It took a nearly 40-hour marathon session to break through. After years of tough negotiations, the member states of the United Nations (UN) agreed in New York on an agreement to protect the world’s oceans. Among other things, it creates the basis for designating large protected areas on the high seas. Conservationists reacted positively to the result, but also called for quick action. The text of the contract itself was initially not published.

Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) spoke of a “historic and overwhelming success for international marine protection, which personally moves me deeply”. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter: “We did it!” The treaty will protect the sea beyond national responsibilities.

The primary aim of the negotiations was for at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans to be designated as protected areas in the future. In addition, a procedure was established to check economic projects, expeditions and other activities in the seas for their environmental compatibility. The agreement is also intended to place biological diversity on the high seas under internationally binding protection. Two thirds of the oceans belong to the high seas and have thus far been largely unlawful.

The protection of the high seas has so far been particularly incomplete, said the Federal Ministry for the Environment in Berlin. “Pollution and overexploitation, for example through overfishing or shipping, are putting increasing pressure on the world’s oceans. Plastic pollution and the climate crisis are also increasingly burdening the ocean.”

What about Russia and China?

It was initially unclear whether Russia and China will be part of the agreement. Negotiators had their doubts because of the destructive attitude of the delegation from Moscow. But China was also considered a shaky candidate.

For the marine protection expert from the environmental organization WWF, Karoline Schacht, it was “a day to celebrate”. Based on the “Paris moment” in climate protection, she spoke of a “New York moment” for the seas. The international community had finally overcome significant differences of opinion in favor of nature and the future of people on the planet. The treaty must now be swiftly accepted and implemented by all countries.

“Today is a historic day,” Greenpeace expert Till Seidensticker said. “From now on, the international community has to roll up their sleeves and take concrete measures to protect marine life from further destruction.” The agreement only reflects the minimum consensus in many points and is far removed from many promises of the past few years, said Fabienne McLellan from OceanCare. Nevertheless, the possibility of taking global measures to protect the oceans is strengthened.

The countries of the world had been grappling with an agreement to protect the high seas for around 15 years, and there have been several rounds of negotiations since 2018. Last August, a conference was adjourned without result.

Immediately before the breakthrough in New York, there was an agreement at another ocean conference in Panama: the participants pledged almost 20 billion US dollars (18.8 billion euros) for the protection of the seas. The US government alone promised almost six billion dollars for 77 projects.

A three-quarters majority is enough

Most recently, the complicated negotiations at the fifth conference between the UN member states in New York dealt with the question of how to determine in future which parts of the high seas are to be defined as protected areas. According to diplomats, China and Russia in particular insisted that this must be done unanimously – then a single country could have blocked every decision. This has now apparently been circumvented: On Sunday night, diplomatic circles announced that it should be possible to define the protected areas with a three-quarters majority of the member states.

Another key conflict revolved around potentially profitable research findings that nobody knows whether they will ever become reality: Scientists hope that the discovery of previously unknown creatures in the deep sea, which has hardly been explored, and their genome will lead to breakthroughs in medicine, for example. If fundamental progress is actually made, there would probably be great profit to be made from it.

On this question, the countries of the so-called Global South wrestled with the leading industrialized countries in the North: Since the largest economies are likely to generate most of the hoped-for returns, a mechanism for compensatory payments to poorer countries was established. According to information from the German Press Agency, the compromise reached provides for annual lump sum payments from the industrialized countries.