On March 4th 2023, after years of campaigning by various conservation groups including Greenpeace, representatives at the UN agreed to a new Global Ocean Treaty. This is a historic moment, as the treaty provides a framework to protect at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. So, what is it, and what does it entail?

The Global Ocean Treaty has been formulated to address the global challenges of climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and deep-sea mining. The treaty aims to protect fragile marine ecosystems through the creation of protected ocean sanctuaries—free from harmful human activities—across the globe. It carries the potential to reverse decades of ocean pollution and misuse of natural resources to re-establish healthy oceans. This is crucial, as healthy oceans can mitigate climate change by locking away vast amounts of carbon. Further, oceans are a source of food security and livelihoods for over 3 billion people—majorly from the global south. The treaty has the scope to bring these people and their needs sharply into focus by promoting sustainable practices.

Hailing from the Indian Sundarbans, Ajit Patro is one of the many people affected by sea level rise | Greenpeace / Peter Caton

Why we needed this treaty

With over two-thirds of the world’s oceans lying outside national jurisdictions, the high seas are largely governed by fragmented or inconsistent laws. There has been a clear need for a unifying international agreement to conserve and protect this critical ecosystem. 

We needed a mechanism that allows governments to work multilaterally to reduce emissions, protect marine habitats, and promote sustainable fisheries. The Global Oceans Treaty aims to do this by establishing a network of high seas ocean sanctuaries. However, as momentous as it is, the treaty is just the beginning, and a lot needs to be done to establish these ocean sanctuaries in the coming years.

What comes next

Bringing this treaty into effect will require ratification by 60 countries, and soon! Governmental negligence and delay will only serve the interests of destructive industries that harm our oceans, further marginalising coastal communities and worsening the climate crisis. The science is absolutely clear on this matter, and we only have seven years to reach the target of conserving at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans.

Protect the Oceans Projection onto the Guggenheim Museum in New York by Greenpeace activists | Greenpeace

As a means of functioning, the treaty will establish a Conference of Parties to periodically consider and approve proposals—drawn up by nations—for protected ocean sanctuaries. While there are many issues to be ironed out and the text still carries some flaws, it is now time for the political class to step up and ensure that the treaty is put into practice effectively and equitably.

The Indian government, too, has a big role to play in this process. Greenpeace India recently wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Earth Sciences to lead diplomatic interventions, unlock talks, resolve issues and champion just and equitable ocean conservation efforts.  

The Global Ocean Treaty has been a much welcome development in line with the landmark UN Biodiversity Agreement, where countries agreed upon a Global Biodiversity Framework aimed at protecting 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans to address biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems and protect indigenous rights. Now, people in power must deliver on the treaty and protect our oceans for the benefit of all communities and the planet!