The Protection of the Oceans is a Central Task for the G7

By Sebastian Unger

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The German presidency of the G7 began in early 2015 and the international protection of the sea is high on the alliance’s agenda. At the United Nations in New York this week, a decision will be made on whether to begin negotiations on a new agreement to protect the oceans. Parallel to that and in the same location, states will discuss global Sustainable Development Goals, one of which (Goal 14) addresses the sustainable use of the oceans. With IASS colleagues, I am currently attending the meeting in New York.

In a keynote address on marine protection given to the members of her own CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the German Bundestag in 2011, an uncharacteristically emotional Angela Merkel told them that we need to “cherish the oceans”. It was clear that this is an issue close to her heart. And indeed, the chancellor, of all people, could well play a key role in the struggle for the oceans this year.

During Germany’s presidency of the G7 this year, the protection of the oceans will be high on the agenda of the alliance of the world’s seven most powerful industrial nations. This is an important signal, because the pollution and overuse of the oceans is increasingly threatening wealth, sustainable development and ecosystems, as well as exacerbating climate change. It is therefore only right that heads of state prioritise these issues alongside economic, foreign policy and security matters.

2015 is a pivotal year for the oceans

Nearly half of the world’s oceans are already adversely affected by humans. Even in the deep sea, there are no longer any areas untouched by human hand. And one thing is certain: as the world’s population continues to grow, we will depend even more on resources from the sea. Moreover, technological progress, for example in the production of oil and gas, and glacier melt are allowing us to make inroads into ever remoter and deeper parts of the ocean.

But 2015 can and must be a pivotal year for the oceans. In addition to the negotiation of a new agreement on climate protection – warming and acidification due to rising CO2 concentrations are among the major problems facing the oceans – a decision is due to be taken on an international agreement to protect most of the world’s oceans.

A number of important states remain sceptical

Almost two thirds of the oceans, covering about half of the Earth’s total surface, lie beyond the territorial waters of individual states. Existing conventions lack the necessary means to protect marine biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems, for example, by establishing marine protected areas or carrying out environmental impact assessments. Furthermore, there are no rules governing the use of the genetic information found in countless deep-sea species, which could be used to develop new drugs in the future.

What can be done now? The United Nations General Assembly is due to decide on the negotiation of an agreement to protect these marine areas beyond national jurisdiction in September 2015. This agreement would supplement the existing international Law of the Sea, a kind of constitution for the oceans, and establish necessary rules for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. An important step in this direction is being taken this week as the responsible UN Working Group meets in New York to draw up appropriate recommendations for the General Assembly. The EU and most of the developing and emerging nations gathered under the umbrella of the so-called G77 and China are in favour of a new agreement. However, a number of important states, including G7 members such as the United States and Japan, remain sceptical. Hence they must be brought on board. This is a task for Angela Merkel as president of the G7. The unanimous support of this club for such an agreement would give a decisive boost to negotiations in New York.

Protection of the oceans must be anchored firmly in the SDGs

However, the experiences of previous climate negotiations and the failed summit in Copenhagen show that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Here too, the risk of ending up with a heavily diluted compromise or nothing at all after years of negotiations is high. Therefore parallel initiatives to protect the oceans in the context of existing agreements and organisations should be advanced. It’s already possible to make some progress on the basis of regional marine protection conventions, such as the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, which, largely at Germany’s instigation, established the first global network of marine protected areas in 2010. Special UN organisations with responsibility, for example, for shipping and fisheries, can also further marine protection. In the event that the implementation of a new global agreement is delayed, these organisations would, in any case, play a key role.

2015 presents the G7 with a third major opportunity to take action. The Millennium Goals with which the UN sought to combat hunger and underdevelopment are due to be replaced in September by more comprehensive and universally applicable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals are also on the UN’s agenda this week. Seventeen draft goals have already been agreed, one of which – SDG 14 – focuses on oceans. The time is ripe to anchor the protection of the oceans firmly in the SDGs. Given the failure to implement so many political goals in the sphere of the environment in the past, G7 states should press the UN to take concrete steps towards implementation right now – not only in developing countries, as in the case of the Millennium Goals, but also on their own coasts. The solutions to most problems, such ocean dumping, are already obvious. It’s now time to put them into practice.

Angela Merkel’s commitment is crucial

Hence the year ahead offers us a rare opportunity to turn the tide in our handling of the oceans. The G7 should prove itself as a community of values with a particular responsibility for sustainably shaping the future of our Earth by working to ensure the success of the decision processes ahead of us. In the negotiations, the seven most powerful industrial nations need to show that they are ready and willing to assume responsibility in this area. A joint initiative for the sustainable governance of the oceans would send an important signal. What’s now needed is the commitment of the G7 presidency represented by the German chancellor.

Photo: istock/Xavier Marchant

A version of this article was published in German on Januar 23rd, 2015, on Tagesspiegel online (Link).

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