On March 25th 2019 member states of the United Nations reconvened for the second intergovernmental conference (IGC2) aimed at adopting a new international legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). This agreement would cover a space, known as the high seas, that encompasses two-thirds of the ocean and 50% of the surface area of the planet.

As one of the younger observers at the conference I have quickly come to understand that these negotiations are without a doubt the greatest opportunity in a generation to turn the tide on the loss of biodiversity and bring a significant and lasting change to ocean conservation. As Sigrid Lüber, President of OceanCare fittingly summarises: “individuals can make a difference but together we are much stronger. We need to stand together for a strong and dedicated agreement to protect marine life in the high seas” [see the video]. It is indeed our generational duty to ensure that we adopt an agreement devoted to the conservation of oceans so we can minimise the damage for future generations.

The two-week conference has been a startling reminder that such an agreement is urgently needed to ensure the functioning of the ocean in all its entirety, especially its marine life. The deliberations at the UN headquarters in New York during IGC2, and certainly during the first intergovernmental conference in September 2018, have also served as a reminder that although a general consensus on the urgency to act is present, a lot of work is still to be done. Indeed, although progress has been made member states continue to foster significant differences in outlook on how this agreement should take shape.

One of the primary concerns for OceanCare has been to compel governments that the new instrument must provide a robust authority for assessing the impacts of transboundary pollution, including anthropogenic underwater noise. It is critical for governments to assess the impacts from transboundary pollution in environmental impact assessments for all actitivies with the potential to cause harm to biodiversity. As OceanCare prepares for the third intergovernmental conference (IGC3) in August 2019 it will remain one of our central tasks to persuade governments to do so.

When the treaty process was launched in 2017 the aim was not only to protect the high seas but also to fill a significant ocean governance gap. With only two intergovernmental conferences remaining, and a multitude of contentious elements still under negotiation, governments are under pressure to take a considerable strive forward as the world is impatiently waiting for countries to take real action against climate change. The oceans play a vital role in mitigating climate impacts (i.e. absorbing heat) and such an agreement is becoming increasingly important.

The Friday For Future movement that began in August of 2018 is a good example for the growing frustration among the younger generation. And although as part of the millennial generation I cannot completely claim to be part of the “young ones”, I can certainly sympathise with the growing frustration that has emerged as a result of the partial inaction on the part of governments. The adoption of a new legally binding instrument for the high seas would thus go a long way in showing the young generation that we have heard their call and that we finally understand the urgent need to act now.

As we are moving towards IGC3 and the self-imposed conclusion-deadline set for mid-2020, it will remain exhilarating to see diplomacy in action and observe (and convince) governments in their attempt to turn rhetoric into practice by adopting a milestone agreement for the future of ocean conservation

Johannes Müller

Johannes Müller

Ocean Policy Expert, OceanCare