Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Two endangered entities — marine life and multilateralism — got a big weekend boost when the United Nations announced a significant new treaty to better protect ocean biodiversity.
The tentative pact reached Saturday would establish protocols for creating new protected portions of international waters. It covers two-thirds of the sea's surface beyond the waters generally controlled by nations — about 200 nautical miles from their shores. This area, crucial for preserving Earth's fragile ecosystem, is threatened by multiple factors, including overfishing, shipping, mining and the scourge of global pollution.
Only about 1.2% of the area is under environmental protection now. The U.N. agreement would establish the process for proposing new marine protection areas to maintain the ecological diversity required by the oceans — and, often, humans — not just for food but potentially medicine, making it essential that the pact establishes initial guidelines on how profits from such a discovery could be shared with developing nations.
The diplomatic breakthrough comes just months after a similar one reached at a U.N. biodiversity conference in Montreal. There, nearly 200 nations agreed to try to stop what's been called an extinction crisis by committing to a plan called "30 by 30" — to conserve 30% of land, sea and inland waterways by 2030 to allow wildlife to survive, let alone thrive.
Because the oceans, in particular, play such a large part in sequestering and storing carbon, eventual implementation of the agreement would help in the fight against climate change, too. But oceans' natural ability to perform this vital function depends on their health.
"We have never been able to protect and manage marine life in the ocean beyond countries' jurisdiction," Rebecca Hubbard, director of the High Seas Alliance told the Washington Post. "This is absolutely world-changing."
The advancement of important pacts like the one struck on Saturday, as well as the December biodiversity agreement, shows that even in an increasingly fractured geopolitical environment, the world can come together and that the United Nations remains a vital, and perhaps singular, source of such accords.
"This action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health, now and for generations to come," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement after the passage of what many diplomats are referring to as the "High Seas Treaty."
And indeed, "it's evidence that the world's nations can still come together and act on issues of common concern despite contention over other challenges like the war in Ukraine, and the United Nations plays a key role in doing so," Elizabeth Shackelford, a former diplomat who is now a senior fellow on U.S. Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told an editorial writer.
However, Shackelford added, "it's also a reminder of the limitations of multiple efforts." Because the treaty's aims are "aspirational," she said, it will be years until it takes legal effect, and it is uncertain if eventually every nation will sign and ratify it. That includes the U.S., where the treaty is likely to require Senate and possibly House approval if it addresses aspects of international trade, Shackelford said.
Fortunately, the Biden administration is likely to push for the pact, and the Democratic Senate majority, however slender, is expected to give it a fair hearing before what would likely be a required two-thirds approval.
Ideally, protecting the earth's ecosystem would be considered so essential that the usual partisan split defining Washington would give way to lawmakers leading the country, and hopefully the world, in advocating for the biodiversity protocols that offer hope for better stewardship of the Earth and its seas.