The ocean: one of the great global commons
Our Planet Earth should be called “Planet Ocean”, given that the ocean makes up over 70% of its surface and 99% of its habitable space. No matter where we live, we are connected to and depend on the ocean: it is crucial in regulating our climate and water cycle and provides us with about half of our oxygen supply through marine plankton. Since ancient times, it has provided humankind with food, connected us via trade routes and inspired international diplomacy.
Some of the ways in which the ocean is critical to human wellbeing are mentioned explicitly in the Sustainable Development Goals through SDG14: Life Below Water, and many more are implicitly captured as synergies contributing towards other SDGs (Griggs et al., 2017).
The SDG17 on partnerships for sustainable development is no exception. The ocean’s physical nature as a global commons requires states to come together to regulate activities within it, which contributed to the conception and rise of international law even before the 17th century (Neff, 2018). The streamlining of centuries of international customary practice and existing agreements into a comprehensive international legal framework in the form of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has since achieved almost universal acceptance (168 State Parties), is another testament to the ocean’s power to catalyze international partnerships.
BBNJ: Triumph of multilateralism
One important matter that UNCLOS did not address explicitly is the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) because biodiversity as a concept had not gained traction until after UNCLOS was adopted (see Mossop, 2019). To fill this gap, states launched a process that, after over two decades, culminated in the adoption of a new internationally legally binding instrument on BBNJ in June 2023 (see IISD, 2023). This was widely hailed as a triumph of multilateralism, demonstrating “that countries can come together, in unity, for the common good” (UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, 2023), even against the backdrop of deepening geo-political divides (Patrick, 2023).
While it is a source of optimism and hope in its own right, the importance of the new BBNJ Agreement in revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development goes beyond the demonstration that multilateralism is alive and can deliver, as many of the provisions of the Agreement will also contribute to the fulfillment of SDG 17 and its targets directly.
For example, the new BBNJ Agreement establishes a new framework for “Capacity building and the transfer of marine technology” (CBTMT). This will assist, in particular, developing countries in the implementation of the Agreement. More generally, it will also help develop marine scientific and technological capacity and share knowledge (compare SDG Targets 17.6 and 8) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity. CBTMT under BBNJ is to be responsive to the needs and priorities of developing countries (compare SDG Target 17F). Learning from the criticism that UNCLOS’ provisions on these topics had lacked an institutional mechanism and never been properly put into practice (Harden-Davies, 2018), the BBNJ Agreement creates a dedicated committee to monitor and guide the implementation of the new CBTMT provisions, as well as a dedicated funding mechanism. A part of the funding for CBTMT activities under the BBNJ Agreement will come from the sharing of monetary benefits from future products derived from marine genetic resources (MGRs) from areas beyond national jurisdiction (compare SDG 17.3), which may include, for example, laundry detergents, industrial enzymes, biotech enzymes, cosmetics, nutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals (Blasiak et al, 2020).
The BBNJ Agreement’s strong provisions on CBTMT and, in particular, that monetary benefit sharing from activities related to MGRs will be shared and contribute to funding CBTMT activities were hailed by key delegations as a major win for equity (see e.g. G77, CARICOM), stating that “a foundation has been laid for fairer treaty-making at the international level with equity, fairness, universality and consequently legitimacy at the core” (Kanu, 2023).
As recognized in SDG Target 17.H, the global partnership for sustainable development extends beyond state actors and also includes academics, civil society, and indigenous peoples and local communities. These groups also played a significant role in making the case for and pushing for the adoption of the BBNJ Agreement (see the statement by EU Commissioner Sinkevičius on the High Seas Alliance website).
Harnessing BBNJ momentum to revitalize partnership for sustainable development
The adoption of the BBNJ Agreement has made waves, but it is now up to all of us, in particular governments, to harness their power to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development as a whole.
The UN Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) is an ongoing example. Synergistic and mutually supportive of the objectives of the BBNJ agreement, it aims to bring states together around their joint interest of sustainable development for the ocean, and with the potential to contribute to peaceful international cooperation more broadly (Blasiak, 2023).
A number of small island states have also turned to the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to request an advisory opinion on States’ obligations under UNCLOS to combat climate change, complementing other efforts to protect our planet’s climate – another global commons – the hearings for which started on 11 September 2023 and have attracted much attention.
As part of realizing the ocean’s potential to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development, states and other stakeholders must step up funding for ocean-related activities, with SDG14 currently among the least funded SDGs (OECD, 2020), to match their cross-cutting importance and potential to contribute to sustainable development gains across the SDGs.
The next steps for BBNJ
The BBNJ Agreement itself will open for signature on 20 September 2023 during the UN General Assembly’s High Level Segment and will enter into force 120 days after the 60th Party has ratified the Agreement (for further details, see Box 1 in Gjerde et al, 2022 ). The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Ambassador Thomson, and civil society hope this will be accomplished by the third United Nations Ocean Conference, which will take place in Nice, France, in June 2025.
In the meantime, there are a variety of ways in which states and stakeholders can already advance BBNJ objectives and prepare for its early implementation and operationalization within existing frameworks (e.g. the above-mentioned UN Decade for Ocean Science) and under the auspices of the UN General Assembly (Gjerde et al, 2022). For example, by organizing a Preparatory Commission, they can start to prepare key documents ahead of the first BBNJ Conference of the Parties (PrepCom, see High Seas Alliance Briefing, 2023). Another possibility to add to the momentum of BBNJ would be through upfront financial commitments to support States’ ratification processes prior to entry into force of the Agreement (IUCN, 2022).
The adoption of the BBNJ Agreement has reignited hope in multilateralism and shown how states can come together to capture their diverse interests and needs in a fair and equitable manner, connected through a common goal of conserving and sustainably using the ocean, our global commons.
It is now up to all of us, in particular world leaders, to harness that momentum during the upcoming UN General Assembly High-Level week and SDG Summit, and to carry it forward by signing and ratifying the Treaty and working towards early entry into force and operationalization, unleashing its potential to contribute to the achievement of targets across the SDGs.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.