement.

Business
Although the language was watered down in the final text, target 15 requires governments to ensure that large and transnational companies disclose “their risks, dependencies and impacts on biodiversity”.

Digital biopiracy
Digital sequence information (DSI) refers to digitised genetic information that we get from nature, which is frequently used to produce new drugs, vaccines and food products. It was agreed to develop a funding mechanism on DSI in the coming years, which has been hailed as a historic victory for African states, who called for its creation before the summit.

A link to all of the documents agreed at Cop15 can be found here.

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Other senior UN figures have greeted the agreements with cautious optimism, acknowledging the spirit of multilateralism amid tensions between great powers on the economy and the invasion of Ukraine.

“I think that on the pollution side as well as on the biodiversity side, there is a focus that we haven’t seen for decades. That, I celebrate,” says Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN environment programme. “It’s never enough. We are on a trajectory on climate that is not good.”

But, she adds: “What is really exciting is that we are able to come to the end of the road on some of these critical issues. Loss and damage, it has been on the docket for a while, it was agreed in spite of the complexity. Getting the plastics negotiations going and moving forward – we have the second round in Paris in May – was very difficult but we got [the process going]. Divisions come up all the time but we have made some real strides in the last couple of years.”

Chinese minister of ecology and environment Huang Runqiu, centre, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Cop15 executive secretary and David Cooper, Cop15 deputy executive secretary at the close of the first stage of Cop15 in Kunming, 2021.
China’s environment minister, Huang Runqiu, with the then Cop15 executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema and deputy executive secretary David Cooper, in Kunming in 2021. The summit set the course for the biodiversity agreement signed in Montreal in December 2022. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

It is easy to dismiss multilateral efforts on the environment. Many aim to avoid awful realities that we hope are never realised, often building in destruction in the short and medium terms as part of the deal, while humanity slowly responds.

The exasperating pace of change is made worse by scientific assessments about the health of the planet that have become increasingly alarming, with experts warning that more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction, threatening the function of ecosystems that sustain human civilisation.

Overfishing, plastics pollution and the continued consumption of fossil fuels are some of the drivers of the environmental losses. Now many governments are, at least, recognising the scale of the problem.

While action on the climate, biodiversity loss and pollution has a history of half-met promises, the world has successfully come together on some issues, including the 1987 Montreal protocol on the ozone layer, which continues to recover successfully. In January, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said it was “an encouraging example of what the world can achieve when we work together”.

Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace east Asia who was at Cop15 in Canada and at the high seas negotiations in New York, said that China would have a key role to play in meeting the international agreements. Beijing held the presidency at the biodiversity summit in Canada and, in partnership with the Canadians, help shepherd talks to a successful conclusion despite a series of tensions.

A dead tuna in huge ball of tangled fishing nets in the ocean off Hawaii.
The high seas treaty will provide a legal framework for establishing vast marine protected areas to protect against the loss of wildlife and share out the genetic resources of the high seas. Photograph: Ocean Voyages Institute/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

The high seas treaty “brings marine protection into the 21st century”, says Li. “Building on the recent success of biodiversity Cop15, the high seas treaty will help fulfil the 30×30 target. This success indicates that environmental progress and multilateralism can still triumph despite challenging geopolitical conditions. China is a critical country in these negotiations. Its willingness to upgrade marine governance is a key element to unlock the deal.

“I feel very much privileged to have been able to experience what a veteran observer told me was the most exciting moment in ocean lawmaking in decades. This is really a very consistent storyline: an arc from Montreal to New York. The global community is able to strengthen biodiversity governance on land and at sea. It is a very exciting moment despite the challenging geopolitics,” he says.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features