After 15 years of tough negotiations at the United Nations for an international agreement to protect the world’s oceans, a breakthrough has been achieved. After a marathon meeting of almost 40 hours, the UN member states agreed on a text, as negotiating circles announced on Saturday evening (local time) in New York.

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 are therefore largely unlawful.

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.

Several rounds of negotiations

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.

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 reported that the protected areas should already be able to be determined with a three-quarters majority of the member states.

Profit from deep sea research

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 primarily with the leading industrialized countries in the North. Since the largest economies are likely to receive most of the expected returns, a mechanism for compensatory payments to poorer countries has been put in place. According to information from the German Press Agency, the compromise reached provides for annual lump sum payments from the industrialized countries.