Last week, out of nowhere, a major bit of good news — something that is rare nowadays — made headlines worldwide. The global community had managed to reach, after two decades of painstaking negotiations, a historic agreement on the preservation of marine biodiversity, the most important component of biodiversity on the planet.
The agreement came as a surprise mainly because the talks had long since shifted away from the media’s focus. They had dragged on for so long and at times seemed to be headed to the dustbin of history, just like many other long-winding negotiations.
The pact on marine biodiversity in international waters becomes one of the most important agreements governing the health of our oceans, which have been in a critical state for decades due to gross misuse and the abuse of the vast mineral, plant and animal resources they possess. In all, the High Seas Treaty seeks to convert about 30 percent of the world’s oceans into protected areas, governed by international law. These areas had hitherto been a no man’s land and hence subject to large-scale plundering of all kinds by various companies and communities.
The treaty is especially welcome as, over the past two decades, the high seas have become a wild west, where anyone could do anything and get away with it. As the world got greedier for resources, ranging from oil and rare minerals to marine plants and animals, it began extracting from ocean beds without the slightest regard for the long-term damage being done by such unregulated industry.
While previously most of the human activity affecting the oceans was just about fishing, the technological advancements of recent years have allowed us to dig deep into ocean beds for extraction purposes. And the need for some minerals and metals that are rare on land has increased due to the arrival of the age of electric vehicles and semiconductors, as well as new manufacturing processes that need these resources in much larger quantities than before.
The agreement is also welcome as it is the second major deal covering biodiversity reached within the space of three months. In December, the global community successfully sealed the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which seeks to protect terrestrial biodiversity.
As biodiversity, both marine and terrestrial, has been under attack for many decades now, the two agreements could not come soon enough. Their long-term success, however, depends on many factors. First and foremost, are countries willing to actually do what they have committed to? The rich countries in particular have a poor track record of meeting their commitments on a wide range of global agreements, from trade to climate change and beyond.
Thousands, if not millions, of plant and animal species are going extinct due to climate change and its impact on the planet.
Ranvir S. Nayar
In trade, the rich nations committed to promoting the needs of the developing world under the Doha Development Round, but they ultimately ensured that the round could never be completed and, instead, have been violating the World Trade Organization agreement, which is today in tatters. The story is little different and perhaps even worse with the climate change negotiations, in which developed countries have been repeat offenders in not meeting any of their commitments, from cutting their emissions to financing the developing countries’ needs.
Thus, both biodiversity agreements could fall prey to the same behavior by the rich countries. Without additional resources — financial as well as relating to capacity development — they are unlikely to be effective.
But an even bigger threat to these two agreements is the failure of the climate change talks. As global warming continues to worsen and extreme weather events occur with ever greater frequency around the world, the threat to terrestrial and marine biodiversity grows. The world is already seeing large-scale damage to biodiversity in terms of coral reefs dying, marine ecosystems suffering irreparable damage and forests, especially primary ones, falling prey to large-scale logging for industrial and agricultural purposes.
Various organizations, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, have repeatedly warned about thousands, if not millions, of plant and animal species going extinct due to climate change and its impact on the planet. Thus, the success of the two major agreements on biodiversity preservation is entirely dependent on the degree of seriousness that the world, notably the rich world, attaches to urgently tackling climate change.
On this aspect, the track record of the rich countries has been the primary reason why the world is seeing a rapid increase in global warming and an ever-increasing frequency of extreme weather events, which are becoming deadlier and broader in their impact on the planet with each passing day.
It is crucial that the global community takes advantage of the momentum generated in the past three months and puts the repeated failures of recent climate change negotiations behind it. If the world’s countries, especially the developed economies, can display in climate change negotiations the same spirit and attitude they did in the negotiations on these two successful agreements, they can make a world of difference and ensure a different planet as far as sustainability is concerned.
A spirit of cooperation and commitment toward nature was displayed in reaching the biodiversity agreements. Hence, it would be a pity if this momentum was allowed to lapse or dissipate.
As the UAE prepares to host the COP28 climate change conference later this year, it could play a key role by reaching out to the major stakeholders and starting to build some sort of consensus on what the world needs to do in order to reach a viable and serious agreement on global greenhouse gas emissions. Nations also need to protect the decades of hard work put into reaching the biodiversity agreements.
Sometimes, success comes when one least expects it. Maybe it is time for the UAE and the global community to deliver this long-awaited good news and complete the troika of agreements that is needed for the world to continue to move toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.