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Science

UN Oceans Conference Eyes Steps Toward High Seas Agreement

LISBON, Portugal — The United Nations is hoping an international conference that got underway Monday will bring fresh momentum to protracted efforts for a global agreement on protecting the world’s oceans.

The five-day U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal has drawn senior officials and scientists from more than 120 countries to the Atlantic port city in Southwest Europe, as well as activists dismayed by the failure to come up with international rules that might ensure ocean sustainability.

No comprehensive legal framework covers the high seas. Oceans cover some 70% of the earth’s surface and provide food and livelihoods for billions of people. Some activists refer to them as the largest unregulated area on the planet.

In his opening remarks at the conference, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries to show “unity and togetherness around the issues of the sea.”

“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency,” Guterres said. “We must turn the tide.”

Threats to the oceans include global warming, pollution, acidification and other problems, the U.N. says. Potentially harmful deep-sea mining also lacks rules.

The conference is set to adopt a declaration that, though not binding on its signatories, could help implement and facilitate the protection and conservation of oceans and their resources, according to the U.N.. The declaration is due to be endorsed on Friday.

But still beyond reach is a vital new international agreement on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, also known as the Treaty of the High Seas.

That treaty is being negotiated within the framework of the United Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is the main international agreement governing human maritime activities.

After 10 years of talks, however, including a fourth round of negotiations three months ago, a deal is still not within sight. A fifth round is scheduled for August in New York.

“The world’s largest ecosystem … is still unprotected and is dying as we watch,” the activist group Ocean Rebellion said ahead of the Lisbon event.

Activists plan demonstrations in the Atlantic port city during the event.

Despite the frustrations, the conference is “an important opportunity to accelerate” steps toward a high seas treaty, the U.N. says, as delegates informally debate possible ways forward.

The conference is also expected to reaffirm and build upon the some 62 commitments made by governments at the previous summit in Nairobi, Kenya in 2018, from protecting small island states with ocean-based economies to sustainable fishing and combatting warming waters.

Financing models for ocean conservation are also on the agenda this year, as well as coming up with science-based, innovative solutions that might improve ocean health.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and French President Emmanuel Macron are among those attending some days of the event.

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