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The United Nations is resuming talks on a high seas agreement amid growing concerns – Science-Environment News – Report by AFR

After four fruitless meetings, UN member states resume talks on Monday aimed at finally finalizing a treaty to protect the world’s oceans, a vital but fragile resource that covers nearly half the planet.

A host of NGOs and affected countries say the pact is badly needed to improve environmental protections in the vast but largely unregulated area as it faces mounting challenges.

But the Covid-19 pandemic slowed negotiations for two years, and a March session that should have been final made progress but was running out of time.

The new round of talks, which will open on Monday, is scheduled to run until August 26 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Whether it will really be the last round remains uncertain, according to the interlocutors.

Negotiators are “cautiously optimistic,” said a source from the High Ambition Coalition, which includes about 50 countries led by the European Union.

The source told AFP that participants would have to find a compromise between two “great ideas”: protecting the environment and regulating human activities on the one hand, and protecting freedoms at sea on the other.

The high seas begin at the borders of nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which, under international law, are no more than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from each country’s coast and are not controlled by any state.

Though the high seas make up more than 60 percent of the oceans — and nearly half the planet — they have long been largely ignored in favor of coastal zones, with protection extended to only a few endangered species. Only one percent of the high seas enjoys legal protection.

However, scientists have proven the importance of protecting oceanic ecosystems in their entirety. They produce half of the oxygen that humans breathe and help limit global warming by absorbing much of the carbon dioxide released by human activities.

However, they are seriously threatened by continued increases in carbon dioxide levels (which amplify warming and make ocean water more acidic), pollution and overfishing.

– A global “compass” –

That increases the urgency of finally completing the global pact to “conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction,” say NGOs and the High Ambition Coalition.

“This treaty is of great importance,” said Julien Rochette, a researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), “because it will provide a framework – a compass – for the principles and rules that the entire international community should follow in the process.” management of this common space.”

But even the latest draft treaty fails to resolve some thorny issues or choose between different and conflicting options, such as the conditions for creating so-called marine protected areas.

According to Greenpeace’s James Hanson, the future Conference of the Parties (or COP, a decision-making body that includes all signatory states) must have the power “to create these marine protected areas without having to bow to the existing bodies”.

However, issues related to cooperation with regional maritime organizations (e.g. on fishing rights) have yet to be decided.

Also unclear, Rochette told AFP, is whether the COP could ban certain activities on the high seas if a mandatory environmental impact study proves unfavorable, or whether a state could simply go ahead.

Another thorny issue concerns the attribution of potential gains from the development of genetic resources on the high seas, where pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetic companies hope to find miracle drugs, products or cures.

Such costly research at sea is largely the prerogative of the wealthy, but developing countries don’t want to be left out of potential windfall profits reaped from marine resources that nobody owns. It is unclear whether there have been any significant movements by key parties since the last round of talks, Rochette said.

He said those most pressing for an agreement on the issue include the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and developing countries, while the strongest opposition comes from Russia and from countries concerned about fishing rights, including Iceland and Japan.

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