For the 61% of the ocean that lies in areas beyond national jurisdiction, the development of a new international agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is now underway (BBNJ agreement): the UN’s Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. Science, technology and innovation cross-cut the negotiations, playing a crucial role in: area-based management tools; environmental impact assessments; capacity building and technology transfer; and sharing benefits from marine genetic resources. Linking deep ocean science with international policy development is critical to overcome challenges in the negotiations and secure a strong basis for this historic agreement.
At the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), States committed themselves “to address, on an urgent basis […] the issue of the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, including by taking a decision on the development of an international instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Following a two year Preparatory Committee process, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 72/249 (24 December 2017) to convene an intergovernmental conference (IGC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The first session was convened from 4 to 17 September 2018, the second session from 25 March to 5 April 2019 and the third session from 19 to 30 August 2019. By resolution 75/239, the General Assembly decided to convene the fourth session from 16 to 27 August 2021.
The four main elements of the instrument are: 1) marine genetic resources, including questions on the sharing of benefits; 2) measures such as area-based management tools, including marine protected areas; 3) environmental impact assessments; and 4) capacity building and the transfer of marine technology. They also address issues such as general principles, definitions, responsibility and compensation, and institutional and financial arrangements.
The BBNJ working group aims to facilitate science-policy engagement in the development of the BBNJ agreement. Key objectives include:
1. Synthesise scientific knowledge relating to the conservation and sustainable use of BBNJ and identify key issues for the development of the BBNJ instrument;
2. Publish open-access academic papers, policy briefs, and educational materials on key issues for BBNJ and provide input to the BBNJ negotiation process through submissions, side-events, workshops and engagement;
3. Provide a focal point for deep-sea scientific expertise and network engagement on BBNJ relevant issues and a platform for collaboration between scientists and other stakeholders.
What can be done?
The new agreement under UNCLOS could ensure the protection of marine biodiversity by providing for:
- A network of marine protected areas
The agreement could provide a means of creating a global, integrated network of marine protected areas (MPAs) – areas set aside for long-term conservation – which would support ecological connectivity and climate change resilience, and help preserve species and ecosystems. MPAs range from strictly protected marine reserves to areas allowing sustainable use of resources. Restriction of human activities in ecologically or biologically significant areas is an important means to prevent environmental degradation.
- Equitable sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources
The agreement could guide research collaborations between scientists, industry and states involving marine genetic resources, by providing procedures for access and sharing of benefits from these resources. Facilitation of developing countries’ involvement in marine genetic research can enhance results and lead to technical advances that benefit all.
- Standards for environmental impact assessments
Mandatory minimum standards for screening, scoping, conducting and monitoring Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Strategic Environment Assessments, as well as best practice guidelines for assessments, would improve consistency, legal certainty, and the implementation of measures to protect the marine environment.
- Capacity building and technology transfer
Effective conservation of the world’s biodiversity requires significant technical and technological capacity. The agreement can create mechanisms and requirements for capacity building and technology transfer that will enable its implementation and protect biodiversity in Area beyonf National Jurisdiction.
Implementation of the agreement will require appropriate institutional arrangements. A clearing house mechanism established under the agreement could coordinate marine resources benefit sharing, as well as EIA and MPA processes. Additionally, a Scientific and Technical Body could independently guide, advice and evaluate EIA and MPA processes. A global fund could also be set up to support the implementation of the agreement, including funding capacity building programmes.